45

Premise

  • There is an English language construct called singular they
  • SE writers would like to do their best to use the correct way to address readers.
  • SE readers might prefer pronouns that are not obvious or use singular they.

If you don't agree with or want to discuss this premise, I don't think there is a shortage of questions right now that you can take part in to do so. Just click the back button in your browser and I'm sure there will be one on the front page that you can add to. This one is to discuss English levels, not why or how pronouns should or should not be used.


Anecdote

My native language is not English. I have a college level education from a leading industry nation. That includes 7 years of mandatory English in school and two more years of mandatory English in my professional education. Add a nerdy interest in English books and computer games and a professional programmer career on top and you have a lot of English, both formal education and just plain everyday usage.

And yet... I was introduced to "singular they" right here on a site of the SE network, when I saw an edit of a post I had written and I was furious... some idiot had totally misunderstood me and had switched all the pronouns to plural. And now it was all wrong! I was 1 second away from clicking "revert to previous" when I though: wait, that is a 100K user, they won't just edit 20 pronouns in my post without reading and double checking. So, did I get something wrong? Well, turns out there is something called "singular they" I had just never heard of it before, in 9 years of English as a foreign language classes and another 15 years of using it after that.


Data

Singular they is not taught in EFL classes or textbooks. At least not officially. Obviously teachers may take their own little breaks from the books and focus on what they think is important, but it's not in the curriculum. The best source I could find were interviews with EFL textbook publishers that told the media it would take years to get that into the books. Assuming people need to read those books afterwards and learn English according to those lessons, we are talking about a decade from now for singular they to become part of the default education.


Current State of Affairs

The current level of proficiency required on SE sites is next to zero. I remember that I proposed that questions must contain a question mark, so we can filter out completely unclear question before they get posted. The reply basically was "How dare you assume that level of English proficiency! We must be inclusive of all the people out there that don't have that level of understanding". I'm pretty sure that questions marks are covered in the very first official basic textbooks.


Discussion

So how do we reconcile those two? How do we allow people of all levels of English proficiency and at the same time make those happy that request a certain level of respect that can only be reached through an education level above normal English as a foreign language?

  • 7
    Another post here on Meta shows a page from a textbook used to teach English in Italy which uses "singular they" extensively - meta.stackexchange.com/a/334226/221045 – Daveoc64 Oct 4 at 13:55
  • 3
    Pedantically, we don't require that the people are proficient at English, but rather that the posts are written in clear English. – Raedwald Oct 4 at 14:00
  • 11
    I'm sure you can find a similar page for German textbooks, but those are actually unknown persons. When answering a to a person known by name, refering to them as "they" would be very insulting in my native language and there is no lesson on how this might be different in English. – nvoigt Oct 4 at 14:02
  • 2
    @Raedwald If we are that pedantic... I guess it's "clear and respectful" English? Who judges what is respectful at what level of proficiency. Because "John left the building. He had an appointment with someone else" is certainly clear. Nobody but John would know whether it's respectful. Matter of fact, even "She had an appointment" would be clear, even if seen as wrong unless noted otherwise by most. – nvoigt Oct 4 at 14:04
  • 10
    I'am a French native, for me 'they' sound like an insult to tell someone. French isnt really gender neutral, and 'they' is a translation to 'ils' in French, which mean a numbered quantity (like more than one persons), as such it's a delicate subject as SE is worldwide – yagmoth555 - GoFoundMe Monica Oct 4 at 14:08
  • 1
    If I'm remembering my French correctly, it also uses plural pronouns in the singular case, just with second person pronouns (vous), rather than third. – Davis Broda Oct 4 at 14:13
  • 2
    @DavisBroda Yes with vous and tu :) (vouvoyer/tutoyer). For gender neutral currently the french institute got a debate, as it would be iel or ille the new pronoun to use, a small article if you are curious. (even with gender neutral pronoun some word are impossible to write correctly, like job title; mécanicien/ne, which gender you use in such case ?) – yagmoth555 - GoFoundMe Monica Oct 4 at 14:29
  • 1
    @yagmoth555 Thanks for the link. Wasn't aware of the french language debate on new pronouns. Will bookmark it to read later, as my French is rather rusty, so it'll probably take me a while to read and understand it. – Davis Broda Oct 4 at 14:33
  • 3
    To the person voting to close this as "unclear", can you maybe ask for clarification? I have no idea what might be unclear to you. – nvoigt Oct 4 at 15:28
  • 2
    I am not a native speaker. I was taught the use of singular they in high school classes. I saw some high schools other than the one I went to teaching wrong or outdated English regarding other things such as phrasal verbs, past tenses etc. and the students coming from those schools thought they had perfect grammar... I think different schools habe different levels of quality when it comes to English. – Renan Oct 4 at 15:54
  • 1
    With a few adjustments, this question would do very nicely on EL&U. Saying that, you have probably met or chatted with many native speakers on Stack Exchange who used the "singular they", but it's only now that you've noticed it for the first time. Baader-Meinhof is the phenomenon where one stumbles upon some obscure piece of information—often an unfamiliar word or name—and soon afterwards encounters the same subject again, often repeatedly. – Mari-Lou A Oct 4 at 16:22
  • 2
    @Mari-LouA How the fourletterword did they come up with the name Baader-Meinhof phenomenon? That's pretty disturbing (and most people are too young to know about Baader and Meinhof anyway, so it's also not a useful name, IMO). – Daniel Fischer Oct 4 at 16:49
  • 2
    As you know, but many others here probably don't: The female third person pronoun (i.e. "she") in German is "sie". And the third person plural pronoun (i.e. "they") is ... yeah, guess what: "sie". Now, talk about "misgendering". At some point, all this collapses into a void. – Marco13 Oct 4 at 18:05
  • 4
    The use of singular 'they' in popular usage today (sorry, Shakespeare, you don't count) is almost entirely relegated to the US and to conversations revolving around gender identity. If you don't interact with US citizens on that topic, you probably haven't encountered that usage of 'they'. However, because SE/SO is a US-based org, and it's currently dealing with gender identity reference issues, the topic is receiving an inordinate amount of attention in recent days. – TylerH Oct 4 at 19:00
  • 2
    @marcellothearcane The phenomenon was apparently named by a person who read about Baader-Meinhof for the first time one day and then randomly heard something about that group some time later the same day. – Modus Tollens Oct 4 at 21:03
10

