Tuesday, August 14, 2007

I, We, You, They, Argh, Argh, Argh

Pronouns are the poor cousins of the English language; though they're definitely part of the family, everybody else considers them kind of embarrassing and wishes they would just go away. Without pronouns, our sentences would all be a hell of a lot longer. Yet their presence tends to send writers into agonies of doubt. One/you/we has/have to be awfully careful about which pronouns one/you/we deploy(s) in a given situation if one/you/we do(es) not want to get oneself/yourself/ourselves into hot semantic waters. The preceding hideous sentence is probably a case in point.

One of my acquaintances once informed me and several others that his teachers and professors had forbidden him to use pronouns--any pronouns--in formal writing. He tended to write as follows:

It is wondered why the people here feel that using pronouns is allowed. It was always explained that no pronouns were ever to be used. It is felt that this method is most professional.

It is believed that this person had either really bad teachers or a tendency not to listen in class. It is also considered ironic that "it" is actually a pronoun itself.

There is nothing wrong with pronouns. They are useful little beasts, though finding the right ones to use in particular situations is sometimes not easy. Avoiding them will leave you in the unfortunate position of my misguided acquaintance, tying yourself into knots to avoid the word "I" or even the words "he" or "she." Do not let this sort of thing happen to you.

Below is a rundown of all the pronouns and how they should (or shouldn't) be used in formal essays.

1) I/me/my/mine/myself: The first-person singular pronoun has quite possibly been responsible for more markers' headaches than any other word in the English language.* "I" is a fine and useful word, but high-school teachers hate it; as far as I have been able to gather, most of them forbid their students from ever using it in formal essays. They explain to their students that "I" is the ultimate in subjective words. An essay inundated by "I"s is a piece of personal opinion, not an objective, analytic work. Students should thus never, ever include "I" in an essay.

Like the sandwich method, this silly rule has a purpose behind it. Overly subjective essays are problematic, and a writer who sprinkles her writing with "I"s is certainly being overly subjective. However, again like the sandwich method, the banning of "I" is rather too much of a good thing. A student not allowed to use "I" may instead write:

The author of this essay believes that this method is less than useful.

"The author of this essay" is an ugly, ugly phrase. It also has more or less the same meaning as "I." Teachers have not expunged the "I"; they have disguised it.

According to a few of my far-flung friends and acquaintances, some university professors continue this idiotic forbidding of the word "I." All the professors I have met do not continue it. Check with your profs if you're in doubt, but generally, "I" is a perfectly acceptable word to use in a humanities paper. You shouldn't over-use it, but you shouldn't over-use any word. If you need to refer to yourself, use "I." Really. Do not refer to yourself as "the author" or "the writer." Do not resort to the passive voice ("It has been shown that this proposition is true"). The passive can be useful on rare occasions,** but a paper that uses nothing but the passive in order to avoid the word "I" often comes across as vague and uncertain.

I should add that people in the sciences may not want to be listening to me here. The sciences have their own writing conventions; some of my scientist friends tell me that their profs insist on them using the passive voice rather than resorting to "I" or "we." Others say that the convention is changing and the use of the active voice is coming back into vogue. If in doubt, check with your professors.

2) We/us/our/ours/ourselves:
Students terrorised into never using "I" sometimes fall back on "we." "We" may appear as a blatant "I" substitute:

We believe that this idea is incorrect.

or as an "everybody in the whole world" substitute:

We are social beings. Our impulse is to yearn for others of our species.

Both usages are problematic. When markers come across a random "we" or "us," they tend to write, "Who are 'we'?" In the first case, there is no "we"; there is an "I." If you believe that this idea is incorrect, say so; don't hide behind a non-existent "we." A "we" may appear here if the paper has more than one author, but if you are an undergraduate humanities student, it probably doesn't.

In the second case, there is no "we" either. "We" are social beings, are "we"? Are "we" human beings? residents of a particular country or community? university students? nineteen-year-old Canadian male undergraduates from Guelph? To fall back on the "we" is to flirt with generalisation, and to flirt with generalisation is to risk your papers coming back dripping with red ink. A marker might ask the author of the second blue passage above if "we" are really a collective whole. Do all human beings yearn for others of their species? Are there no exceptions?

