Thursday, November 21, 2019

The new "they"

Pronouns are problematic
I've said before pronouns should be banned in technical and official writing .... Why? because people screw up or unwittingly mess up the antecedents.

But, if pronouns are to be used, take note that the rules -- such as rules are want to be -- are changing as a matter of culture and usage, not because the rulebook has been rewritten.

About you
Dating from the 16th century, "you" was plural, with "thee" and "thou" as singular mates. But today "you" is singular most of the time .... but not so fast! "You" can refer to an audience of unknown size, as in the first sentence of my second paragraph. (I'm putting aside "y'all" as not distinguished enough for official correspondence, but hey! here in the South, y'all is just good talkin')

We, of course
And. of course, from about the same time (16th century), or even earlier, the so-called royal "we" has been a singular form of what is traditional thought to be a plural form.

For the past 30 years or so "his/her" or "he/she" form has replaced the dominant masculine "his or he".

Who is "they"?
The latest news is that "they" is now somewhat like "you". It can be understood to be singular, handily replacing "he/she". Thus, (royal) we might have written:
"When a project manager directs an action, he/she must be cognizant of the teamwork necessary for the task"
 But, now (royal) we can write less awkwardly:
  "When a project manager directs an action, they must be cognizant of the teamwork necessary for the task"
 This stuff is hard enough for the native speaker; just think of the ESL's! (English as a second language)

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