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They are a woman (29 Mar 2005 at 16:08)
Ok, they-as-third-person-singular-pronoun apologists, do you not agree that this usage makes senator Clinton sound like an idiot?

[The gaming industry] teaches kids it's OK to diss people because they are a woman, [...]
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Tom 7 (gs82.sp.cs.cmu.edu) – 03.29.05 16:10:30
Anyway, it could be worse; see: http://radar.spacebar.org/f/a/weblog/comment/1/603
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Tom 7 (gs82.sp.cs.cmu.edu) – 03.29.05 16:11:36
And, ironically, that last post came from when I was working on the submission for the prequel of the paper I'm editing now. Get back to work!
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Max (ce-web3.wesleyan.edu) – 03.29.05 16:50:42
Actually, I think there are many reasons why she sounds like an idiot here, including the use of the word, 'diss'.

Really, it's just her idiotic construction of the sentence in the first place more than her use of the TATPSP, because "...because he or she is a woman..." would probably sound even more idiotic...
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Tom 7 (gs82.sp.cs.cmu.edu) – 03.29.05 16:58:40
That's part of my point: aside from all of the problems with this sentence, the pronoun 'she' works great because we're talking about women! Why not just use it?
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jetfuel (rhydon.omnigroup.com) – 03.29.05 17:06:07
"They" is a good pronoun when the gender is unknown or irrelevant. As for this speaker, they have taken it too far. :D
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http://catamorphism.livejournal.com/ (198.144.202.78) – 03.29.05 17:52:11
It's not "they" that's the problem -- "diss people because they are women", or "diss people because they are female", would be completely correct.
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nebulawindphone (c-67-171-71-142.client.comcast.net) – 03.29.05 17:52:13
There's no need for the singular here, either. "...okay to diss people because they're women..." would have been just as good.
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Tom 7 (gs82.sp.cs.cmu.edu) – 03.29.05 17:57:10
catamorphism, I disagree: I think that the use of 'they' as a singular pronoun caused the speaker to be confused. There are, however, many other ways of saying this, including perfectly good uses of 'they' (like you point out).
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Anonymous (cobamide4.bio.pitt.edu) – 03.29.05 19:23:36
Tom, why do you hate women so much?
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Tom 7 (h-67-101-139-227.phlapafg.dynamic.covad.net) – 03.29.05 19:24:56
Very funny Heather. ;)
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Donna (pool-141-158-121-37.pitt.east.verizon.net) – 03.29.05 23:50:55
She used the word 'diss', therefore I ignored the rest of the sentence. :)
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jcreed (wittgenstein.wv.cc.cmu.edu) – 03.30.05 00:42:19
Yeah, some grammatical verb phrases, to my ear are:

(1) "insult a person just because they're a woman"
(2) "insult a person just because she's a woman"
(3) "insult people just because they're women"

The given one,
"insult people just because they're a woman"
sounds wrong to me because, as catamporphism pointed out, there's number disagreement. I have no problem reading "they" as third-person plural and third-person singular (just as I have no problem hearing "who" as being nominative and accusative - have we already argued about this point? Do you think people are wrong for not ever using "whom"? Does eliminating "whom" make the language more/less elegant or consistent?) but that sentence contradictorily forces both interpretations, the singular interpretation from the (syntactically "plural" in the conjugation of "to be", but semantically singular) "they're a woman", the plural interpretation coming of course from "people".

In fact I would slightly prefer (1) to (2), because the noun person still sounds gender-neutral to my ear as a noun, even though later context means it's female.
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cdqr (ool-435392aa.dyn.optonline.net) – 03.30.05 01:03:31
Let's give Clinton the benefit of the doubt. Note that we obtain a perfectly grammatical sentence if we parse "they" as an anaphoric reference to "kids". Try it! The kids are a woman; therefore, the gaming industry teaches them it's OK to diss people. It seems to me the gaming industry is both sexist <em>and</em> possessed of a voodoo theory of compound beings.
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cdqr (ool-435392aa.dyn.optonline.net) – 03.30.05 01:12:32
Well, that certainly falsified my theory of italics-production. Whither semantic markup, I ask you?
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Marc (c-24-62-124-147.hsd1.ma.comcast.net) – 03.30.05 09:29:27
Tom, this isn't necessarily an instance of "the use of 'they' as a singular pronoun" since "they" references "people" which is plural. It's just that it then is messed up by switching to singular after that point ("a woman"), which is what shouldn't have happened.
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Dwindlehop (c-24-20-130-246.client.comcast.net) – 03.30.05 11:07:05
Why, no, I believe the underlying point she was trying to express makes her sound like an idiot.
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Tom 7 (h-67-100-132-172.phlapafg.dynamic.covad.net) – 03.30.05 11:36:36
cdqr, hah!

marc: My point is that using T-A-S-P like this tends to lead to confusion over number agreement, which leads to even grosser grammatical problems. I'm not trying to say that this is a use that staunch T-A-S-P defenders like jcreed would accept.

