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Sometimes it is necessary to ambiguate things. The bottom line is that I don't lie.

Say, I have DOG. I don't want my neighbor to realize that I have only one dog, because if she realizes that I only have one, she will call me to find a partner for it, which I don't want, but I also don't want others to know that I have more than one dog, because some people may ask me to pay more charge for the town. If in the situation, people ask me a question: "What pets do you have?" I don't lie and don't want them to know wether I only have one dog or more dogs. I just have DOG generally. What could I say?

As for the gender of people, I don't want the listener to know if my friend is a girl or a boy, because if I use the pronoun "she" in the later context, the listener may say: "Oh, you have a girl friend now!" which I don't want to discuss about. If I use "he", the listener will advice me to make girl friend, which I also don't want to hear. I just want to express the concept of 3.SG.

Maybe the examples are not so realistic, but I often find it burdensome and awkward to have to meet up the mandatary grammatical requirements in a language in a conversation, because I sometimes want to avoid to expose wether something I only have one, or have not only one, and a friend which I have is a boy or girl. Besides, considering about politeness, I should also pay attention to these.

There are some mechanisms that are used for that, while not all of them are suitable. One of the largest problems is that it can works unnaturally. If I say "I like dog or dogs. Now I have a dog or some dogs, I am happy with it or them, but it or they eat so much." It is also unnaturally to say: "I have a new friend. The friend is very nice and helpful. Whenever I have questions, the friend explain to me in detail. Tonight I am going to dinner with the friend." Here I have mentioned "the friend" several times, which is very weird, and the listener would suspect that I am trying to conceal the gender of the friend. Furthermore, some written forms cannot be adapted to oral language. We do write "she/he", "(s)he" and so on, but at least in daily conversation, the forms are uncommon.

  • Some languages have ways to say things that don't show the number or the gender. English is (generally) not one of them. Recently there was a court case on transgender rights, and one side wanted to avoid using pronouns of either gender, so their brief was re-written always using "the defendant" or something instead of pronouns; this made it comically unwieldy. – GEdgar Sep 5 '19 at 19:31
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    In short, what you want is not practical in English. Even if you crafted a message, it would be glaringly obvious you were trying to hide this information because English exposes it by default. This would lead to more questions. – Dan Bron Sep 5 '19 at 19:37
  • If you were in a math problem, you could say, "I have at least one dog." In actuality, that likely leads to follow-up questions like, " 'At least one...?' " – TaliesinMerlin Sep 5 '19 at 19:44
  • As regards your first question about dog ownership, there's no way to say that that without using extremely stilted language. You could, of course, answer, "What pets do you have?" with something like, "My pet ownership is of the canine variety," but that's very stilted and there isn't anyone that wouldn't keep pressing you for the simple sake that with such stilted language you seem like you're being evasive, and rightfully so because you are. – Benjamin Harman Sep 5 '19 at 19:55
  • As regards your second question about not wanting to disclose someone's gender, there's a method for that: the singular they. But, again, that becomes quite stilted, and you using it in reference to someone you're dating, it becomes extremely obvious you're being evasive about their gender, which will either result in people pressing you to openly disclose the gender or result in people assuming you're gay. I mean, you can say "I'm seeing someone" without raising suspicion, but sooner or later a gender pronoun will be all that's natural and using singular they instead will be telling. – Benjamin Harman Sep 5 '19 at 20:01
4

Two strategies may help if you want to give less information about a pet or person you know.

The first, which conceals number, is to recast the answer around your own role rather than around the pet:

"What pets do you have?"

A1. I'm a dog owner.

In other words, use dog (or a similar pet) as a noun adjunct or attributive noun to your own role. (In this case, dog owner is a frequently-used collocation.) Because noun adjuncts tend to be singular (Wikipedia), you would effectively conceal the number of dogs, since a dog owner could own one or more dogs. The long-term utility of this strategy is limited though, since someone might ask, "Oh? And how many?" or "What is its name / what are their names?"

The second strategy, which conceals gender, is to use a gender-neutral pronoun. They/them has been used to refer to a single person without respect to gender since Middle English. They has frequently been used in reference to an antecedent like someone, anyone*, or each one, which are technically singular but indefinite. Yet other uses employ they to effectively conceal gender even when referring to a specific person. The OED has a blog post on it that starts:

Singular they has become the pronoun of choice to replace he and she in cases where the gender of the antecedent – the word the pronoun refers to – is unknown, irrelevant, or nonbinary, or where gender needs to be concealed. It’s the word we use for sentences like Everyone loves his mother.

As the post notes, there are some opponents to singular they, like the Chicago Manual of Style and the state legislature in Tennessee, but the usage is widely accepted.

