Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Royal We

Pronouns are easily the most frequently abused part of the English language. People refer to "this" and "that" and "it" without being truly clear about what the pronoun is subbing for. I was told to "step on it" to turn on the lamp, but 'it' indicated lamp to me, so I stepped on the lamp.
Turns out 'it' should have meant the switch, a clever floor pad button, but the pronoun 'it' was unclear. Gave my sister a good laugh anyway.

I frequently request people clarify the pronouns they're using to make sure I understand exactly what the speaker is communicating. I'll say, "wait, who is they?" I work with someone for whom English is a second language. When I ask him to clarify, he assumes it's his own error. Truthfully, native speakers are the worst for abusing pronouns. And adverbs. More about that in another post.

The most annoying pronoun error is the use of 'they' to describe a single third person for whom the speaker does not wish to assign a gender. The best example I can think of is the Fergie song where she says she'll "miss you like a child misses their blanket." But a child is singular and their is plural. The pronoun should be his or her; it's the third person singular possessive. The gender equality nonsense about women being underrepresented in literature because third person singular 'him' is used to mean 'all persons' has run its course. If one must be less specific, change the sentence: "like children miss their blankets." I once wrote this error to a lady who specializes in writing (@pubcoach) and she said the language is evolving to allow the use of 'their' for a non-gender singular third person. Hm. I think the abuse is just happening so frequently that we've just started overlooking it.

I'm guilty of my own egregious pronoun error: use of we when I really mean I. Yesterday returning home from Chicago I saw a soldier in the GSP airport (which is a small place) and as I walked by him I said, "we're glad you're home." Who? Me and the mouse in my pocket? This is "the royal we" -- queens and kings speak of themselves as 'we' because they are representatives of their people.

It started when I was pregnant and I began considering HB and myself as two people. Every decision I made affected 'us.' But it has continued whether I'm speaking for her or not. I think telling a stranger I'm glad he's home might have been too personal. So I say 'we' and I mean our whole community, our whole nation, or maybe just HB and me. It's first person plural and a bit more impersonal than first person singular. The soldier probably didn't pay any attention to it, just another grateful citizen. I hope it blended in with all the other thanks and welcome homes he received all day.

If one's use and abuse of language is an indication of education then pronouns are probably a rather harsh measuring stick. But if it's simply a matter of communicating more accurately, then pronouns should be used sparingly.

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