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Veniar
09-16-2006, 10:42 AM
Ok, I thought I had this down, but there's this one situation that my English teacher introduced that's been bugging me.

Everybody should take (his/her, their) materials with them to class.

The correct answer was "his/her", which sort of makes sense with "everybody" referring to every individual, but the problem is, not everybody is going to be all males or all females, so I'd have to use the phrase "he or she". The problem is, that isn't a really elegant way of expressing. Could you really use their instead of "he or she", or does it HAVE to be that way?

kikonie
09-16-2006, 11:18 AM
Can someone explain why it's correct to use "his/her" over "their", but then use the word "them" after?

newmod
09-16-2006, 03:26 PM
Hi Veniar I´ll try to help you out here.

They/them/their is often used to refer to a singular indefinite person who has already been mentioned. It´s commonly used after a person, anybody/one, somebody/one, nobody/one, whoever, each, every, either, neither and no.

e.g. Somebody left their umbrella behind.

He, she, him, her, his, her are clumsy, especially when repeated, and many people dislike the traditional use of he/him/her to refer to people who may be male or female.

Also, they/them/their is not only used when we don´t know the gender of a person.

e.g. No girl should have to wear a school uniform, because it makes them look like a sack of potatoes.

This use of they/them/their has been normal for centuries and is perfectly correct. It´s more common in an informal style but is also found in formal written English, this is from an application form for a British Passport.

Dual nationality: if the child possesses the nationality or citizenship of another country they may lose this when they get a British Passport.

Hope that helped

Ralyks
09-16-2006, 05:09 PM
Somebody left their umbrella behind.

This may be common, but it's incorrect. Singular pronouns should be used for singular subjects. You would not say: Joe left their umbrella behind. It makes no sense. "Somebody" is a single person, just like Joe.

Why are people so incredibly sensitive about gender pronouns? As if there isn't enough real oppression in the world, we have to invent things to offend us. Do speakers of other languages have these issues? I often wonder if Spanish speakers are in an uproar over the fact that male endings are used for referring to a mixed group of people.

There is no gender neutral singular pronoun for the human being in the English language. Big deal. "He" has always been used in lieu of a gender neutral singular pronoun, for hundreds of years. I'm a woman, and I just can't get riled up over a semantic non-issue while women are beaten throughout the world and having their heads chopped off and being sold into the sex slave trade…Somehow, I just can't feel the rage when "somebody leaves his umbrella behind."

If you do use "them" in this way, it will be corrected by some editors, because, common though it is becoming, it is still grammatically incorrect. (One day it won't be considered incorrect, I realize.)

This is what I do in an attempt to avoid offending the sensitive: I use either "he" or "she" when the subject is singular, and I alternate which one I use throughout an article.



Everybody should take (his/her, their) materials with them to class.

The correct answer was "his/her", which sort of makes sense with "everybody" referring to every individual, but the problem is, not everybody is going to be all males or all females, so I'd have to use the phrase "he or she". The problem is, that isn't a really elegant way of expressing. Could you really use their instead of "he or she", or does it HAVE to be that way?

There are lots of ways to rephrase this:

1--Everybody should take his materials to class.
2--Everybody should take her materials to class.
3--All the students should take their materials to class.

But "Everybody should take his or her materials with them to class" is grammatically incorrect. You use a singular pronoun and then a plural pronoun to modify the same word. If one MUST be gender neutral, it is best to make the sentence entirely plural, as in the third example.

newmod
09-16-2006, 07:35 PM
As I said: "They/them/their is often used to refer to a singular indefinite person who has already been mentioned. It´s commonly used after a person, anybody/one, somebody/one, nobody/one, whoever, each, every, either, neither and no."

Joe is not the same as somebody/anybody etc.

As for sensitivity about gender pronouns, it doesn´t bother me in the least if someone use he/she/they/he or she.

Some may consider the use ´incorrect´, but it has been used in educated speech for centuries. As an example a quote from Shakespeare "God send everyone their hearts desire."
It is more informal perhaps but it is not incorrect.

