FACTOID # 21: 15% of Army recruits from South Dakota are Native American, which is roughly the same percentage for female Army recruits in the state.
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Encyclopedia > Generic antecedents

Generic antecedents are representatives of classes of people, indicated by a reference in ordinary language (most often a pronoun), where gender is typically unknown or irrelevant.[1] They mostly arise in generalizations and are particularly common in abstract, theoretical or strategic discourse. In general, a reference is something that refers to or designates something else, or acts as a connection or a link between two things. ... In linguistics and grammar, a pronoun is a pro-form that substitutes for a noun phrase. ... Gender often refers to the distinctions between males and females in common usage. ... Concept A is a (strict) generalization of concept B if and only if: every instance of concept B is also an instance of concept A; and there are instances of concept A which are not instances of concept B. Equivalently, A is a generalization of B if B is a... Sociological Abstraction refers to the varying levels at which theoretical concepts can be understood. ... The word theory has a number of distinct meanings in different fields of knowledge, depending on their methodologies and the context of discussion. ... A strategy is a long term plan of action designed to achieve a particular goal, most often winning. Strategy is differentiated from tactics or immediate actions with resources at hand. ... Discourse is a term used in semantics as in discourse analysis, but it also refers to a social conception of discourse, often linked with the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984) and Jürgen Habermas The Theory of Communicative Action (1985). ...

  • Readers of Wikipedia…
  • The customer in this market…
  • A typical teenager…
  • Most sufferers of Jane Doe syndrome…
  • Each of our active combatants…

Frequently, theories or strategies involving generic antecedents require consideration of individuals when designing experiments, or personalizing marketing approaches. Appropriate style for expressing such generic singulars in the English language became politicized in the 1970s (see Political opinions below).[2] Look up Generic in Wiktionary, the free dictionary. ... In grammar, an antecedent is the noun or noun phrase to which a pronoun refers. ... The English language is a West Germanic language that originates in England. ... To meet Wikipedias quality standards, this article or section may require cleanup. ... The 1970s decade refers to the years from 1970 to 1979, inclusive. ...


Grammatical analysis


Pronouns are essentially words that replace nouns.[3] They exist in most (but not all) languages. The person, thing, phrase, clause or idea they replace is called the antecedent (sometimes referent). Noun or noun substantive is a lexical category which is defined in terms of how its members combine with other grammatical kinds of expressions. ... Look up phrase in Wiktionary, the free dictionary. ... In grammar, a clause is a word or group of words ordinarily consisting of a subject and a predicate, although in some languages and some types of clauses, the subject may not appear explicitly. ...

  • Example: The sun and the moon influence life on Earth. They

In the example they is a pronoun, the phrase the sun and the moon is its antecedent. Speakers find pronouns useful as a kind of abbreviation when the antecedent is obvious to a hearer from context.

Personal pronouns

English has many different kinds of pronouns. The most common pronouns in English are the personal pronouns. Personal pronouns are pronouns often used as substitutes for proper or common nouns. ...

  • Personal pronouns: I, you, she, he, it, we, they

These are so common because nearly all verbs require an explicit subject in English. The range of different pronouns helps make it clear to the hearer exactly what the antecedent is. The subject of a sentence is one of the two main parts of a sentence, the other being the predicate. ...

  • Example: The sun and the moon influence life on Earth. It

Choosing the pronoun it rather than they (above) signals that the sun and the moon are not the antecedent in this case.


I, she, he and it refer to only one person or thing [meaning in usage] and are called singular [label in grammar]; we refers to more than one person and is called plural. Sometimes you is singular, other times it is plural. This article is about the meaning in various usages of they. The description of a pronoun as either singular or plural is called its grammatical number. In linguistics, grammatical number is a morphological category characterized by the expression of quantity through inflection or agreement. ...


Personal pronouns in many languages can also be described according to whether they refer to the speaker (first person), the listener (second person) or to a third person or thing. I and we are first-person personal pronouns, you is the second-person personal pronoun, and she, he, it and they are all third-person personal pronouns. The description of a pronoun as first, second or third person is called its grammatical person. They is always a third-person, personal pronoun. Grammatical person, in linguistics, is deictic reference to the participant role of a referent, such as the speaker, the addressee, and others. ...


English allows speakers to communicate to the hearer even more information than simply the person (1st, 2nd or 3rd) of an antecedent and the number (singular or plural).

  • Oblique personal pronouns: me, my, your, her, him, his, its, us, our, them, their

When the antecedent is not the subject of a sentence, its alternative function [meaning in usage] is marked by a change of pronoun. This is called a change of grammatical case [label in grammar]. Essentially, English has two cases other than the subject case – the object case and the possessive case. Cases other than the subject case are called oblique cases. In grammar, the case of a noun or pronoun is its grammatical function in a greater phrase or clause; such as the role of subject, of direct object, or of possessor. ... The accusative case (abbreviated ACC) of a noun is the grammatical case used to mark the direct object of a transitive verb. ... Possessive case is a case that exists in some languages used for possession. ... An oblique case (Latin: ) in linguistics is a noun case of analytic languages that is used generally when a noun is the predicate of a sentence or a preposition. ...

