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Is there a pronoun I can use as a gender-neutral pronoun when referring back to a singular noun phrase?

Each student should save his questions until the end.
Each student should save her questions until the end.

Added 10/27/2019 We could use an answer from the transgender community. There are none amongst the first 23 answers. I know there's a term (in America), but i can't remember what it is.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Oct 27 at 23:42
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    @StuW "We could use an answer from the transgender community. There are none amongst the first 23 answers." How could you possibly know that? – Mark Beadles Oct 28 at 1:36
  • I read the 23 answers. But it is possible one of the answers is "accepted" nomenclature with the transgender community. I just don't think so, and either way, a transgendered individual would be best qualified to answer the question (i believe). – Stu W Oct 28 at 13:39
  • I think it's closest to "hes." There are actually three terms, one for each type of transgender (I worked with the transgendered for a time). There's "a man in a woman's body" or vice versa (colloquially trannies - but that might be derogatory); there's "there are no genders" (non-binary); and "I am both a man and a woman" (cis-trans). I may have gotten those confused, but i know each of those subsets have a dedicated pronoun - so there are actually three pronouns which meet the OPs criteria. – Stu W Oct 28 at 20:22

23 Answers 23

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Singular they enjoys a long history of usage in English and can be used here: "Each student should save their questions until the end."

However, “singular they” also enjoys a long history of criticism. If you are anxious about being criticized (for what is in fact a perfectly grammatical construction) I would advise rewording to avoid having to use a gender-neutral singular third-person pronoun.

Some rewording strategies that can be employed:

  • Use a plural noun: Students should save their questions until the end.
  • Use the formal one: One should save one's questions until the end.
  • Use his or her: Each student should save his or her questions until the end

OED References for “singular” they

Here for the benefit of those who lack access to its paywalled source are the full and complete operative senses from the Oxford English Dictionary. Per the OED the pronoun they has these specific subsenses for the various scenarios under discussion here:

  1. In anaphoric reference to a singular noun or pronoun. 🗨

    Use of they to refer to a singular antecedent has sometimes been considered erroneous.

🗨 Dennis Baron • A brief history of singular ‘they’

…But that’s nothing new. The Oxford English Dictionary traces singular they back to 1375, where it appears in the medieval romance William and the Werewolf. Except for the old-style language of that poem, its use of singular they to refer to an unnamed person seems very modern. Here’s the Middle English version: ‘Hastely hiȝed eche … þei neyȝþed so neiȝh… þere william & his worþi lef were liand i-fere.’ In modern English, that’s: ‘Each man hurried… till they drew near… where William and his darling were lying together.’…

[4 September 2018]

  • 2a. With an antecedent that is grammatically singular, but refers collectively to the members of a group, or has universal reference (e.g. each person, everyone, nobody).

    Sometimes, but not always, used to avoid having to specify the gender(s) of the individual(s) being referred to; cf. sense A. 2b.

    [[citations ranging from 1350–2014 omitted]]

  • 2b. With an antecedent referring to an individual generically or indefinitely (e.g. someone, a person, the student), used esp. so as to make a general reference to such an individual without specifying gender. Cf. ʜᴇ pron. 2b.

    In the 21st century, other th– pronouns (and the possessive adjective their) are sometimes used to refer to a named individual, so as to avoid revealing or making an assumption about that person’s gender; cf. sense A. 2c, and quots. 2008 at ᴛʜᴇɪʀ adj. 2b, 2009 at ᴛʜᴇᴍ pron. 4b, 2009 at ᴛʜᴇᴍꜱᴇʟꜰ pron. 2b.

    [[citations ranging from 1450–2010 omitted]]

  • 2c. Used with reference to a person whose sense of personal identity does not correspond to conventional sex and gender distinctions, and who has typically asked to be referred to as they (rather than as he or she).

    [[citations ranging from 2009–2019 omitted]]

Copyright © 2019 Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

Retrieved 2019-10-25 23:46:13 UTC, and shown here under the Fair Use Exception.