Jamesaritchie
09-16-2006, 09:25 PM
Can someone explain why it's correct to use "his/her" over "their", but then use the word "them" after?

It's never, ever okay to use "them" in conjunction with "his" or "her." Nor is it usually necessary to use any word at all. Them is plural, and everybody is singular, regardless of the way some try to bend grammar for silly reasons. Too many "writers" want to bend words and break rules rather than actually taking the time to revise a sentence.

The English langauge really has very few gender problems. What it has is a tremendous number of writing problems.

The sentence, "Everybody should take (his/her, their) materials with them to class" is a bloody mess from the beginning, and it gets worse as it goes along. It's frightening that an English teacher would use such a sentence. But if you want to keep it, which is the lazy way out, then write: Everybody should take his materials to class." It's still a bad sentence, but it is better than it was.

Most of the time, "material" not "materials" is the right word, so better: Everybody should take his material to class.

Much, much better: Students should take their material to class.

And better yet: Students should take all required material to class.

Adding "with them," "with him," etc., is simply bad writing. How else can a student take his material to class? What, is he supposed to take it with someone else? It's like the truly bad phrase "He thought to himself." Who else is he going to think to?

I mean, even when it's grammatical, would anyone seriously write "Students should take all required materials with them to class."

Well, it's fine to write it, but then comes editing time, and "with them" should be removed.

Too many writers confuse editing with revising. Editing means switching "his" for "their," etc. Revising means finding a better way to write the sentence itself. The rule should always be "revise first, edit last."

When you run into a gender issue in English, the problem is usually with the writer, not with the English langauge.

This said, when his/him or her/hers is required, use it. But either is correct, and the most obvious way to avoid gender problems in such situations is for men to use "his/him," and women to "hers/her."

The problem with allowing "their" to substitue for "his or her" is that it nearly always produces bad writing. The writer says, "Well, this is allowed, so I need look no further for a better way of saying this."

Far more often than not, there is a much better way of saying it.

Ralyks
09-16-2006, 11:22 PM
As I said: "They/them/their is often used to refer to a singular indefinite person who has already been mentioned. It´s commonly used after a person, anybody/one, somebody/one, nobody/one, whoever, each, every, either, neither and no."

Over time, common misuse will become accepted use. However, at the present moment, many editors will still correct you if you use a plural pronoun to modify a singular subject. Editors will most certainly correct you if you use both a plural pronoun and a singular pronoun to modify the same subject, as was done in the sentence quoted.


Some may consider the use ´incorrect´, but it has been used in educated speech for centuries. As an example a quote from Shakespeare "God send everyone their hearts desire."
It is more informal perhaps but it is not incorrect.

This is irrelevant. Modern rules of grammar were not solidified until the 19th century. Shakespeare didn't use "correct" grammar by today's standards. We may debate whether we should have standards of grammar at all, but we do, and "Everybody brought his materials with them to class" doesn't fit those standards.

veinglory
09-16-2006, 11:43 PM
'They' is quite acceptable in the singular as a modern (PC) replacement of the universal 'him' for many UK and Australasian markets although I know not to use it in the US. It is to be found in that form in many recent editions of UK dictionaries. It also sees intermittent earlier use by many writers, Jane Austin etc.

Jamesaritchie
09-17-2006, 01:52 AM
'They' is quite acceptable in the singular as a modern (PC) replacement of the universal 'him' for many UK and Australasian markets although I know not to use it in the US. It is to be found in that form in many recent editions of UK dictionaries. It also sees intermittent earlier use by many writers, Jane Austin etc.

"They" and "their" are somewhat different, but I don't care what they do in the UK or Australia, it's still bad grammar, lazy writing, and wouldn't be an issue if writers would actually learn how to write and revise.

veinglory
09-17-2006, 01:59 AM
I'll be sure to tell Jane. For now I'll just keep using the language in the way they market I am writing for wants to see it--"correct" or not.

