for a native speaker to explain 'their' mother tongue [gender neutral pronoun]

Discussion in 'English Only' started by dec-sev, Jul 5, 2009.

  1. dec-sev Senior Member

    It’s from a thread in the Russian forum. I’ve always thought that it should be “his mother tongue”.
    I know that after “everybody”, “everything”, “no one” the verb should be in singular form and pronouns must be singular as well.

    Everybody who has not purchased a ticket should be in this line.
    (TOEFL preparation guide by Michael A. Pyle, M.A., Mary Ellen Muñoz, M.A.)

    True, that in that book it’s said “in formal written English”, still I’m interested in your opinions.
  2. LA_Andaluza

    LA_Andaluza Senior Member

    Español (Spain)

    "Singular they" is a popular, non-technical expression for uses of the pronoun they when plurality is not required by the context.
    For example, in the sentence "Anyone who thinks they have been affected should contact their doctor".
  3. LA_Andaluza

    LA_Andaluza Senior Member

    Español (Spain)
    Hi again
    In your sentence "it can be extremely difficult for a native speaker to explain their mother tongue", the native speaker can be a man or a woman... so why use "his" and not "her"?
  4. ms.creant Junior Member

    english (canadian)
    Well yes, dec-sev, it should be singular but the problem is that English 3rd person singular pronouns are gender-specific. Though historically, a non-specified gender would be, by default, masculine, there is a critique that doing this reinforces notions of male supremacy by positioning masculine as the default. The same critique is used against phrases such as "man-kind".

    Though sometimes people will use female pronouns instead, or switch between masculine and feminine pronouns, it has become common for the 3rd person plural to also be used as a 3rd person singular pronoun.

    Also, there are many people who themselves identify as neither male nor female, and use the pronouns "they/them".

    There have been attempts at creating other gender-neutral pronouns, such as "hir" or "ze" but that is used pretty exclusively by individuals who don't identify as male or female (in the same way as I mentioned above).

    Hope this helps.
  5. Kevin Beach

    Kevin Beach Senior Member

    English suffers from lack of a set of common singular pronouns. As the current colloquial attitude is that neither gender should be used when the sex of the person it refers to is unknown, we are increasingly adopting "they" and its declension as the common singular.

    Until fairly recent times though, it would have been mandatory to use "he" in formal speech and writing, because there was a convention that the masculine pronouns were used when the sex was unknown.
  6. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    Hi dec-sev

    If you input gender neutral into Dictionary Look-up and selct the English definition dictionary, you'll find a longish list of previous EO threads: click.
  7. dec-sev Senior Member

    I know, but not only in English.

    Ok, I got it -- feminists have taken up linguistics :) Sorry it this sounds rude but if, for example in Russian the word speaker is masculine and it's Ok to use a correspondent pronoun. I don't see anything discriminating here, but it's nothing but my opinion. Some time ago there was a similar discussion in the German forum. As far as I remember the majority opted for using masculine pronoun.

    To make women happy, I quess :) To be serious, I don't think it's a good option and only can cause confusion. I've seen lots of "he/she", but I myself never use this form.

    Sorry, but this is above me :)

    Idiotism. Sorry for being so caregorical.
    First I have to digest it, then I'll tell you if it helped of not :) But it was very interesting indeed. Thank you.

    What do you mean with "Until fairly recent times"? As far as I know this "he rule" is still valid and nothing of "they" has been adopted as a grammar rule. I know that the language is something that changes with laps of time but I cannot just say something because I
    I like it to be told this way. In other words, suppose I have an exam tomorrow. There is the sentence I've given above and variants "his" and "their". What should I opt for? To choose "their" and when the teacher proves me wrong accuse him of being sexual discriminist? :)
  8. De paula Junior Member

    USA California
    Here are a couple of alternatives:

    I know it can be extremely difficult for a native speaker to explain his or her own language.

    I know it can be extremely difficult for native speakers to explain their own language.

    I hoped that helped!
  9. johndot Senior Member

    English - England
    I believe that the popularity of the ‘singular they’ is due to laziness on the part of the speaker or writer. I’m sure that those who use it think to themselves, “Uh-oh, there’s pronoun coming up and I’d better be pc, so I’ll chuck in a they—that’ll do the trick.”

    Unfortunately, this laziness has a knock-on effect, because the written or spoken words are rendered confusing to the audience (especially when that audience consists of foreign students): who or what is the antecedent of they when there isn’t a plural noun in sight? Thus, to my way of thinking, what started out as laziness has turned into downright rudeness, because the author is, with pompous inconsiderateness, expecting the reader to work it out alone.

    I do not believe that it is not possible to circumvent this ‘singular they’ travesty with the utmost ease, wherever it occurs. In the given example, the thread title, the full sentence in post #1 is: I know that it can be extremely difficult for a native speaker to explain their mother tongue. But with one (key)stroke (fewer) this can be made to read I know that it can be extremely difficult for native speakers to explain their mother tongue.

    Job done. Grammatically and politically correct. And it really wasn’t hard work. (I see De paula has just suggested it, too.)

    (In my next rant I’ll have a go at mother tongue; I mean, how un-PC is that? But, no, of course I won’t—because it doesn’t really matter does it? It doesn’t really offend fathers, does it? We’re all grown-ups, after all, aren’t we?)
  10. Kevin Beach

    Kevin Beach Senior Member

    You've exemplified one of the problems about teaching languages, which is that teachers tend to rely on rigid rules that are sometimes artificial and occasionally obsolete.