  • 39
    Each and every are lovely words, and the only way to get people to understand them properly is to keep them in use! Perhaps we should teach logic to everyone from a young age - then there'll be no trouble. – Vincent McNabb Aug 10 '10 at 20:53
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    I'm a big supporter of singular they. We managed to get singular you to replace thou - and even the once-controversial "yourself" is accepted as correct English. I still find "themself" hard to accept as correct, but I think it's the only sensible solution. "Zie" just looks like taking political-correctness to the ludicrous level, with the rare exception of when you are dealing with a known person of a determinate gender that is neither male nor female. – Richard Gadsden Sep 16 '10 at 12:03
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    @Richard: Not sure about other countries, but here in Ireland singular they is very common. For the most part, instead of "themself" we tend to use "themselves". As in, instead of "He/she should think for himself/herself", it would be "They should think for themselves". – Joe D Sep 22 '10 at 18:38
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    I long ago learned to stop worrying and love the singular they. – T.E.D. Jun 7 '11 at 13:46
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To round out the answers here, one is a very proper way to encompass both male and female antecedents.

To boldly go where no one has gone before

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Oct 27 at 23:34
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For what it's worth, in academic writing I exclusively use the singular third person masculine "he", recognized by many as gender-neutral. Many other languages do this without concern: German and Spanish come to mind.

In everyday speech I will unconsciously use singular "they". In my book, this has unquestionably drifted into very common use in all but the most formal situations.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Oct 27 at 23:33
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It is common to write, "Each student should save his or her questions until the end" or to vary his and her throughout your text. In speech you will often hear native speakers say, "Each student should save their questions until the end."

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Oct 27 at 23:34
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I remember reading somewhere that it was recommended to use the opposite of what most people stereotype the profession as. So, for example, when talking about a chiropractor, you would use "her", and when talking about a secretary, you would use "his".

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Oct 27 at 23:34
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There have been a number of efforts to create new pronouns that would be gender neutral. Some other posters here have given examples. But none of these have really caught on. I'll hazard the prediction that none will. It's difficult enough to invent a new word and get people to use it. To invent a new word in a context where people are routinely using an existing word is very difficult. Pronouns are more difficult still as they are used ALL THE TIME. That is, if you invent a new word for, say, a type of fish, someone writing about fish could mention the new word, define it for those unfamiliar with it, and then use it a few times in the following discussion. Someone expecting to learn something new about fish wouldn't be too jarred to learn a new word along with some new facts. But pronouns are used all the time in many contexts -- heck, it almost EVERY context. And they are used over and over. You don't use a word like "it" or "she" just two or three times in a page of text -- you use it dozens of times, often multiple times within one sentence. Using a new pronoun really stands out and is jarring and distracting.

So in real life, the solutions offerred to this problem are:

  1. Stick with the traditional use of "he/him/his" as the generic pronouns. If we are talking about a specific person who is female, of course use "she". If we are talking about a person who is a member of a class which is always or usually female -- like mothers or nurses -- use "she". Otherwise use "he". Disadvantages: May sometimes be misleading, implying that a person must be a male when this is not the case. Advantages: Easy to use. Consistent with traditional use of the language. Offends feminists. (Well, some consider that to be a disadvantage.)

  2. Use "they" as a singular pronoun. Disadvantages: Often considered to be grammatically incorrect because of improper agreement with antecedent. Can be misleading as to whether one person or many is intended. Advantages: Is widely enough used that it is generally understood.

  3. Use pronouns of both genders together, like "he or she" or "him/her". Disadvantages: Quickly becomes awkward, e.g., "After he or she fills in his or her information on the form, he or she should specify whether he or she wants the form returned to him or her ..." In some cases creates ambiguity about whether one or two people are involved, e.g. "Give this to him or her" -- does that mean that the person I give it to may be of either sex, or that there are two people and I must give it to one or the other? Advantages: Clearly indicates that the person can be of either sex. No grammatical inconsistency.

  4. Alternate use of genders, either within a "short space" or a "long space". When done within a very short space this can be confusing, like "He should do A and then she should do B." Clearly sounds like two people are involved. But if, say, you are giving two examples of jobs that must be performed, you could use "he" to refer to the person in the first example and "she" in the second. Disadvantages: Requires an extra effort during composition to continually switch genders, possibly re-writing all the pronouns in a paragraph if you move things around in editing. May still be distracting depending on context. Advantages: Avoids all grammar problems while still maintaining a form of gender neutrality.