Where at all possible, avoid "we" in formal writing. It gives the reader the wrong idea about what "we" (who are we?) think.

3) You/your/yours/yourself/yourselves: Oh dear. Good old reliable "you." You like it, don't you? You often use it just as I am using it now: to refer to your reader as if he is sitting across from you, hanging on your every word. You believe that using the word "you" is a great way to avoid having to write "the reader," "the audience," or "one" all the time.

You are wrong.

I'm sorry, but I am writing semi-formally. You are writing formally. Most professors consider "you" a colloquialism: an overly familiar word that identifies a piece of writing as informal or amateur. Part of the problem is that the word "you" is gradually replacing the word "one" as a universal pronoun. Instead of "One may at first consider this poem to be trite," people tend to write (or, more likely, say), "You may at first consider this poem to be trite." The word "you" sounds, to our ears, less stuffy than "one." It also implies a rapport with the reader.

Again, I am allowed to establish such a rapport because I am writing semi-formally. You need to stay away from it. You are not writing formally so that you can get all chummy with your readers. You need to keep your distance from them. Avoid "you."

4) He/him/his/himself, she/her/hers/herself, and they/them/their/theirs/themselves: "He" and "she," the third-person singular pronouns, may not create as many headaches as "I," but not for lack of trying. As recently as half a century ago, "he" was considered a gender-neutral word; if you were unsure as to whether you were referring to a man or a woman, you could choose "he." Now, many people consider such language sexist. The reframing of "he" as exclusively masculine has left the English language without a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun.

Hundreds of years ago,*** English was a gendered language. It had three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. The distinction now remains almost exclusively in the language's pronouns; nouns are all neuter, taking the universal, non-gendered articles "a" and "the." The old genders are also still present, slightly disguised, in many noun forms, especially their plural and possessive variants (if you don't know what I'm talking about, you're probably more or less better off not knowing, but trust me: English nouns used to change their forms depending on their roles in a given sentence).

Unfortunately, the whole business with "he" referring only to a male and "she" only to a female has left us with a gap in the language. A person is not an "it"...so what is "the reader" or "the writer"? What is "the child" or "the parent"?

If you know the sex of your subject, you are going to pick either "he" or "she" and not worry about the issue further.**** If you don't, you're in trouble. All of us are in trouble when we start scrabbling for a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun. There isn't one. I'm sorry, but there isn't.

"They" is not a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun.

If I could make this sentence flash on and off in different colours, then leap from the screen and inscribe itself upon your eyeballs in letters of fiery death, I would be hunting up the necessary code right now. I don't care what the Oxford English Dictionary says. I don't care how many citations of "they" as singular you can find in obscure nineteenth-century newspaper articles. I don't care what your bloody high-school teachers have told you. "They" is not a goddamned gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun. If you use it as one, you are going to look unprofessional and sound colloquial. This sentence is not okay:

If someone who is hiking in the mountains comes across a bear, they should make themselves look as big as possible.

Neither is this one:

When one reads a novel, they should pay particular attention to its syntax.

"Someone" is singular. It does not take a plural pronoun. "One" is a distinct pronoun. It has nothing to do with the word "they." When one reads a novel, one should pay particular attention to its syntax. Not they. One. Not they. One. Not they. One. Are you getting this at all?

I forbid you to use "they" as a singular third-person pronoun. If you ever do so again, I shall know, and I shall track you down and make you change the word to something less completely wrong. I shall also correct all your commas and make you tell me the difference between "that" and "which."

I'll come back to this problem in a moment, but first, I should comment on the last two pronouns:

5) One/one's/oneself: "One" is an easy word to hate. If one overuses it, one's writing takes on a certain snooty quality that one probably does not want it to have. However, I am rather fond of "one." It allows one to avoid the colloquial "you" and gives one an out if one finds oneself confronted with the prospect of having to use a gender-neutral singular third-person pronoun. In fact, "one" is the closest thing to a gender-neutral singular third-person pronoun that the English language has.

Some people despise it. That's understandable. "One" has a certain nineteenth-century feel to it; it strikes many as archaic. However, don't scorn it, and don't abandon it for "you." "One" is acceptable--albeit an acquired taste--in formal writing.

