MN 72 - use of the third person plural pronoun


Indeed. They or he would be equally applicable here. Why not they in light of this?

Japanese has no pronouns at all to speak of. If the ascetic Gautama had spoken Japanese instead of an unknown, likely Prākrit, tongue, all of the pronouns would be necessarily insertions.

Necessary to make the text comprehensible in English.


Really? I am not very good with grammar, but are not kimi, boku, anata, kare and so on, pronouns?

It’s actually a substitution here (for masculine singular bhikkhu), not an insertion, no? See my previous comment.


Japanese doesn’t have pronouns.

They have terms that stand-in for people. They functionally have several “I’s” (watashi,boku, etc) but these do not generally semantically correspond to the usual “I” , “you” “he / she” that “normal” pronouns correspond to.

The grammar of the Pāli I can’t comment on, because my Pāli is dismal.


Aren’t pro-nouns not exactly that - “terms that stand-in for people”?

In normal spoken Japanese for example, in the sentence “kare wa ii hito ne”, how is ‘kare’ not a pronoun? That’s “He’s a good guy isn’t he.” Or, "Him - [he’s a] good guy isn’t he.’, right?


I don’t follow. “Bhikkhu” was translated as “mendicant”.


“But Master Gotama, when a mendicant’s mind is freed like this, where are they reborn?”

“They” is added due to how English grammar works. I’m not Pali expert, but I think in Pali the pronoun is not necessary because the verb form makes the connection clear.


Well, what I mean is, take a look at the second clause. And then compare it to the English clause. Which word is the subject of the verb, in each?


I’m very much in favour of gender neutral translations. Some of my best friends are women, eh?


We’ve been using “they” since the 14th Century! It works perfectly well in this situation.


I’m not saying it’s wrong. I also amended my original post to reflect that (including my first statement but adding an update) since it was rightly pointed out to me.

I was just saying (with dreamy hopes for the future perhaps) that it would be very convenient is we had a specifically gender neutral form, instead of having to use the plural as a singular. For example, looking at the middle of a long passage with a string of theys, sometimes you don’t know that its singular unless you go back to the beginning. And, in this case, it made it unclear to me what was being reborn - ‘he’ would have clarified that it was not the mind being reborn. It’s a really small point, I am to blame for blowing it out of proportion! But it was a real life example of someone apparently believing it was the mind being reborn in that sentence, which the Pāli is clearer on than the English. But such a confusion would be rare, and the English is good, even if not as clear as the Pāli.


You are not the first to make this suggestion; see, for example, The gender-neutral pronoun: 150 years later, still an epic fail | OUPblog .


I also just noticed, reading up on this, that the use of the generic he (as a gender neutral term) was approved in an Act of Parliament in the UK - the Interpretation Act 1850. I also read “Bodine’s 1975 survey of then-contemporary grammar books, where she found in 28 out of 33 cases that “pupils are taught to achieve both elegance of expression and accuracy by referring to women as ‘he’.”” And that apparently the gender neutral use of he can be found as early as Thomas Wilson, writing in 1553. Then you’ve got things like Ann Fisher’s mid-18th century A New Grammar assertion that “The Masculine Person answers to the general Name, which comprehends both Male and Female; as, any Person who knows what he says.”

That’s interesting that they were going for ‘he’ as the gender neutral singular, rather than ‘they’. It would seem that there is resistance to using ‘they’ as singular, presumably because it is generally assumed to be plural, as I had assumed. So even though we know it can be singular if we think about it, as natural native speakers, we still have the assumption that it will generally be plural. And I think this shows the kind of consensus that there is about this in the minds of native speakers, such that they were striving to make ‘he’ the accepted form.

And this is even though we do use ‘they’ as singular sometimes. Like ‘my friend is coming but they’ll be a bit late’. I think it’s often used to actually deliberately conceal the gender! For example, if a woman is dating a man, they don’t know each other so well yet, the woman might say

I’m going out with a friend tonight. They’re going to meet me in an hour so I have to go.