  5. Reword sentences to always use a plural. For example, instead of saying, "Each student should bring his book", say, "The students should bring their books", etc. Disadvantages: May lead to implicit changes in meaning, e.g. from identifying an individual responsibility to a collective responsibility. In some cases it may be impossible without changing the meaning, like try to reword, "He was the only person who volunteered" to use the plural without changing the meaning. Advantages: No problems with grammatical correctness.

Personally I generally use #1 for formal writing (because it retains strict grammatical correctness), and #2 for informal writing and speech.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Oct 27 at 23:35
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Her is not recommended or standard. His is standard, though the recommended way would be to change "Each student should.." to "The students should...".

"Students should..." is more abstract, and refers to students in general, rather than a specific group of students.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Oct 27 at 23:40
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It's not my area of expertise, I'm not using it, and just learned about its existence today, so just for reference from Wikipedia's Spivak pronoun:

The Spivak pronouns are a proposed set of gender-neutral pronouns in English devised by Michael Spivak. They are not in widespread use, but have been employed in gender-neutral language by some people who dislike the more common alternatives "he/she" or singular they.

The (new) Spivak pronouns are formed from the pronoun "they" by dropping the "th".

There are two variants of the Spivak pronouns in use, as shown in the declension table below.

Spivak

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Oct 27 at 23:36
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The "singular they" sounds totally wrong to my ear. But I am conscious of the implicit gender bias our language can have at times. So, I prefer to choose "his" or "her" either at random, or with a bias against the stereotype: use "his" when most people would assume you're talking about a woman; use "her" when most would assume a man.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Oct 27 at 23:36
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Historical note (USA). When I started learning English, I was taught unequivocally that he/him/his was to be used when referring to a singular person of unknown gender (e.g. a hypothetical person). Then while I was still in school there was a long, concerted effort by feminists to change this usage as they saw it as making females feel like second class people. As an example, they would ask, how do you fill in the blank in this sentence:

If a child wants to become a doctor, (blank) should be encouraged.

If you fill in the blank with he (as I was taught and had been the rule for a very long time), the argument goes, you are sending a message to girls that they should not be encouraged to become doctors. I found it very irritating because the rules I had just learned were being challenged. Even worse, there was no agreed upon new rule and I was still in that childhood phase of wanting strict rules about whatever I was learning. Many alternatives were proposed, and for more than a decade writers struggled with the issue, but by now the most widely accepted solution is to use the singular they. If a child wants to become a doctor, they should be encouraged. I have come to fully embrace it.

Edit: I have been enlightened through this Q&A as to much earlier examples of this same kind of argument, such as:

It would be interesting if each of the leading poets would tell us what he considers his best work.

--"Famed grammarian and linguist" Otto Jespersen, Progress in Language: With Special Reference to English, 1894

This is the first I've heard of such arguments despite having had many arguments over he versus they in the 1970's and 1980's. I will simply point out that while it does show that the argument is quite old, it also shows that the controversy is quite old.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Oct 27 at 23:36
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I have noticed more and more, both his and her being used, not alternatively by paragraph as another suggested, but within larger divisions of the the writing. For example, in a baby book, which covers many, many topics, each topic will use either his or her exclusively. It seems to be a fairly even balance, and not confusing to the reader.

  • I like this approach. But it can't be used in short prose. – ahorn Nov 6 '16 at 11:41
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Here is a comprehensive answer from Oxford Dictionaries Website:

What should you do in sentences such as these?
If your child is thinking about a gap year, ? can get good advice from this website.
...

Four different solutions are discussed:

If your child is thinking about a gap year, he can get good advice from this website.
If your child is thinking about a gap year, he or she can get good advice from this website.
If your children are thinking about a gap year, they can get good advice from this website.
If your child is thinking about a gap year, they can get good advice from this website.

OD advocates the usage of "they" as a singular pronoun and repels the argument that such usage is grammatically incorrect.

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    OD mixes up a non-specific indefinite person and a specific definite person. Please read my answer(there are two answers of mine. I mean the new one). – ivanhoescott Jan 18 '15 at 22:24
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    @ivanhoescott: Your child, when you are writing an article addressed to all parents on the Internet (or even just ones from the U.K.), is clearly a non-specific indefinite person. And if you're talking to some specific parent, you probably wouldn't say your child, you would say Laura and use the pronoun she. – Peter Shor Nov 5 '18 at 2:21
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Either of your suggestions is appropriate in formal written text, with "his" a much more common formulation. "Their" is even more common, but less accepted in the most highly pedantic communities.

