5

I've read today a comment from a UK user that sounded weird to me:

so the OP is shooting themselves in the foot here with the tone then.

I would have said instead:

so the OP is shooting himself in the foot here with the tone then.

I've taken a look at this but it's way out of my league, and appearently doesn't even answer this question.

Why did he use the third person plural while referring to a third person singular ?

marked as duplicate by Dan Bron, tchrist, Nicole, FumbleFingers word-choice Feb 24 '15 at 16:04

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    Because we don't know the gender of the OP, and "they" is used in English for a singular person of unknown gender. – Dan Bron Feb 23 '15 at 16:24
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    Gender has become, in recently decades, a very touchy subject, and people are leery of making assumptions for fear of getting themselves into trouble. So more and more frequently now, commenters opt for the safe route of defaulting to "they" when the person's (self-identified) gender is not known with certainty. Also, even though your avatar shows you to be a man, here in the US, the name "Andrea" would only be applied to women, so that may have given your interlocutor pause enough to opt for the safer "they" (a rule of thumb here is that names that end in -a are considered feminine). – Dan Bron Feb 23 '15 at 16:30
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    Crystal clear! P.S: Andrea's etimology shows that it is probably the most "masculine" among the known names; how it turned out to become a female name in the USA would be a very interesting topic... but I'm OT here. Again, thanks – Andrea Ligios Feb 23 '15 at 16:34
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    I might have used "themself" (which my phone doesn't even think is a word). There was a question on this recently:english.stackexchange.com/questions/217699/… which itself was marked duplicate. – Chris H Feb 23 '15 at 16:53
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    It should be themself, since the pronoun is singular. That's the reflexive form of "singular they". – John Lawler Feb 23 '15 at 16:57
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In English, "they" is used as a singular personal pronoun when the gender of the subject is not known.

As gender politics have evolved over the past half-century, and the pace of that change has accelerated in the last decade, personal pronouns have proven fraught with risk and created traps for the unwary.

In response to this, commentors have increasingly started using the non-committal -- and more importantly, safe -- singular they to refer to people whose gender is not known with absolute certainty.

Please note that I'm using the word "gender", not "sex", here quite advisedly; sex is biological, gender is psychological (or, in another school of thought, sociological). This (rather new) distinction is yet another driver behind the recent popularity of singular they: even if a person's sex is quite evident (or you believe it is), their gender may not be (e.g. a person who looks like a man may nevertheless wish to be identified as a woman), and using the wrong personal pronoun can land you in a lot of hot water.

In your particular situation, circumstances which may have contributed to the commentor's circumspection are that your avatar depicts both a man and a young girl, and while your name is quite masculine in your homeland (and its own history as you so perspicuously pointed out), in the US, names ending in -a are considered feminine, and "Andrea" is reserved for naming girls.

  • Presumably the same can be said of names ending in -a in the UK, given that the question identifies the comment as coming from "a UK user." – Air Feb 23 '15 at 18:28
  • @Air, Presumably, but being from the US and only being familiar with AmE, I didn't want to ... presume ;) – Dan Bron Feb 23 '15 at 18:28
  • Same applies in the UK as far as I can think. Best I can come up with is "Joshua", which is a fairly common English boy's name although of course (in common with most names) it has a non-English root. – Steve Jessop Feb 23 '15 at 23:26
  • I like this answer but I don't like how you've characterized the use as "safe" (framed from a standpoint of avoiding risk for the speaker) rather than a matter of actively treating a person whose gender is unknown to you with dignity and respect. – R.. Feb 24 '15 at 4:29
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Instead of referring repeatedly to some male or female subject pronoun, you can use they/themselves to avoid emphasizing one gender or overloading the text with he/she, his/her, himself/herself and so on.

The reader can now jump to chapter 4 to reinforce what they have learned in this chapter.

Instead of

The reader can now jump to chapter 4 to reinforce what he/she has learned in this chapter.

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This is one of those issues that native English speakers get wrong more often than people learning to speak English and it's usually rationalized by some social change. (E.g. Gender politics make assuming gender in pronoun choices problematic; we have no gender-neutral pronoun; speakers are therefore forced to use incorrect number to avoid using presumptive gender.)

The truth is, English speakers accept poor usage because correct usage "doesn't sound right". It's the same reason we accept dangled participles instead of more complex sentence structures and it's the same reason a lot of people confuse fewer with less.

The correct way to use a pronoun without presuming gender is to use both. "I will be kind to him or her." "He or she will accept what I am saying." "The accused will speak for him or her self." Yes, it is awkward. No, people don't do it very much.

It could be argued that English is a living language that adapts to changing needs. I agree with this wholly. English speakers confuse number too often already and this adaptation just makes it worse. If one wants to use English correctly, one should take the time to learn proper syntax for one's own self. (See? It gets awkward looking.)

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    The tone of this comment is unwarranted. Singular they has gone through a long history and can be found, for example, in the 1611 edition of the King James Bible. Since then the situations in which it is generally considered appropriate have merely been generalised. Source. A recent phenomenon and possibly an omen of a seriously new development is that some people now use it even when the gender of the person in question is perfectly clear. – Hans Adler Feb 23 '15 at 21:23
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    +1 While "singular they" has existed for a long while, it was, I believe, uncommon, and always deplored by purists. It is now more common, but still advised against by purists. As you say, it sounds inconsistent, and submitting to political correctness is cowardice. I sometimes let one slip, but I generally refuse to use "singular they". – Cerberus Feb 24 '15 at 2:47
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    I think the deploring is actually relatively recent. In any case, singular they is often the only natural choice. Avoiding it is clumsy. – snailboat Feb 24 '15 at 13:26

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