    I consider it unhelpful to look on "rules" of grammar as though they were carved in stone. One of the things that a detailed study of language tells us is that no language is ever static. In my view, belief in and attempts to adhere to strict grammatical rules are no older than 200 years and may be younger. It was a phase, approximately commensurate with the introduction of compulsory universal education (which happened in 1870 in the UK). During the half century that I have been aware of English usage, it has diminished in the UK and, I suspect, in the USA too.

    At the end of the day, the correct use of a language is the use adopted by the majority of its speakers from time to time; nothing more. The trick of passing exams, though, is not necessarily giving the "right" answer, but giving the answer the examiner wants. If you are taking an exam set by a lover of rules for their own sake, you have to follow their scheme. If you have studied adequately and been properly prepared for the exam by your tutor, you should know the answer to the "his/their" question, even if it isn't the answer that another examiner would want.
    Last edited: Jul 5, 2009
  11. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    Well said, Kevin!

    Just to add - singular they/them/their is by no means a new development. To quote from this site (which gives a potted history):
  12. dec-sev Senior Member

    Do you really think that I was not able to come to the idea myself? :) It was not my question at all.
    I’ll lay on the colours too thickly to make my point:
    I consider it unhelpful to look on traffic rules as though they were carved in stone.
    To tell you the truth, I don’t understand why the word “rules” is in quotes.
    And even it’s prohibited by traffic rules to break the speed limit, this is done every now and then by English-speakers :)
    The only difference between traffic rules and grammar rules is that if we break the former out lives can be in danger.
    There was a grammar reform in Germany some years ago. I don’t know much about it, something like instead of daß you should write “dass” now. I don’t know what difference it has done. But if there is a real necessity to “legitimize” “single they” why on earth it has not been done so far?
    Could you please explain it to me, what it means? I mean when a person identifies themselves :) as neither male nor female.
    @moderators. If you consider the question to be off-topic, please don’t delete it, just split the thread.
  13. Dimcl Senior Member

    British Columbia, Canada
    Canadian English
    On some forums, I choose not to reveal my gender because some posters moderate (or not) their opinions, based on who they believe they're responding to. On such a forum, someone might say this to me:

    "I know that it can be extremely difficult for a native speaker to explain their mother tongue."

    They use "their" simply because they don't know what gender I am.
  14. dec-sev Senior Member

    Ups, I understood "to identify themselves" as to recognize onself as neither a man nor a woman. Something like nothing from another planet.
    But if you speak to a person in Russian not knowing the gender extremely complicates the communication. For those interested, just open a start page of the Russian forum and read Jana's announcement about sex. It's short but instructive and written in English.
  15. Kevin Beach

    Kevin Beach Senior Member

    I put "rules" in quotes because I regard rules of grammar as descriptions rather than prescriptions. As a lawyer, I am very guarded about what I will recognise as a real rule.

    The reason why the single "they" has not been legitimised is that there is no legitimising body for the use of English. And the reason for that is that English is too widely spoken and too varied for there to be any agreement on how one would start to create an authority. If there were to be, say, an "English Academy", then as a Briton I would say that it should be based in England, the language's birthplace. However, Americans would probably lay claim to it too, because the USA contains the largest number of native English speakers. Yet India, with a much larger propluation than the USA and where English is widely spoken as an official language, might say that hers is the better claim. Just comparing the way that English is used in those three countries shows how it could take generations even to agree on siting the Academy.

    Meanwhile, we global millions who use English daily are tending more and more to use they, them and their(s) as singular pronouns to the extent that usage alone is legitimising them.
  16. pickarooney

    pickarooney Senior Member

    Provence, France
    English (Ireland)
    Surely the notions of hermpahroditism and transsexuality exist in Russian?

    Neither is a valid reason for substituting 'his' for 'their' in the original sentence though.
  17. panjandrum

    panjandrum PongoMod

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    I suspect that most/all of the above has been said before several times in the threads linked from the Frequently Asked Questions post in the forum sticky:

    READ this before you post: English Only Guidelines— forum rules, FAQs, and some very useful links, too.

    Gender neutral pronouns - What pronoun to use with a 3rd person singular precedent.

    The titles indicate some threads that explain the historic precedent for the use of they/their as a singular pronoun. This is not a 20th century novelty.
  18. Kevin Beach

    Kevin Beach Senior Member

    I once had this debate with a friend. He suggested that a new pronoun be formed from all the others, by taking the S from "she", the H from "he" and adding them to IT.

    We stopped there and had another drink.
  19. MichaelW Senior Member

    English (British)
    In Russian (dec-sev's mother tongue), case-endings for pronouns, nouns, verbs etc agree in number, case and gender and it would be perplexing (and wrong) to switch number halfway through a sentence.

    English is nowhere near as inflected and so these things are possible without any problems.

    The same applies to dec-sev's other recent thread "There's some things".
    Last edited: Jul 6, 2009
  20. dec-sev Senior Member

    Exactly! Thank you, Michael, for mentioning this.
    :) Thank you for the explanation about non-existing "English Academy" You know I was born and went to school in the USSR, and in every soviet school-book there was an inscription "The book has been approved by the ministry of education of the USSR". I know that English is the official language not only in England, but I had never thought about this problem ("governing the language") before. I wonder if Spanish speakers have the same problem. I know this is off-topic. Please, do not answer.

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