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I am writing a paper about Emily Dickinson's ‘They shut me up in Prose –.’ The two characters of the poem are the speaker and an unidentified group only referred to as 'they' and later as 'themself.' When writing about the group of people, it is burdensome to say 'the unidentified group' or 'the oppressors' and so on, so I have been referring to them as they always in italics.

In a draft of my paper, I was declining the noun to fit the grammatical context, for instance 'being silenced by them,' but my professor said I should treat 'they' as one would treat the 'I' as people do in literary criticism and keep everything in the nominative case. This presents no difficulty for nominatives and seems fine for objective cases, but I'm a little stumped by the possessives.

I've been italicizing the four letters of 'they' and leaving the apostrophe s unitalicized to indicate that I am only treating 'they' as an isolated verbal element, which is why it isn't the much more natural sounding 'their.' An example is, 'the despotic arbitrariness of they’s actions.' It seems consistent, but also incredibly awkward. Is it wrong? Is there another option? What do people do in this situation for the 'I' in literary criticism?

  • I wonder if it would help you to capitalize 'They' so that it feel more like a named entity, which I think is what your prof is getting at by suggesting that you treat it like 'I' is treated in literary criticism. Basically, treat it as though 'They' is the same as 'Bob'. It's the name of a thing, not a referent. – Kit Z. Fox Jan 2 '15 at 14:44
  • Kitfox, I think that's the correct sentiment, and gets at what the italics accomplish. It would be inconsistent with the rest of the paper and with what I understand of how literary critics write to capitalize the word since there are words in the poem that are capitalized irregularly (e.g., Prose, Brain, &c.) whereas 'they' and 'themself' are uncapitalized in lines 4 and 5. (Specifically, I'm looking at Vendler's book on Dickinson, but also Susan Howe and Sharon Cameron.) Still, capitalizing would not address the fundamental issue: the awkwardness of 'They's,' even if understood as a name. – user103757 Jan 3 '15 at 12:36
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Try the "I / they" persona.

For instance:

"the despotic arbitrariness of the "they" persona’s actions".

  • Is this standard of literary critics' sociolect? Also, are there any alternatives as concise as 'they's' [or 'their']? There are probably about twenty possessives in the paper, so it would get clunky. – user103757 Jan 2 '15 at 4:58
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The despotic arbitrariness of actions made by "they".

  • Is this just your personal opinion or is it a common way of writing in literary criticism? Why not 'made by "them"' to make the sentence read more smoothly while still making it clear that 'them' refers to the 'they' of the poem? Can you give more detail? An eight-word suggestion of phrasing hardly does justice to a three-paragraph question. – David Richerby Jan 2 '15 at 14:39

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