6.0658 Rs: They and Their (2/61)

Fri, 9 Apr 1993 15:49:53 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 6, No. 0658. Friday, 9 Apr 1993.

(1) Date: Wed, 7 Apr 93 06:59:42 EDT (34 lines)

(2) Date: Thu, 8 Apr 1993 20:59:34 +0300 (EET-DST) (27 lines)
Subject: RE: 6.0646 Rs: They and Their (3/179)

(1) --------------------------------------------------------------------
Date: Wed, 7 Apr 93 06:59:42 EDT

> There is another angle to "they" that has bothered me far longer than the
> gender/number phenomenon, that has only (relatively) recently shown up in my
> neck of the woods: For at least 15 years now, I have observed that students
> reluctant to understand that a work of literature has a single, personal
> author or that a character has a particular identity. Thus, as often as not, a
> student will say in discussion, "They're saying here, 'To be or not to be
> Is there some hobgoblin out of Orwell at work here? Is there a deeper
> linguistic phenomenon behind this? Or am I simply cursed with especially
> dense and difficult students?! Michael Metzger (MLLMIKEM@UBVMS)

I too have noticed this phenomenon. I believe it to be equivalent
to "they say 'falling in love is wonderful'" and the fact that
in Hebrew the common word for God, 'Elohim,' is plural. In all
three cases, the reference is to an entity that *authorizes*, in
two senses of the word, a world. World-creation, is, apparently,
a matter of consensus, as modern social constructionists tell us.
And, indeed, this is perhaps as it should be. As I look out
my window, I see absolutely no signs that it is Wednesday, but
knowing that today is Wednesday is considered by many a fundamental
fact of (today's) daily life. "Considered by many," that is,
by a sufficient number that I have no practical choice but to
accept what they say.

Eric Rabkin esrabkin@umichum.bitnet
Department of English esrabkin@um.cc.umich.edu
University of Michigan office : 313-764-2553
Ann Arbor MI 48109-1045 dept : 313-764-6330
voice msgs: 313-763-3128
(2) --------------------------------------------------------------35----
Date: Thu, 8 Apr 1993 20:59:34 +0300 (EET-DST)
Subject: RE: 6.0646 Rs: They and Their (3/179)

Thanks to David Bantz for an enlightening piece of quick research on
"their" as a plural form. I confess that the usage seems perfectly
natural to me, and I got a good English education at a good English
school and read English lit. and lang. at a good English university
to boot (now how more English can you get than that?) There were, it
is true, vague murmurs while I was growing up that "their" meaning
"his or her" was wrong -- or at least illogical -- but nobody took
them very seriously, perhaps because it's so much more elegant a
solution than his/her or even s/he. I was astounded to see that a
Canadian considers the practice "immoral" -- come now, language is
fashioned by practice more than rule, and the English language has
never, like the French, even had an Academy to attempt the impossible
task of expecting native speakers to conform to whatever the grammarians
decided were the rules... Double negatives were the rule in Chaucer's
time, and if they're now much more thoroughly disreputable than the
singular "they", this is the effect of usage, not a decision by
somebody to change the rules. Besides, surely our fellow human
beings provide us with enough reasons to condemn them for immorality
without having to resort to sifting through their use of language...?


Judy Koren, Haifa.