Veniar
09-17-2006, 06:05 AM
Thanks for the comments guys. Things are slowly starting to clear up for me. I know there's a better way to express the sentence, but it just annoys me when I don't know how to proofread every given statement.

Ralyks
09-17-2006, 04:55 PM
Thanks for the comments guys. Things are slowly starting to clear up for me. I know there's a better way to express the sentence, but it just annoys me when I don't know how to proofread every given statement.

Well, there's some debate as to whether "they" in use with a singular subject is acceptable or not, but there's no question that making the entire sentence plural is acceptable, so I would advise erring on the side of caution and just rewriting rather than using they/them in a manner that many would consider incorrect. The issue can be avoided altogether with rewriting, so why not avoid it?

Mac H.
09-17-2006, 06:04 PM
So, in conclusion, the English word 'their' can be singular for a non-gender specific person.

Such usage is common in English sources as varied as Shakespeare, Jane Austen and the British Passport Application form.

So it is good English.

But an American, who can't even spell English words like 'colour' correctly, doesn't believe that it is correct English.

Maybe he or she should just admit that it is good English, but poor 'American'.

Then we can all agree ...

Mac

Marlys
09-17-2006, 06:43 PM
My Webster's agrees with newmod and the others who say that "they" can be used as a gender-neutral singular ("that one whose sex is unknown or immaterial"). And yes, it's been commonly used that way for centuries.

Jamesaritchie
09-17-2006, 07:23 PM
So, in conclusion, the English word 'their' can be singular for a non-gender specific person.

Such usage is common in English sources as varied as Shakespeare, Jane Austen and the British Passport Application form.

So it is good English.

But an American, who can't even spell English words like 'colour' correctly, doesn't believe that it is correct English.

Maybe he or she should just admit that it is good English, but poor 'American'.

Then we can all agree ...

Mac

I'm not completely against using "their" in the singular. Doing so would sometimes simplify writing, and always makes it easy for lazy writers to still get the job done.

But calling Shakespeare and other such writers into the argument is really very silly unless you're willing to say everything they did should still be done the same way today.

You can't really blame Shakespeare or Austen for using "their" in the singular. The English language was much, much smaller than it is today, usage was still evolving, and they tended to do the best they could with what they had. But you'll notice neither used "their" in the singular very often at all. This usage was rare for both of them, even that long ago.

Language evolves. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the, well, terrible. Just because Shakespeare or Austen did something one way is meaningless. Time changes the way things are done based on how well it works or doesn't work. "Their" never has worked well. People have been trying to use if this way for four hundred years, and readers have been complaining for four hundred years.

But revising and finding a better way takes work, so lazy writers struggle to keep it alive.

Ralyks
09-18-2006, 04:51 PM
Shakespeare and Austen are irrelevant to discussions of modern rules of grammar. The scientific analysis of grammar did not even begin until the 19th century. The rules we operate by today were not finally developed until after these writers were dead.

Even the American Heritage Dictionary says in its entry on "their": Informal. His, hers, or its. But note the "informal." If you are using "their" as a singular in formal writing, many American editors will correct it. Why not err on the side of caution and write in a manner no editor would consider incorrect? I don't understand the insistence on using "they" in the singular when other options (that also do not politically offend) are available.

However, on the other hand, since this insistence will eventually make the informal formal, there is also little sense resisting it. Language evolves, or it devolves, and somebody can't stop it either way, even if they take his or her grammatical rules with them.

Aubrey
09-18-2006, 08:30 PM
To be vaguely off-topic, does anyone know why English doesn't contain any gender neutral pronouns? From what little I know of other languages, apparently most others have them.

brendao
09-19-2006, 12:23 AM
I agree with Jamesaritchie 100 percent. When I read a sentence with a subject and pronoun not in agreement, I assume the writer is not in command of conventions. It doesn't matter if improper usage is becoming the norm; it will be a turnoff for editors as well. Rewrite!