Singular "they" in English

I would like to see Duolingo allow the use of the singular "they, them, and their" pronouns in translations.

In modern English, if you do not know a person's gender or if their gender is not important it is considered polite to refer to them using "they" because it is a gender neutral pronoun.

When used in context it is usually not confusing and, in any case, it certainly seems less confusing than mis-gendering someone as "he" (which is often argued to "have historical precedence", though I think that argument is terrible.)

Here is a list of some of the languages on Duolingo which have singular gender-neutral pronouns that I think should allow for a translation to the English "they, them, their or themself":

French - sa, son, ses all translate to either "his" or "her" (and should also translate to "their").

Spanish - su translates to either "he", "she", or "your"(formal) (and should also translate to "their").

Italian - suo, sua, sue, suoi all mean "his", "her" (and could also translate to "their").

Portuguese - sua, seu, suas, seus all mean "his", "her", "your (plural)" (and could also translate to "their").

Swahili - yeye means "he" or "she" (and could also translate to "they"), -ake means "his" or "her" (and could also translate to "their").

Please feel free to mention other languages which use gender non-specific singular pronouns. I continue to edit this post.

February 24, 2017


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I am all for gender-inclusive language and for making Duolingo a welcoming place for people of all gender identities.

One point to consider, however, is that different languages deal with gender inclusiveness issues differently. For example, English has been evolving towards (a) using the plural pronoun "they" to refer to a person's whose gender is unknown or ambiguous and (b) abandoning gendered professions (ie, we now use "actor" for both male and female performers).

In French, by contrast, (a) "elle" (ie, "she") is often used to refer to people whose gender is unknown (since the word for person, "la personne", is feminine) and (b) there is a move towards gendering more professions. For example, today in Quebec, a female judge is addressed as "Madame la juge"; even though traditionally, she would be addressed as "Madame le juge" -- the word "juge" being masculine even if the person who happens to be a judge is a woman. (I am embarrassed to say that I have no idea how one should address a gender-non-binary judge in French.)

For this reason, if Duolingo is to adopt a gender-neutral they, proper consideration will have to be made as well about how this gender-neutral they would be appropriately rendered in other Duolingo languages.

February 24, 2017

What I am particularly hoping for is that Duolingo just start to allow singular "they" as an accepted translation. I certainly don't expect the nuances of singular "they" to be taught, just accepted.

For example:

"Sa pomme est grande"

Should allow the translations: His apple is big. Her apple is big. Their apple is big.

Currently, in French and most other language courses it seems, only the "his" and "her" translations are accepted. While "his" and "her" may be much more common, that doesn't mean the third translation should be considered incorrect.

February 24, 2017

The problem is that the singular "they" is not formal English. Consequently, Duolingo is not going to include it.

In today's modern politically correct, gender-conscious society, most formal writing will use "he/she", "he or she", or will interchange "he" and "she" when referring to a person of an unknown gender. "They" is only used in informal writing or everyday speech when it is clear from context that the speaker is only referring to one person instead of multiple people. Referring to someone as "they" is not necessarily polite; it just comes across as trying really hard to avoid identifying someone's gender. The politeness of that depends on context.

Historically, "he" was used to refer to a human or a member of mankind of an unknown gender. I do think that part of that has to do with how traditional gender roles limited the circumstances in which someone would refer to a person of an unknown gender and have it turn out that the person was a female. In older societies, however, the pronouns and their meanings were slightly different; it was less "he" for "man" & "she" for "woman" and more "she" for "definitely a woman" & "he" for "all other circumstances referring to a human". You may not like the argument for "historical precedence", but consistency is why English has not had a successful major spelling reform in over 200 years. It takes more than a few people with a good idea to affect fundamental change in a language with so much history and usage.

I believe that there are some circumstances where other words like "whoever" and "someone" and "person" would work better than a pronoun with a gender, but English speakers tend to prefer one-syllable words, which leads to the "he/she/it/they" issue. The singular "they" may indeed become formal in the near future, but it could also be phased out in exchanged for something else. Until the singular "they" is recognized as formal English, Duolingo won't include it, for similar reasons that they don't recognize many informal phrasings.

February 24, 2017

In today's modern politically correct, gender-conscious society, most formal writing will use "he/she", "he or she", or will interchange "he" and "she" when referring to a person of an unknown gender.

While it was forced out of formal and into informal usage for a very long while, that trend appears to be changing. While I was getting my degree in human communication, singular they was fully embrased by my professors. I also once had an opportunity to attend a lecture by Alma Rosa Alvarez, an English professor at Southern Oregon University who writes textbooks used by Princeton. As it turns out, she also endorses the use of singular they.

Meanwhile, a group of linguists and grammarians declared singular they as 2015's Word of the Year.

So, I think the tide is changing. :)

February 24, 2017

Good example of an English professor who uses the singular "they". I agree that the trend of using a singular "they" is changing toward an increase in usage, but change in America tends to happen much more slowly than professors would indicate. For example, use of the metric system is on the upswing in the US, but its prevalence is not increasing at the rate that many college professors would have expected a generation ago.

I would also be wary of using the American Dialect Society's "Words of the Year" recognition as validation; the list of words that have earned the honor seems to be more about making a statement about short-term trends in slang than actually encouraging long-term vocabulary development. The "Words of the Year" from 20+ years ago are not commonly used today.