  • Example: You gave me her book.

You is subject case, me is object case, and her is posessive case. So when we think about how they is used in English, we also need to consider them and their.


English, like most languages, does not have distinct forms to communicate the gender of first and second persons. The genders of speaker and hearer are normally obvious, unambiguous or irrelevant when they are communicating. However, gender distinctions in the third person can be very helpful. In linguistics, grammatical gender is a morphological category associated with the expression of gender through inflection or agreement. ...

  • Example: My sister and brother disagree. She likes cars, but he doesn't.

In contrast to the singular, English does not provide options in third-person, personal pronouns to distinguish gender in the plural.

  • Example: My sisters and brothers disagree. The sisters like cars, but the brothers don't.


Singular Plural
Subject Object Possessive Subject Object Possessive
First I me my we us our
Second you you your you you your
Third Feminine she her her they them their
Masculine he him his
Impersonal it it its

Practical issue

The issue addressed by this article is based on a contrast in English – the awkwardness of making gender distinctions in the plural and the awkwardness of avoiding them in the singular. Speakers of languages use words both to make distinctions, but also to generalize.[4]

  • Example of distinction: My mother thinks…, but my father says….
  • Example of generalization: My parents believe….

What has become controversial among users of English can be seen from the following examples.

  • All people get hungry, so they eat. OK (All people is plural.)
  • All people get hungry, so she eats. NOT OK (This does not mean the same thing as the first sentence, because she is singular.)
  • Each one gets thirsty, so they drink. OK (Each one thought of as many similar people – plural.)
  • Each one gets thirsty, so she drinks. OK (Each one thought of one at a time – singular.)
  • When a person is tired, she sleeps. Traditionally OK, but controversial now.
  • When a person is tired, it sleeps. NOT OK (It does not mean the same thing as the previous sentence, because it is impersonal.)

Traditional solution

Many languages share the same issue with English. The universal traditional solution is based on the fact that the context is always the same – the antecedent is a representative individual of a class, whose gender is unknown or irrelevant. The traditional solution has been to use either feminine or masculine forms of singular pronouns in what is called generic usage. The context makes the generic intent of the usage clear in communication.

  • Example: An ambitious academic will publish as soon as she can.

Unless there is reason to believe the speaker thinks ambitious academics are always female, the use of she in this sentence must be interpreted as a generic use.

Modern problem

It is the overlap of generic use with gender role stereotyping that led to controversy in English.[5] A bagpiper in Scottish military clan-uniform. ... For the 1996 Blur single, see Stereotypes (song). ...

  • A nurse should ensure she gets adequate rest.
  • A police officer should maintain his fitness.
  • A dancer should watch her diet carefully.
  • A boss should treat his staff well.

In these examples, there is very good reason to suppose that the speaker does indeed believe that all nurses are female, or that all bosses are male.

Modern solutions

If a speaker is ideologically opposed to gender role stereotyping, he can use one of the following strategies.[6]

  • A boss should treat her staff well. (Generic use of the pronoun of opposite to expected gender.)
  • Bosses should treat their staff well. (Rephrasing the sentence.)
  • A boss should treat their staff well. (Controversial use of they.)

There is both historical precedent for the third option,[7] as well as popular contemporary usage. However, there are contemporary, as well as historical, style guides that discourage this option. Style guides generally give guidance on language use. ...

Most of the Usage Panelists reject the use of they with singular antecedents.[8] Eighty-two percent find the sentence The typical student in the program takes about six years to complete their course work unacceptable. …Panel members do seem to distinguish between singular nouns, such as the typical student, and pronouns that are grammatically singular but semantically plural, such as anyone and everyone.[9]

There are also contexts in which they used with singular generic antecedent leads to ambiguity. Look up ambiguity in Wiktionary, the free dictionary. ...

Generic questions wanting specific answers.

  • Would you like tea or coffee? Yes. Which one?
  • Would you like tea or coffee? Tea, please.
  • Did my parents leave a message? Yes they did. Which one?
  • Did my parents leave a message? Yes, your mother called.

Other alternatives

Options other than generic pronouns, rephrasing in the plural, or using they can be well suited to some contexts, but problematic in others.

  • A boss should treat her or his staff well. (Issues: cumbersome if overused, have to place genders in an order.)
  • If (s)he does, it is good. (Issue: written option only.)
  • Thon will be happy and so will they. (Issue: none of the invented pronouns – thon, xe, and many others – have been accepted into the language.)[10]
  • They will be happy and so will they. (Note: "singular" they is clearly awful here.)

The indefinite personal pronoun, one, is suitably singular, personal and indefinite with respect to gender; but its very indefiniteness precludes it taking any antecedent but itself. It has been suggested that Androgynous pronoun be merged into this article. ... In English grammar, singular they (or epicene they) is the use of the pronoun they and its inflected forms (them, their, etc. ... One is a personal pronoun in the English language. ...

  • One takes care of one's own.

Strictly speaking, it is not even third person, it is often used as a circumlocution to refer indirectly to speaker or hearer. Periphrasis is a figure of speech where the meaning of a word or phrase is expressed by many or several words. ...