This would be preferable to:

He’s going to meet me

If the women 1) didn’t want the guy to know she was meeting a man, and 2) didn’t want to lie.

If we had a proper gender neutral term, they’d use it. But they need a term (to hide gender), and so reach for the best option available. A desperate situation calls for desperate solutions :slight_smile: But that push for using ‘he’ shows I think, that underlying resistance to using ‘they’.

Of course, there is resistance to using ‘he’ also, since some would feel that is bias towards men. And no doubt if ‘she’ were chosen, it would be felt to be bias towards women. And maybe we can use that word ‘bias’ with regard to ‘they’, the complaint being that it is bias towards being plural. And I think that’s the point - if we use a word that already has a very well established primary meaning, then our sense of the word is bound to be biased. Which is why it would be cleaner to have a separate word.

I guess the use of he as gender neutral agrees with the Pāli, since that’s what the Pāli does! But I think that might just be because both Pāli and English are what we might call sexist now, favouring male gender, and so there is no reason we should sustain that bias.

I rather like s/he for writing. But then I might be a geek… And I actually sometimes use ‘she’ generically, when translating, just to even things up :slight_smile: But I’d rather a genuine specific alternative. Might have to wait a few hundred years!

I also read

The earliest known attempt to create gender-neutral pronouns dates back to 1792, when Scottish economist James Anderson advocated for an indeterminate pronoun “ou”.

There’s so much to read on the subject. I had no idea! I wonder if perhaps in the future, ‘they’ will be gender neutral singular, and something like ‘theys’ will be the plural, evolved to distinguish it!


Cool! Here’s a quote:

According to an 1884 article in the New-York Commercial Advertiser, the pronouns ne, nis, nir and hiser were proposed and briefly used around 1850. These coinages, which would yield such sentences as “Everyone loves nis (or hiser’s) mother,” have yet to be documented, but an 1852 newspaper report which calls for the invention of a new pronoun “of the common gender” demonstrates that the subject was being discussed that early.


The American literary critic Richard Grant White mentions a common-gender pronoun en in 1868, but 1884 turns out to be the watershed year for pronoun coinage, bringing us thon, hi, le, hiser, and, as I mentioned earlier, ip. Thon was coined by the Philadelphia lawyer and hymn writer Charles C. Converse, and unlike most epicene pronouns, it enjoyed some recognition over the next century, accepted by two major dictionaries and adopted by a few writers. Thon blends that and one and is pronounced with the initial sound of “they.” In describing his motivation, Converse mentions nothing about women’s rights, insisting instead that his goal is to restore the “beautiful symmetry” of English, to avoid “hideous solecisms” (presumably, singular they), and to save writers—and lawyers like himself—precious time.

And I rather like:

In 1890, a report in the Rocky Mountain News recommends hi, hes, hem, as a paradigm that will be “readily taken up and assimilated spontaneously,”

But it is very difficult to change language.


The inherent problem with all the proposals for a new gender-neutral pronoun is that they are swimming against the current of language evolution.

Languages generally—and English in particular—tend to wear away the less useful parts over time. Users learn that they can omit certain information without compromising meaning. And humans being a lazy lot, if we can do less work, that’s what we do.

As an Indo-European language, in English’s long past it had gendered forms for all nouns and adjectives, which at some point included even neuter forms. But they have almost all vanished, the pronouns being a last holdout.

But it’s not just gender that wears away, it’s number too. Think of poor old “you”. Leaving aside such archaic holdovers as “y’all” or “youse”, the plural is long gone from standard English. But what’s interesting is that even in the explicitly plural forms, users somehow feel the need to overdetermine it by adding an extra term to emphasize the pluralness: “all y’all”, “youse lot”. It’s as if we fear the imminent loss of the plural and have to insist that it is still there.

When we use “they”, we are moving with this flow, not against it. Blurring the number, refusing to introduce an explicit neuter gender: these are not flaws, they are strengths. That’s how language goes, and that’s why “they” has won.