February 24, 2017

@WILearner If that is the case then how would one confirm what is or isn't "formal" English? What is the governing body that decides these things?

This is the first time I have heard anyone suggest that Duolingo only accepts "formal" English. There are many accepted translations which seem very informal to me...

February 24, 2017

Good question, DaveSchaef. Perhaps "formal" was a poor word choice on my part, since I don't consider contractions to be "formal", yet Duolingo accepts them. Perhaps "standard" would be better.

With English, what is considered to be "standard" is language that can be understood by the widest range of native speakers without causing people to cringe, laugh, or be confused at how it is presented.

Duolingo chooses one dialect per language to use, and for English it uses American English. This means that the singular "they" could be universal except for in the US and Duolingo would still not include it. Conversely, if the singular "they" were only considered standard in the US, Duolingo would include it.

What is considered to be "formal" or "official" language has a major influence on what is considered to be "standard" language. There are some languages (German, for example) where there is a governing body that decides what is "formal" and what isn't. Since German has a "formal" version (Hochdeutsch) for writing and many dialects for speaking, the "formal" version is also accepted as the standard version for Duolingo. English, however, is unique in today's modern world in that it is a massive language with no official sanctioning body. Consequently, what is considered to be formal is derived from modern publishing, historical contexts, and school curricula. Governments play a role in the recognition of what is and isn't formal, as well as reputable dictionaries (such as the Oxford English or the Merriam-Webster) and school textbooks.

To be honest, I am not sure how prevalent the singular "they" would need to become in order for it to be considered "standard", nor do I know how much work it would take Duolingo to incorporate it into all of their English lessons if it were to become "standard". English is pretty particular about distinguishing between singular and plural (with the exception of "you"), so a singular "they" may end up being like the word "loan" being used as a verb: not ever considered correct by textbooks, but understood and used by many native speakers to the point that it is used in formal contexts without much reservation.

February 24, 2017

Well, if Duolingo is supposed to be using standard American English then the American Dialect Society announcing singular "they" as word of the year is a good reason to accept it as a translation for another language's gender neutral singular pronoun.

February 24, 2017

Actually, that might prove the opposite. If you look at the list of their "Words of the Year" from 20 years ago, those words are already obsolete.

The list of words that have earned the honor seems to be more about short-term trends in slang than actually encouraging long-term vocabulary development.

February 24, 2017

You've made a good point, WILearner. And, it is true words must be able to withstand the gauntlet of time, and not all currently popular words will.

I am hoping, however, that singular "they" will go the way of singular "you", which was once exclusively a plural pronoun. :)

February 24, 2017

Which words specifically do you think are obsolete?

The only ones I don't see used anymore are "Bushlips" from 1990 and "(to) newt" from 1995.

February 24, 2017

Both singular “they” and epicene “he” are gender-neutral, and both have been used in English for at least 500 years. Neither one is impolite, disrespectful, or dehumanizing.

February 24, 2017

I think it is time that we dropped the idea that "he" is still gender-neutral because of its social impact on women.

If we say "he is a scientist at NASA", I'm not going to think of a woman, and likely the girls who are trying to figure out if there is a place for them in STEMs aren't going to think a woman is being referenced either.

When the pronoun “he” is used generically to represent everyone, women’s stories (and everyone else's stories too who isn't a man) represent the atypical, because they seem to be involved in and doing a lot less than men. This is an important point because people who are seen as making less of a contribution, are often considered less entitled to the fruits of labor.

Also, I'm not saying that we should do away with mentions of gender altogether and exclusively switch to singular they or some other gender neutral pronoun. Acknowledging gender is very useful for tracking long term social patterns. We might want to know if those patterns are showing up more often among one gender than in others. This can help determine how various program funds could be allocated and which population we want to target with which messages. In this way, acknowledgement of gender can be useful.

But, where referencing gender doesn't produce useful information, I don't see why we should bother. And I definitely don't see why we should create a situation in which, if we did an internet search for articles referencing "he", we should be finding articles discussing, in fact, the achievements of a woman.

February 24, 2017

This will definitely boil the blood of some of the loonier elements so good luck not getting it downvoted into oblivion. I think the main reason not to use the singular "they" universally here is that it would only work if it worked as a direct translation.

For example, translating a phrase which means "he runs" as "they run" is simply incorrect. Firstly as the original had a gender specified and secondly (imho) the singular "they" should use "runs" not "run", but "they runs" just does not sound right.

However, if we were translating from a language where we can omit the pronoun and simply a verb was included whose ending could be translated as "he runs" or "she runs", then why not include "they" as a possibility (although I am still unsure about the "s" on the end of "run" in this situation).

Where the singular "they" would definitely be needed is if the original included a gender-neutral pronoun - perhaps like the use of "@" to represent simultaneously "o" and "a" sometimes in Spanish?

What is sure is that languages are in need of more pronouns than they currently have as society is changing and becoming more accepting of people who identify as neither "he" nor "she".

February 24, 2017

Translating a sentence that means "He runs" as "They run" would be wrong, yes. However, translating a sentence that means "He (or she) runs" as "They run" should be considered correct because both sentences would be using a gender neutral singular pronoun.

Singular "they", as far as I know, conjugates verbs the same way plural "they" would.

February 24, 2017
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