If you want to avoid the question altogether, as nohat suggests, simply drop the pronoun. "Each student should save questions until the end" is perfectly standard.

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    Yeah, but you can't say That's what said instead of That's what he/she said. – nyuszika7h Feb 5 '11 at 13:22
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There is noteworthy precedent for it in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, where Oberon tells Puck about the magic purple flower:

The juice of it on sleeping eyelids laid
Will make or man or woman madly dote
Upon the next live creature that it sees.

The rejection or even revulsion that this obvious solution provokes (as does the old-fashioned use of this same pronoun for an infant) suggests that we hold the person/thing distinction sacred, far more important even than the male/female distinction. Would that our culture more generally bore out that suggestion.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Oct 27 at 23:39
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Novelist Anthony Burgess suggested that a gender-neutral, all-inclusive, singular subject pronoun could be formed by combining she, he and it, to form shit. Following this formula, the gender-neutral, all-inclusive, singular possessive pronoun would combine her, his and its, to form hist:

Each student should save hist questions until the end.

The beauty of this is that no grammatical accommodation would have to be made for the robot students of the future.

8

I've seen (and used in one job) a recommendation to switch between "his" and "her", switching each paragraph.

I don't mean to imply that you should change the gender of a singular individual across paragraphs. I mean that you'd be talking about a new person in each paragraph, but with a different gender than the previous.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Oct 27 at 23:37
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October 2017

5.48: Singular they (footnote from the Chicago Manual of Style Online October 2017)

The generic singular they was endorsed in 2015 by the editors of the Washington Post, though with a caveat to first try avoiding it if possible. Singular they is more likely to be accepted in British than in American English. See Bas Aarts, Oxford Modern English Grammar (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), (“the use of the plural pronoun they with a non-specific singular antecedent [is] sanctioned by widespread current usage.)

The Washington Post ran this article by Travis M. Andrews on 28 March 2017:

The Associated Press Stylebook, arguably the foremost arbiter of grammar and word choice in journalism, has added an entry for “they” as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun in its latest edition.

The description of the singular they below is from 5.48 of the Chicago Manual of Style Online.

Normally, a singular antecedent requires a singular pronoun. But because he is no longer universally accepted as a generic pronoun referring to a person of unspecified gender, people commonly (in speech and in informal writing) substitute the third-person-plural pronouns they, them, their , and themselves (or the nonstandard singular themself.

While this usage is accepted in those spheres, it is only lately showing signs of gaining acceptance in formal writing, where Chicago recommends avoiding its use. When referring specifically to a person who does not identify with a gender-specific pronoun, however, they and its forms are often preferred. (They used in this sense was the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year for 2015.) Like singular you, singular they takes a plural verb. So when the context requires it, they/them/their/theirs, like you/your/yours (long used as both singular and plural forms), can be used to refer to one person {they have a degree in molecular biology} {their favorite color is blue}. And themself (like yourself) may be used to signal the singular antecedent (though some people will prefer themselves) {they blamed themself [or themselves]}. A number of other gender-neutral singular pronouns are in use, invented for that purpose; forms of these are usually singular and take singular verbs. In general, a person’s stated preference for a specific pronoun should be respected.

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Before I answer I wish to state that I am a proud supporter of the LGBTQ+ community and don't particularly care what pronoun anyone prefers or chooses for themself, as long as it makes them feel comfortable and respected.


With the risk of seeming a bit flippant in my answer: No, there is NOT a correct gender-neutral singular pronoun.

And, in support of my answer, I point to all of the confusion and attempts to answer this question above.

Languages evolve slowly as products of their time, people who speak them, and the needs to describe both. Until very recently, English has not had need of a gender-neutral singular pronoun because societal attitudes did not require such. It was generally accepted that you were the gender/sex you biologically demonstrated at birth. Rare cases of ambiguous sex due to biological/developmental deformities aside, this is how most speakers of English were content to view the world. Binary usages like his/her, were not offensive to most speakers. And, in cases where people wanted an alternative, the most common uses were the singular they or one substitutions. Other past attempts at coining a new system were largely ignored, laughed at, or downright rejected as unnecessary.

