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Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Singular they with feminine reference

Geoffrey Pullum is a highly respected linguist. (Although he teaches at an American university, he's British for those of you who are interested in whether he speaks "real" English or not!) Yesterday Pullum blogged on observed usage of singular "they" when the sex of the referent was female. This language usage is relevant evidence in the debate over whether or not singular "they" is appropriate to use in English Bible translations targeted for speakers of contemporary English.

As with so many questions about appropriateness of various language forms in different kinds of English Bibles, the compelling determinant is audience, audience, audience. The right question to ask is: "For whom is this translation intended?"

Some English versions are targeted for those who continue to use and understand masculine generics. Other versions are targeted at those who use other forms to express generic meanings. And this is as it should be, upholding the principle that a translation is worded in the language forms of those who will use that translation.

At this stage of significant English language change with reference to generic nouns and pronouns, pronoun case, and other language forms, it is unlikely that an English Bible version can be produced which can be the "standard" version for all English speakers.

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