Moreover, this is an easy sentence to express, unambiguously and unsexistly, if you don't try to use 'they,' which is at least one data point in the argument over whether such a pronoun is needed.
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jcreed (wittgenstein.wv.cc.cmu.edu) – 03.30.05 12:48:06
I disagree that observing that number disagreement is still possible means that TASP "leads to" more confusion.
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Tom 7 (gs82.sp.cs.cmu.edu) – 03.30.05 16:33:49
That's not the only thing I'm observing. I think that this specific disagreement would not have happened if it hadn't been for the speaker's habit of using TASP. The correlation of number disagreement with the use of TASP here (which "most" consider a mistake, but surely apologists at least agree that TASP is "overloaded" in a bad way with regard to its plurality) is surely a data point in favor of the "leads to" hypothesis.

Nobody with the intellectual ability of (even) Hillary Clinton would have made this kind of mistake if he or she just avoided TASP in the first place.
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Max (ce-web3.wesleyan.edu) – 03.30.05 17:38:47
Right, Hillary Clinton would have been fine if he or she avoided TASP!
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jcreed (pool-71-240-3-218.pitt.east.verizon.net) – 03.31.05 09:47:09
This apologist doesn't think TASP is "bad overloading" any more than the singular/plural overloading on "you" is, or any more than the nominative/accusative overloading on "who" is.

In fact "you" is a terrific example, since historically early on (if I have my facts right) there was unambiguously the singular "thou" and the plural "you", but the plural "you" was co-opted into the singular number although syntactically it's still treated the same as the plural for the purposes of verb conjugation. We don't say "you is", (nor do we say "you art") we say "you are", just as we say "they are". We don't say "you walks" (nor do we say "you walkst") we say "you walk", just as we say "they walk".

Is this a problem? If we found people who say "you is" (and I bet we could) are they being more correct than us?

Few people say things like "and to the people assembled before me, I say: you are a woman" (which similarly puts pressure on you to be plural from one side and singular from the other) because it's obviously ungrammatical even according to the YASP apologist's notion of grammaticality. You're not showing that it's more likely to be confused and make mistakes with a different sense of grammaticality, you're just showing that it's possible.
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Tom 7 (gs82.sp.cs.cmu.edu) – 03.31.05 14:42:07
Again, I disagree that I'm just showing it's possible, because this is a real example spoken by a presumably intelligent person. (As a descriptivist, isn't that precisely what actually matters?) Are you saying there's correlation but not causation? It's true that it's not a very large sample size ;), but it's still an example.

Overloading is bad when it leads to ambiguity or confusion. I think I would prefer a language with different words for singular and plural 'you,' yes. Many languages have it, and we have constructions in English like "you guys" and (in Pittsburgh dialects!) "yinz" to fill the apparent need. But we don't really get to choose what's "in our language," do we? We speak within the confines of what will be intelligible to the listener, and if we're trying to speak well, we avoid saying things that will be confusing or upsetting, since that tends to distract from our message. I feel any descriptivist view of language must take this sociological process of "right" and "wrong" grammar into account! The thou/you distinction is bad (although it might "be better" if we could simultaneously make everyone not think that it sounds like dungeons and dragons or whatever) because it annoys the listener, unless he is Gary Gygax or Lord British. TASP is also bad (but it would probably "be better" if we could simultaneously make everyone not think of it as a mistake, and even better if we could introduce a different singular pronoun that is universally understood). It's bad because it annoys some listeners (because it is considered "wrong" by most "experts"), increases ambiguity, and, in my opinion (based on anecdotal evidence and one actual data point), also leads to other "mistakes" like the one(s) in Hillary's quote.

On the other hand, avoiding TASP is easy, and makes you ingelligible to just about every potential listener.
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Lord British (mheath.stu.wesleyan.edu) – 04.01.05 15:13:43
I beg thy pardon!
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Cloud Street (p32218-adsau04yokonib2-acca.kanagawa.ocn.ne.jp) – 04.01.05 23:41:04
I've got no problem with Hilary using the word 'diss' - language is meant to evolve and change. But the use of TASP is a different matter. Whereas 'diss' evolved naturally, TASP is forced down our necks by pretentious politicians and the increasingly safe media who are destroying a language in their own self interest.

By making words taboo, you only serve to increase their negative features. Words like ‘Paki’ and ‘Black’ still feature in Australia’s media and it was only after moving overseas that I considered them derogatory. As everyone is fully aware, it’s not the word but the intent that’s the issue. Remove one word and we’ll find another to use in its place. How many ‘official’ words for black have America been through now?