"One's" is the only possessive pronoun that takes an apostrophe.

6) It/its/itself: The use of "it" as a conventional replacement for a noun is fairly straightforward; as long as you understand that most nouns that do not relate to human beings (or, in some anthropomorphic cases, gods, animals, monsters, boats,***** and so on) take "it" as a pronoun, you'll be fine. Yet "it" has another interesting function. Witness:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

That one is by Jane Austen, whose understanding of the role of the comma is not the same as mine.****** Her "It is," however, is a good illustration of the way writers will use "it" not to refer to a concrete noun but to emphasise a subject. The first bit of that sentence could easily read, "A truth universally acknowledged is that...." It doesn't. The phrase "It is" allows the writer to rearrange sentences so that they highlight different words and concepts and follow different rhythms. "There is" is another such phrase. In both cases, a reader asking the questions "What is?" or "Where is?" would get no answer. "It is" and "There is" are known, together, as expletives.*******

Many markers hate expletives for the same reasons that many markers hate the passive voice, the word "I," the phrase "in conclusion," and the opener "Since the dawn of time": these expressions are all over-used. Over-use of expletives will actually lead to a marker losing it and writing, "What is? Where? Why? How? What are you talking about? I am lost and confused, and I want chocolate!" in the margins of your papers. An essay littered with expletives will probably seem rather vague. If you are wise, you will actively try to eliminate them from your writing, not because it is horrible to have one or two expletives per paper but because it is horrible to have seventeen or eighteen expletives per page. Many writers use them without consciously thinking about what they are doing. Train yourself to recognise and get rid of expletives; once you have succeeded in banishing them from your writing, you can cautiously allow a few of them to return under controlled circumstances.

This segment may also be a good place to make the following point:

"It's" = "it is." "It's" also = a contraction. Unless you are quoting someone, you will never, ever use "it's" in a formal essay. If you do, I shall scream at you.

"Its" = the possessive form of "it." Use it as often as you like.


The question remains: what do you do when confronted with a situation in which you have to use a gender-neutral singular third-person pronoun? There are several options. None of them is pretty.

1) Use "one." As I said above, there is technically nothing wrong with "one." It may sound conceited to you, but it is not colloquial or overly awkward. Use it if you have to do so. Unfortunately, "one" doesn't always work; sometimes, you really do have to mention "the reader" or "the writer," and neither takes "one" as a pronoun.

2) Use "s/he," "him/her," and "his/her." Yes. I'm sorry about this one. These "words" are extraordinarily ugly, and I avoid them unless I have absolutely no other option. Yet I'll take the hideousness of "s/he" over the utter horror of singular "they" any day. "The reader must forget their assumptions" is wrong. "The reader" is singular. "Their" is plural. I know some people swear by singular "they," and yes, it is used a lot orally, but in formal writing, "they" is still freaking plural. "The reader must forget his/her assumptions" is cringe-inducingly awkward, but at least "his/her" is singular.

3) Use the plural. This solution is more elegant than #2, though as with "one," it is not always possible. Why must you write only of a single (inclusively representative) reader? What's wrong with, "Readers must forget their assumptions"?

4) Alternate "he" with "she." I am using this method here. I don't like it, but as I refuse to use the singular "they," it is just about the only halfway elegant option left to me. If you are using examples and find you must gender them (e.g., "When a writer goes to brainstorm ideas for her essay..."), call the first "writer" (or "reader" or "athlete" or "podiatrist") either "he" or "she"; use the other gender for the next "writer" (or whatever). Inevitably, people who use this method will find themselves accused of sexism ("Why is the 'teacher' male and the 'student' female? Are you working with gender stereotypes here?"). Ignore the accusations and soldier on.

5) Use singular "they," but only if you want me to denounce you. 'Nuff said.

Many readers are going to be unhappy with today's entry. I shall get people contacting me to tell me that by rejecting the singular "they," I am stubbornly refusing to go with the flow of a changing, growing language. I am going to have to say that I respectfully******** disagree with these people. The language can change all it likes, but "they" is not yet acceptable in formal writing as a singular third-person pronoun, and I'm not going to pretend that it is. Use it informally if you must; just keep it the hell away from your essays.

