[lit-ideas] Re: grades & kleenex

  • From: Harold Hungerford <hh@xxxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Thu, 6 May 2004 19:37:23 -0700

What you're not understanding is that "they" is being used as a 
replacement for "he" or "she" as a third person singular, in an attempt 
to avoid the implicit sex bias of "he" (usually) or the clumsiness of 
"he or she." It has become de facto a third person singular in certain 
contexts, usually when an "every" is in the neighborhood. Example: 
"Every child went out to play. Then they came back in . . ." or 
"Everyone should get out their kleenex now."

Once upon a time "you" referred only to two or more persons. Once upon 
a time there was a pronoun "wit" which referred to two, and only two, 
persons. Once upon a time (Chaucer's) the standard object case form of 
"they" was "hem" and the possessive was "her," which also functioned as 
the possessive of "she." Once upon a time (Chaucer's again) the 
nominative case of today's "it" was "hit" in standard upper-class 
English. The pronoun system in English has changed with glacial 
slowness, but it has changed despite the efforts of pedants.

Harold Hungerford
Professor Emeritus of English
>
Could you provide an example of the acceptable use [of "they"] you have 
in mind?

What is he/she if not third person singular?  And if it is replaced in a
second iteration in a sentence with "they," I would say there is a 
problem
of agreement.  What am I not understanding?

David Ritchie
Portland, Oregon

Heureux qui, comme Ulysse, a fait un beau voyage . . .
(Joachim du Bellay, 1522-1560)

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