@Senryu: Isn’t it fascinating how, as readers, we can select quotations that support our own views? To support what I said in my original comment I would choose the title and the opening and closing paragraphs, which I also take to be the view of the author blogging for the OUP.

The gender-neutral pronoun: 150 years later, still an epic fail

Every once in a while some concerned citizen decides to do something about the fact that English has no gender-neutral pronoun. They either call for such a pronoun to be invented, or they invent one and champion its adoption. Wordsmiths have been coining gender-neutral pronouns for a century and a half, all to no avail. Coiners of these new words insist that the gender-neutral pronoun is indispensable, but users of English stalwartly reject, ridicule, or just ignore their proposals. …

In fact, despite the almost universal condemnation of the coordinate he or she by supporters of gender-neutral pronouns, the rule books now opt for he or she and not an invented word to replace the generic he. Students who once were taught that the masculine pronoun must always be used in cases of mixed or doubtful gender are now taught instead to use coordinate forms, not for gender balance or grammatical precision, but simply because that’s the new rule. Those writers who question the rule, who realize that multiple he-or-she’s just don’t make for readable prose, won’t seek out a new gender-neutral pronoun. Instead they’ll recast some sentences as plural, and for the rest they’ll just take their chances with singular they. After all, if you, which is also gender neutral, can serve both for singular and plural, why can’t they do the same? In any case, after more than 100 attempts to coin a gender-neutral pronoun over the course of more than 150 years, thon and its competitors will remain what they always have been, the words that failed.


Language most often changes organically, through generations of its users subtly changing what they say, often not even deliberately.


I don’t get what you are saying @Gillian. Are you saying that you are I have different views on this? If so, I did not notice.


I found a better response than the above. Obv it’s not as clear cut really as Japanese = no pronouns. They have pronoun-like “things” that are functionally pronouns.

Like how English has no future tense inflectionally, but “will [verb]” is functionally a present tense.

This is from wikipedia:

In contrast to present people and things, absent people and things can be referred to only by naming as in “Miyazaki”, by instantiating a class as in “the house” (in a context where there is only one house) and by presenting things in relation to present, named and sui generis people or things as in “I’m going home”, “I’m going to Miyazaki’s place”, “I’m going to the mayor’s place”, “I’m going to my mother’s place”, “I’m going to my mother’s friend’s place”. Functionally, deictic classifiers not only indicate that the referenced person or thing has a spatial position or an interactional role but also classify it to some extent. In addition, Japanese pronouns are restricted by a situation type (register): who is talking to whom, about what, and through which medium (spoken or written, staged or in private). In that sense, when a male is talking to his male friends, the pronoun set that is available to him is different from that which is available when a man of the same age talks to his wife and from that which is available when a woman talks to her husband. These variations in pronoun availability is determined by the register.

In linguistics, generativists and other structuralists suggest that the Japanese language does not have pronouns as such, since, unlike pronouns in most other languages that have them, these words are syntactically and morphologically identical to nouns. As functionalists point out, however, these words function as personal references, demonstratives, and reflexives, just as pronouns do in other languages


My mistake, I assumed (and on second reading don’t find the evidence) that you’d chosen those quotes because you agreed with them. So sorry. They’re quaint ideas, aren’t they!


You is the plural (I’m sure you know this but its not clear in what you write about it). It is the singular second person pronouns (thee, thou, thine) that have disappeared (and more is the pity because the language is impoverished by the loss).

I’m not sure we “fear” anything. I would say we use the plural as singular and feel the need for a plural. In New Zealand English “yous” is very common second person plural pronoun, for example.

“They” hasn’t won anything. Although I advocate for it and it is old, it is not universal by any means. For example, MS Word continually encourages me to change to “he or she”.


Or now we just always have to be polite instead of talking down to lower classes! :sweat_smile::speak_no_evil::hear_no_evil::see_no_evil: