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I grew up in the UK and now have a lot of American friends and colleagues; I tend to notice an almost systematic difference in the way Americans use 3rd person singular pronouns in preference to a person's name in conversation. This is especially noticeable and seemingly impolite to my British ear when the third person is present in the conversation. I'm not sure how to articulate the specific instances when this occurs, other than that when I was growing up, this is exactly the situation that my elders would say "Who's 'she'? The cat's mother?!" to correct me.

E.g.,

She's coming on the trip with us too!
Who's 'she' - the cat's mother?
Sorry, gran is coming with us too.

(Wiktionary)

Interestingly, the Americans I've met generally seem to be completely unperturbed by this, whether speaking, or hearing themselves referred to in this way. It seems completely natural for Americans to do this.

I would like to know if anyone can articulate/describe the specific instances when this (un)contentious switch between 3rd person pronoun and names occurs? And at what point or why this divergence between American and British English occurred?

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  • this video with British comedian Russel Brand in the US illustrates the clash of cultures - youtu.be/9zdURJNobtc
    – k1eran
    Mar 13, 2022 at 12:55
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    It's irrelevant that Brand happens to be a Brit. See When is it appropriate or disrespectful to refer to someone as "she"? I don't believe there's any significant tendency for Americans to be less aware of this basic aspect of conversational politeness than Brits (or Canadians, or Australians, or whatever). See also Is it rude to refer to someone as "he" or "she" in their presence? on SO Interpersonal Skills. Mar 13, 2022 at 13:04
  • @FumbleFingers Thanks for clarification- I am more aware of situation in UK/Ireland than in US, so I’m glad you corrected my gross generalisation about the US. Apologies for that! I guess the clash of cultures in the video was simply between someone with brains and some rude TV interviewers!
    – k1eran
    Mar 13, 2022 at 14:15
  • Russell Brand affects an "uneducated, inarticulate, hesitant" persona, but he's actually as sharp a new pin, very self-confident, and doesn't like to be conversationally side-lined. In your linked video, he's just taking advantage of a situation where he can butt in and take more control of the conversation without seeming excessively rude (by facetiously claiming that other people at the table are being "rude" because of that effectively unavoidable pronoun use). Mar 13, 2022 at 14:31
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    Yes, on the west of the Atlantic, we are more casual. But it's a question of polite English over correct English. When I speak to my kids about their mother, I say Mom, not her name. Her name, though, would not be incorrect. It's a little like calling a person that instead of who, or saying it without learning that's the pronoun preference. Dismissive. Mar 13, 2022 at 15:06

1 Answer 1

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From the American side: Yes, it is natural for us. Here (Western US), there is no issue with using a pronoun in place of someone's name, as long as it's clear who is being referenced, and you aren't avoiding that person. The typical pattern is that the first reference is by name, and additional references use a pronoun.

(Ana, Bob, and John are present and chatting)

Ana: Hey, is John coming? 
Bob: Yes, he is

But if it's completely obvious who is being referenced, and you are on familiar terms with the person being referenced, even the first mention can be a pronoun.

(Ana, Bob, and John are present and chatting)

Ana: Hey, is he coming? (indicating John)
Bob: Yes, he is

For us, what might be rude (depending on your relationship with the person), is to refer to someone present, without greeting that person. To our ear, it sounds a bit like you're avoiding that person.

(John enters while Ana and Bob chatting)

Ana: Hey, is he coming? (indicating John, without greeting John) 
     (this can sound rude)

Bob: Yes, he is

As for why this usage pattern is different...I don't think that's answerable, past "because we speak differently" :)

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