  • One may indeed have done something like that. (But I'm not going to admit that, in fact, I did.)
  • One would do well to be very careful under the circumstances. (Watch your back!)

Political opinions

Some modern prescriptivists argue from the valid use of they in certain contexts, to making it valid or even mandatory in all. Other prescritivists argue ideologically that generic he should be proscribed. Both these points of view have found many followers; however, they generally do not accurately describe the usage or rationale of the wide range of options common in the English language. In linguistics, prescription is the laying down or prescribing of normative rules for the use of a language, or the making of recommendations for effective language usage. ...

The reforms involving gender are explicitly political in intent and represent a quest for social justice rather than a wish for more consistent logic. And unlike other political language reforms, which tend to be limited to individual names for ethnic groups, gender reforms involve basic grammatical components like pronouns, basic grammatical rules like pronoun agreement, and basic words like man, father, male and female. Some of these elements have been in the language for over a thousand years. It is not surprising, therefore, that the effort to undo them can often be a difficult and untidy business.[11]

See also

English gender-neutral pronouns
He | One | Singular they
Spivak | Ve | Xe | Ze | Sie/hir | Thon

Look up Generic in Wiktionary, the free dictionary. ... The generic mood, in linguistics, is a mood used to make generalized comments about a class of thing. ... In English grammar, generic you or indefinite you is the use of the pronoun you to refer to an unspecified person. ... It has been suggested that Androgynous pronoun be merged into this article. ... The English personal pronouns are classified as follows: First person refers to the speaker(s). ... One is a personal pronoun in the English language. ... In English grammar, singular they (or epicene they) is the use of the pronoun they and its inflected forms (them, their, etc. ... The Spivak pronouns are new terms proposed to serve as gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronouns in English (see gender-neutral pronouns). ... Ve a gender-neutral pronoun that has not gained widespread acceptance. ... Xe, xyr, and xem are gender-neutral pronouns designed to supplement the existing pronouns in the English language. ... This article or section contains information that has not been verified and thus might not be reliable. ... Sie and hir are inflected forms of a proposed gender-neutral third person singular personal pronoun for the English language (see gender-neutral pronouns). ... Thon is a proposed gender-neutral third person singular personal pronoun for the English language (see gender-neutral pronouns). ...


  1. ^ Mark Balhorn, 'The Rise of Epicene They', Journal of English Linguistics 32 (2004): 79–104.
  2. ^ 'Gender', in The American Heritage Book of English Usage: A Practical and Authoritative Guide to Contemporary English, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996).
  3. ^ William Malone Baskervill and James Witt Sewel, An English Grammar, 1896.
  4. ^ Susanne Wagner (2004-07-22). "Gender in English pronouns: Myth and reality" (PDF). Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg.
  5. ^ Julie Foertsch and Morton Ann Gernsbacher, 'In Search of Gender Neutrality: Is Singular They a Cognitively Efficient Substitute for Generic He?' Psychological Science 8 (1997): 106–111.
  6. ^ Michael Quinion, 'Gender-Neutral Pronouns', 2002.
  7. ^ "A person can't help their birth." William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair, 1848, [c. 41].
  8. ^ "This group of some 200 distinguished educators, writers, and public speakers enriches [the] dictionary with their judgments concerning difficult or disputed usage. Most of its members are writers, editors, critics, or educators while others hold distinguished positions in law, government, diplomacy, medicine, science, business, and the arts." See The American Heritage® Usage Panel.
  9. ^ 'They', The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth edition, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000).
  10. ^ Dennis Baron, 'The Epicene Pronouns: A Chronology of the Word That Failed', 2006.
  11. ^ 'Gender', in The American Heritage® Book of English Usage, work cited.

Houghton Mifflin Company is a leading educational publisher in the United States. ... 2004 (MMIV) was a leap year starting on Thursday of the Gregorian calendar. ... July 22 is the 203rd day (204th in leap years) of the year in the Gregorian Calendar, with 162 days remaining. ... Albert Ludwigs University of Freiburg (German Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg ) was founded 1457 in Freiburg by the Habsburgs. ... William Makepeace Thackeray William Makepeace Thackeray (18 July 1811 – 24 December 1863) was an English novelist of the 19th century. ... Title-page to Vanity Fair, drawn by Thackeray, who furnished the illustrations for many of his earlier editions Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero is a novel by William Makepeace Thackeray that satirizes society in early 19th-century England. ... The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (AHD) is an American dictionary of the English language published by Boston publisher Houghton-Mifflin, the first edition of which appeared in 1969. ...

External links

  • Helge Lødrup. 'Norwegian Anaphors without Visible Binders'. Journal of Germanic Linguistics 19 (2007): 1–22. Available at http://journals.cambridge.org.
  • Anna Pycha, Constance Milbrath and Stephen Eyre. 'Anaphora in African-American English'. Oakland: Linguistics Society of America, 2005.
  • Marta Luján. 'Determiners as Modified Pronouns'. Círculo de lingüística aplicada a la comunicación 9 (2002).



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