Next time, I'm going to talk a little bit about certain common essay formulae and how they deserved to be tied to bricks and drowned in the ocean.

*With, perhaps, the exception of "they."
**And eventually, I shall rant about how and why.
***I am allowed to use the phrase "hundreds of years ago" here because it happens to be true.
****Yes, deluded acquaintance who never uses pronouns in formal writing (or, in fact, in writing of any sort): you may use "he" and "she." Please do not ever compose such a sentence: "Shakespeare refers to Shakespeare's own history when Shakespeare writes in Shakespeare's famous Shakespearean sonnet: '[Shakespeare's] mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun.'"
*****Yes, boats. Boats are female. Intriguingly, the Old English word "scip" is actually neuter. I suppose poets can probably be blamed for the whole boats-as-women thing. Possibly sailors as well, for different reasons.
******Jane Austen's understanding of the role of the comma, being an early-nineteenth-century one, does not count here.
*******Except not the kind you use when your landlord tries you evict you for paying your rent half a day late.
********Though not that respectfully. Damn, that's a lot of asterisks. I need a better footnoting method.

17 comments:

Fernando said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Fernando said...

I could not agree more that "'They' is not a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun." However, Canadian Immigration Law, which is supposed to be as clear as it can get, exhaustively "misuse" such a pronoun.

http://laws.justice.gc.ca/en/ShowFullDoc/cr/SOR-2002-227///en
(just search for "their")

Do you have any comments on this matter?

Yours truly,
Fachin

P.S. Don't worry; I am not going to sue you or throw you in jail.

Kem said...

Fernando: The whole "singular they" thing has now got so out of hand that all we can really do is grit our teeth and lock ourselves into our impenetrable towers of traditionalist denial. I have heard many persuasive arguments from fans of the singular "they": 1) English has no gender-neutral third-person singular, 2) "they" is much less awkward than "he or she" or the universally despised "s/he," 3) the singular "they" is "too hard" to avoid, 4) there is historical precedent for it (granted), and so on. Many official bodies--and a lot of newspapers--use it now. All I can do is shake my fist in rage and cry, "The word 'they' is plural, damn you! Plural! PLUUUUURRRRRRRAAAAAAALLLLLL!"

Oh, wait: that's not all I can do. I can also bend my wrath upon my undergraduates and frighten the living daylights out of them so as to create in them an acute aversion to the singular "they." Yes, I can.

Fernando said...

Usage always wins. But I do admire your efforts to convince mindless unbelievers that "they" is plural.

Professor Catalist said...

As long as they are unbelievers, you have a chance to change their behavior, albeit slight. It is the true believer who is cannot be introspective enough to absorb this criticism and consequently modify his or her behavior appropriately. Mindlessness is of less importance.

Fernando said...

What about the use of "s/he"? I find the excessive use of "he or she" extremely annoying - replacing it by "they" isn't much better either. Anyway, I kind of like "s/he," as it flows quite ok.

Kem said...

I'm not really opposed to "s/he," but I know many people who are. I use it when I have no other option. The one big problem with it (besides the "ugliness" that some see it as having) is that it is unpronounceable.

Fernando said...

It is plastically ugly indeed, but not unpronounceable; the reader decides whether s/he wants to read "he," "she," or "he or she."

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Ben Ariva said...
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Ben Ariva said...

A sparkle of light in the darkness of obsession and confusion.

Thanks a lot. I am called to write a little essay in order to demonstrate that i can say something in english. And I am becoming crazy... No, I already was...
Anyway, it is maybe fifteen years i don't write a real essay, not even in my own language.
And now I am struggling to study how a good essay should be written... And my demon of Confusion boils:
Now they say I should be writing an Academic Essay, which is an Opinion Essay, 'cause I am called to give my own personal point of view. Because of that I should not use the pronoun "I"; and "we,he,she,they,one,..." neither. I should not be using "there is/ There are". And I should write in a passive not active, semi-academic, semi-formal, semi-personal register.
To sum it up, I can't even say "Hi", and I fear I will fail miserably, because of my inability to express my thoughts clearly, my incapacity to imagine who is going to ready my 250 words of incompetence, the lacking of even the most basic notions of the english language, and, more importantly, my contorted philosophical and individualistic ideas.
Thanks for this space

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