The past few decades have seen quite a shift in our understanding of and attitudes towards human sexuality and gender identity. Homosexuality has been declassified as a mental disorder (it was listed as such as recently as DSMIII). Sexuality is no longer seen as a binary, tertiary or even quaternary state. We accept that people are heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, and myriad other orientations and preferences. What was once taboo to even mention in public can now be discussed airily on a sitcom...

Likewise, our societal understanding of gender has begun to evolve. The word transgender has entered the public consciousness in more than a small way. We're only beginning to adapt to the notion that people's gender exhibits similar fluidity to that of sexuality. And, as such, our language is still unequipped to properly handle this.

What will be the chosen gender-neutral singular pronoun? I'll be damned if I know. But, I do know we currently don't have one.

For now, unless the person in question directs me to do otherwise, I will continue to use the singular they until an alternative gathers enough steam to supplant it. Unfortunately, languages evolve far slower than society does, so I don't recommend that you hold your breath waiting.

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I already posted an answer to the question. While discussing with a commenter for my answer, I found a clearer explanation for my assertions. So I think it deserves another answer.

When discussing the subject, it is important to distinguish between a non-specific indefinite person and a specific definite person, though many people don't seem to realize this. The examples of the former: everyone, anyone, someone, no one, etc. The examples of the latter: the murderer in a certain murder case, the author of a letter/novel/academic paper, etc.

I claim the following assertions.

  1. Referring to a non-specific indefinite person as they is grammatical, at least in informal writing or conversation.

  2. Referring to a specific definite person as they is ungrammatical.

Here is the explanation.

Consider the following sentence:

Everyone knows each other.

I searched the Corpus of the Contemporary American English (COCA) for this sentence. It returned 7 results.

I searched for the sentence by Google Books. It returned 11,800 results.

So I think it is safe to say that the sentence is grammatical at least in an informal writing or conversation. Note that each other, as is well known, requires a semantically plural subject, while everyone is morphosyntactically singular. It follows that semantic plurality and morphosyntactic singularity are compatible in English. Hence the sentence Everyone did their best is grammatical.

Now consider the following sentence:

Leslie knows each other.

This is ungrammatical because Leslie, which is the name of a person, is both semantically and morphosyntactically singular. Likewise the sentence Leslie did their best is ungrammatical.

References

"Everyone knows each other" by Geoffrey K. Pullum

"Everybody Has Their Own Opinion About the Singular They" by John Lawler

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Oct 27 at 23:38
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I found the word hes - but I couldn't find any reference for that - I hope it's not his own concoction. According to the blogger, 'hes' is a (probably obsolete) singular neuter pronoun:

hes - pronoun

  1. Used to refer to a person whose gender is unspecified, unknown, or irrelevant.

Typical use: hes was a scientist born in the late 20th century.

The only reference I could find is from yourdictionary.com where hes is defined as "a variant of he".

  • 3
    Interesting, but I couldn't find another mention of this. I think this is one of the pronouns that people are creating to solve the "what's the gender neutral pronoun" question. – simchona Aug 22 '11 at 8:25
  • I've tried the link to yourdictionary.com, but it didn't work. However, in dictionary.com/browse/hes it says that "hes" is "any male person or animal; a man: hes and shes." By the way, one of its definitions of "he" is "anyone (without reference to gender); that person: He who hesitates is lost." – Juan M Oct 29 '16 at 14:14
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Yes. Simply change to 3rd person plural, so you are referring to everyone: they/them/their.

Each student should save their questions until the end.

or

Every student should save their questions until the end.

Both are grammatically correct, and gender neutral.

1

I have read several articles on "singular they" and found that most authors don't distinguish a non-specific indefinite person from a specific definite person on the issue.

Examples of the former are: everybody, anybody, somebody, nobody, each person, etc. Examples of the latter are: the murderer in a certain murder case, the author of an anonymous letter or a novel, the foreign author of a novel or an academic paper, etc.

There are many examples of singular they referring to a non-specific indefinite person in the classic literature.

On the other hand, it seems to me that examples of singular they referring to a specific definite person are almost non-existent in the literature.

I think that the use of singular they referring to a non-specific indefinite person is grammatical, but the use of such a pronoun referring to a specific definite person is not necessarily so.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Oct 27 at 23:39
-2

His is correct. All others are for specific cases only. There has been some political motivation in recent years to change it, but it is what it is.

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    This is simply incorrect. The singular "they" dates back to the 14th century. – Ben Crowell Mar 8 '15 at 1:48

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