Using singular they to conceal gender can work if you are consistent. If people are particularly interested in the gender of the person, they may notice and ask directly ("Is that a 'he' or a 'she'?" "Are they nonbinary?"), or make an assumption about the gender anyway. For instance, I had used singular they to refer to one of my romantic partners for months. When I finally brought her home, I came to find out that my mom assumed I was dating a man. I successfully concealed her gender, but I didn't stop the assumptions. So you will have to expect errors like that, not to mention the social friction that comes with correcting those errors.

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    Maybe you should consider dating girls who aren't named Kelly, Chris, Pat, Tracy, Lou, Glenn, Alex, Brett, Dana, or Rocky. :) – tchrist Sep 6 '19 at 1:05
  • LOL! She did have a name like that, and it didn't help either. ;) – TaliesinMerlin Sep 6 '19 at 13:02
3

I think you are asking the impossible.

Let's take the singular/plural matter. First you have to be clear whether your intention is to mislead or deceive the neighbour. Here is a possible way of speaking that will not tell them anything definite about whether you have one dog or more than one.

I have a dog.

In terms of truth and falsehood, the statement "I have a dog." is true both if I have a dog and if I have more than one. In logic, even though I have four dogs, it is still true than I have a dog. So you will not have lied. However, the statement would generally be understood to imply that you have only one dog. It is what the philosopher Searle called an 'implicature'. You listener is used to people who give this piece of information giving the full picture: that s/he would say "some dogs" or "four dogs". So it could be said that although you would not have lied, you could be said to have misled. But you could avoid misleading by saying this:-

I have at least one dog.

But that does not help you either. You nosey neighbour, on hearing this, will immediately ask how many! So you could try something different:-

I am a dog owner.

In this case, it just sounds rather odd. The neighbour might be led to ask: "What do you mean? Do you own dogs professionally? Are you a breeder? How many do you have? So you are back where you started. You could, of course, just say: "Mind your own business". This may sound rude, but, perhaps more tactfully phrased, this would put an end to requests for further information.

Second, about girl/boy friends. The 'he/she' dichotomy is a problem, but not just for this. The word 'partner' is gender neutral. But, as you say, not a solution to the pronoun issue. You can use the genderless plural pronoun. This is often used to avoid the masculine presumption in relation to generalisation. We increasingly here sentences like

Every doctor must give priority to the health of their patients

In the past we should have had:-

Every doctor must give priority to his patients.

But this does not work when you are talking about a single individual. Their is an obvious case for getting rid of the gender-inflected personal pronoun. But it carries with it an awkwardness that is probably too uncomfortable to endure long enough for it to become familiar: the neuter pronoun, 'it'.

Every doctor must give priority to its patients.

Whichever way you turn, you can avoid lying, but you will mislead and probably not succeed in that. Even if you could, is misleading really superior to lying?

2

Different languages have different things forced on you. In English, number is forced on a noun ('a dog' or 'dogs, but never just 'dog'). In Chinese, for a brother you must indicate whether he is an older or a younger brother.

If someone asks you "Do you have any dogs?" the canonical answers force none, single or plural, and politeness would recommend giving the exact number. And this is exactly what you are a requesting a way to avoid.

It would be a lie to say you have none when you have one or more, and also to say you have one or more when you have none.

But to not give away how many dogs you have, to not differentiate between a single dog and more than one dog, you can side step the question somewhat. You can say something that says you have a dog but says nothing about any other dogs you have. (I realize that this is exactly what you are asking for but it helps to say it in different ways).

You can't say 'my dog' because that implies you one have a single dog (otherwise you would say "one of my dogs"_. Also, if you say "A dog of mine", that implies you have others.

You could say something about one of your dogs with no implication. For example,

I just got a dog from the SPCA last week.

(or similar statement about one dog). It establishes that you have it now, and doesn't say anything about the others (if any). It doesn't say anything one way or the other about any existing dogs you have. Later on if someone discovers that you have more dogs, they may wonder if you got more recently. But this can be a very tortuous statement to try to make and have it be true. Later on if someone discovers that you have more dogs, they may wonder why you didn't mention the other dogs. So it is a tough task (just consider that in Chinese you discovered that a person's parents had (another) male child. It would be strange to know that and -not- know if they were the first, second, etc).


As to gender, the answer is simple. Whatever your teachers or language snobs may say, the singular 'they' has been in common use in all varieties of English at least since Shakespeare. If you don't know the sex of someone, just use 'they'. (it is becoming more common nowadays to use singular 'they' even if you do- know the gender, but that is whole nother kettle of fish).

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