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FARINA00 (host226-98.pool8536.interbusiness.it) – 04.02.05 07:05:43
I didn't follow this leviathan-thread, but I just want to take the chance to tell you (Tobot or everyone? :)) that your "you are X" used both for "Tobot is X" and "Everyone is X" is our doom when learning english. Back to the roots! Back to Britannia!
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Anonymous (pcp01935919pcs.hamden01.ct.comcast.net) – 04.03.05 11:57:20
At least one of you is a purist, but I'm not sure who you are.
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Anonymous (pcp01935919pcs.hamden01.ct.comcast.net) – 04.03.05 11:59:04
I mean they and thine.
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effika (ip68-97-28-142.ok.ok.cox.net) – 04.03.05 15:10:20
When the gender is unknown, I feel that in casual context it's OK to use "they" and "their" as singular pronouns. However, Clinton clearly knew the gender of the people she was speaking of, and should have used "she", or "they are women" as given above.

TASP doesn't seem confusing to me at all. This may be because I grew up in the rural midwest and have heard it all my life. :-) Usually when TASP is needed the context supplies the count of the subject, if not the gender. (IE-- "Who do you think the winner will be?" "I don't know, but they will have to beat my mother's amazing carrot cake.")

English obviously needs a nuetral singular pronoun that isn't "it", as "it" seems to be reserved for non-human things.

I don't think TASP should be carried over into writing, but having it in the spoken vernacular solves a particular problem.

A note on the singular/plural "you" problem: I've started using "vous" when I mean plural-you. My friends thought I was crazy at first, but they started using it as well. English has taken so many other words from French, why not a prounoun?
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effika (ip68-97-28-142.ok.ok.cox.net) – 04.03.05 15:12:32
Ack, not "their" as singular. Plural. Ack.
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Sam (cpe00119506c8b1-cm000a739a6669.cpe.net.cable.rogers.com) – 04.04.05 00:19:34
That makes no sense at all. NO SENSE. Wow.. deep. Not. LOL
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Tom 7 (h-67-101-139-156.phlapafg.dynamic.covad.net) – 04.04.05 01:39:16
Thanks for your insight, Sam. ;)
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effika (ip68-97-28-142.ok.ok.cox.net) – 04.04.05 01:50:39
This place needs threaded discussions. Now I don't know if I made no sense, or if Clinton made no sense! :-)
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Marc (c-24-62-124-147.hsd1.ma.comcast.net) – 04.04.05 08:56:43
English does have a pair of gender neutral singular pronouns: ze (the person) and hir (the possessive). But unfortunately they are extremely obscure. So that said, the english language certainly does need gender neutral singular pronouns that more than 0.1% of the population knows about...
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mjn (pool-151-205-107-113.ny325.east.verizon.net) – 04.06.05 16:50:10
Well, she's certainly got the language skills of a President, I guess.

I believe I agree with Tom--probably she thought something like:
1. Hey, that should be "women".
2. No, wait, "they are a woman" is acceptable.
...and thusly forgot all about the "people".

I think the biggest problem, though, is that there are *three* possible antecedents for "they". Sheesh...

Incidentally, "you guys" is fine, but what's wrong with good old-fashioned "y'all"?

Digression: How do y'all feel about punctuation and quote marks? MLA says that punctuation goes inside a quotation, but outside a word-as-word; I think I'd prefer to have it outside all the time, actually (unless it's part of the quotation, of course)...
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Tom 7 (h-67-101-139-136.phlapafg.dynamic.covad.net) – 04.06.05 19:38:10
Typographically, I think that punctuation inside quotation marks looks better (actually, "under" the quotation marks often looks even better).

Outside of formal writing, I often break with typographic tradition, putting punctuation after quotation marks except when it's really a quotation. Examples:

There is nothing wrong with the phrase "secular humanist".

He told me, "I'm a secular humanist."

Although he's a "secular humanist," he still attends atheist church.

(In the last example there is the added benefit of reducing ambiguity.) I think I get this from programming, where languages often use quotation marks to designate string constants (putting the punctuation in there kind of violates its sanctity). But like I said, in formal writing I try to be uncontroversial.
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mmia (ip68-5-191-35.oc.oc.cox.net) – 04.08.05 10:45:45
I'm all for the epicene pronoun; and I don't mind "they" as singular in informal writing or speaking. However, only a "she" can even be a woman; the moment one uses "woman," one already exposes the gender of the party. So it is conceivable that using "she" here would not be more offensive, and could clean up the grammatical clutter.
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mmia (ip68-5-191-35.oc.oc.cox.net) – 04.08.05 10:50:37
Obviously other problems with number agreement that immediately generate from "are a woman." In this particular sentence it'd make more sense to pluralize everything.
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