Tuesday, 2 May 2017

"Gender free" THEY General or Singular?

#THEY and what good grammar and good design have in common


Last week I blundered into a discussion of the usage of THEY as a singular pronoun and argued unsuccessfully AGAINST it and had people claim I must be a "white patriarchal ...." etc etc etc

Yes I know English lacks UNgendered pronouns but most of the usages cited of THEY by others who claims it is and can be SINGULAR actually are not.

My issue with using UNgendered pronouns is one of SEMANTICS and AMBIGUITY  also the use and abuse of concepts like "binary constructs".

The problem overlooked is that biological or social gender is NOT the only binary distinction or contrast of many pronouns. A lot of cited examples of "singular" usage or "notional plurals" that I saw during my research could also be described as usage of they their and them as GENERAL forms.

The GENERAL versus SPECIFIC contrast is equally important in English.

Lets look at this sentence.

Alex brought THEIR laptop to work.

A certain type of theorist states that this colloquial usage is not just okay but wonderful because its gender free!

I don't care what biological or social or sexual gender Alex identifies with however ...


Using THEIR instead of his her or this or that ONLY tells us Alex brought a laptop to work not who owns it or for what purpose. Alex could have been repairing or fixing some one else's laptop and brought it to work to return it to the owner.

THEY is a PRONOUN used to describe NUMBER often in a GENERAL context.

Anyone can claim they have no gender or they were alone but one is not many?


is paradoxical which is fine and useful in some contexts but if you want to be more precise you could use this or that or not?

So what has this to do with DESIGN?

I've noticed the following parallels.

White Space / Punctuation
Rule of 3 / minimizing use of non primary clauses
Minimal adjective / adverbs / Minimal use of ornament

Complex structure in paragraphs requires grammar to convey meaning

Complex detail on an object requires organised pattern

Now I'm pushing the parallels further into speculation

Prounoun agreement is like Color Harmony?

Using the right word is like using the right medium or tool?

Saying THEY THEM THEIR is singular or a valid replacement for SINGULAR forms is a matter of context. Your friends and personal acquaintances may know its your personal style and preference but other people are going to be thinking WTF are they being so vague ?

Your choice: Ideology or Information?

Design parallel: Insisting THEY is singular cos you say so and its deconstructist, post-strucuturalism, or  genderfree, is like telling a customer despite them asking for an original print or drawing that they will be sent a digital copy of a file or vice versa.

THEY may be evolving towards becoming a GENERAL pronoun but please don't confuse GENERAL with Singular?