As someone who participates on a site where people tend to write long posts (in fact, if someone writes something short, it's probably bad quality), I don't think this is an issue. For reference, the site I'm talking about is "Interpersonal Skills" (also called "IPS").

On IPS, we got users from all over the world and their English level isn't always very good. But, as long as one person can understand what they are saying, it's not an issue. Because then, this person will edit the question/answer, correct grammar and spelling error, bad formatting, etc…

As a non-native English speaker myself, I don't think I ever posted something that wasn't then edited (to remove grammar error, spelling error, etc…) It's not an issue and I also do the same for people whose English level is below mine.

So, knowing that, editing someone else post to replace "he/she" by "they" shouldn't be an issue as long as a proper explanation is given (in the edit text message or in comment below the post).

In fact (if I'm not miss-remembering) someone already did so in the past at my benefit. I'm using "they/them" pronouns and a post that was talking about me using binary pronouns (he or she) was edited to use "they/them" instead.

  • 6
    I think the worry is that people will still be penalised for using he/she even if it’s later edited out. This also doesn’t broach the issue of comments. And finally, is “they” always allowed? Again, the impression I got from the recent drama is that “they” is misgendering if the user has requested a different pronoun. What a world we live in... – Tim Oct 4 at 16:45
  • 3
    @Tim If someone keeps using "he" after I told them several time to use "they" instead, that's not a bad level of English, it's plain disrespect. Same thing is someone keeps using "he/she" after they have been told, several time, by mods, to use "they" instead. But no, I don't think anyone expects anyone to know every rule the first time around. – BelovedFool Oct 4 at 16:51
  • 3
    my argument was the other way round. Can I use they for everyone (as I pretty much do now, both online and offline)? Or is that misgendering if someone requests He, Xir or Tem? – Tim Oct 4 at 16:55
  • 4
    @Tim This is just my opinion, but I think using "they" for everyone is fine. However, if someone asks you to use another pronoun and you keep not doing that, so much that the other person thinks you are doing it on purpose (and not because you just forgot), then it becomes rude (especially if you remember to use "he" for user X and "she" for user Y, but not "xir" for user Z). – BelovedFool Oct 4 at 17:11
  • 7
    @Ælis, or it's someone whose native language is part of the Sino-Tibetan family (Mandarin, Cantonese, etc.), the Indo-Aryan family (Hindi, Bengali, etc.), or a number of less-common language families. About half the world's population learned to speak using languages that don't change third-person pronouns based on the subject's gender, and have difficulty remembering to do so when speaking English. – Mark Oct 4 at 20:41
  • @Mark Well, using "they" for everyone should be easier then ^^ – BelovedFool Oct 4 at 20:48
4

As far as I'm concerned: none at all. I have come across one or two cases where the asker was using Google Translate to post questions and comments, and then using it again to understand responses.

If Google Translate helps someone use this site to post something comprehensible, and then read responses to derive some utility in participating here, I can't have objections to their being here.

I have also come across one or two cases where the asker was asking questions and posting comments that none of us could understand. It was English, but essentially gibberish. They also ignored repeated warnings, which eventually earned them bans. If they were trolling, that's the end of that. If they were people who were trying to participate in good faith, I suppose they'll have to wait until Google Translate works well enough between their languages and English.

  • 2
    Using Google Translate usually results in incomprehensible or nearly incomprehensible posts. The posts are only understandable if knowing both languages (to be able to guess what an original word was and have a chance to correct the machine translation). I tried it once on the Danish Wikipedia for what was clearly a machine translated article from English to Danish. In retrospect it was not worth it, and it would probably have been faster to do a manual translation. – Peter Mortensen Oct 5 at 2:31
1

It’s pretty simple: If you don’t understand why someone made an edit, you can ping them.

It’s a shame that it’s not more obvious that you can even ping editors, but that’s a pretty simple change that already has several feature requests.

There’s no need to make it any more complicated than that.

  • 2
    I'm not sure how that helps. People that would like to be addressed gender neutral would probably not want to edit any post addressed at them and for example comments cannot be edited at all. – nvoigt Oct 5 at 7:47

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .