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Re: Seriously trusting

Posted by GPP on November 03, 2003

In Reply to: Re: Seriously trusting posted by Anders on November 02, 2003

: : : : : : I don't know about the site you mention, but I would like to address the use of "their."

: : : : : : If you will, please forgive me for being direct. The aversion to the use of "their" in the meaning you cite is a common complaint of pedants that don't bother to look in the OED before complaining (don't feel bad -- king pedant Jay Nordlinger over at the National Review made the same mistake).

: : : : : : According to the OED, "their" is, "used instead of ?his or her?, when the gender is inclusive or uncertain." ( , s.v., "their" -- but you must subscribe, or be affiliated with an institutional subscriber).

: : : : : : Since the gender of your parent is uncertain (could be either, no?), "their" is eminently suitable.

: : : : : : And "fur.nuh.chur" is exactly how I pronounce "furniture."

: : : : : : : We're licensed to be pedantic on this board, I think, so here goes. Someone posted the link to Word Spy yesterday. I immediately was impressed by the site and joined the emailing list. Just now, however, I've come to take a closer look at the phonetics of the site. I became suspicious when I saw 'furniture' rendered 'fur.nuh.chur'. I thought: hey, where's the /I/? Then I checked Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary, which gives the /I/ for both British and American, cf. link below. But it gets worse: 'askable parent' is rendered 'ASK.uh.bul pair.unt'. Hilarious, right? But wait, there is more. An 'askable parent is defined as: 'A parent who is willing to answer their child's questions and who encourages their child to ask questions . . .' 'A parent . . . their child'! I know it's common; still, it's horrible. How can one trust such a site? (Seriously, I'm asking.)

: : : : : : : Anders

: : : : : Hi Frank
: : : : : What? You want me to PAY for such advice! Only when dealing with a self-impregnating hermaphrodite of a parent, with a personality disorder, is such usage acceptable.
: : : : : Anders

: : : : Anders, judging from some of your recent posts here I have guessed, possibly incorrectly, that although your command of English is enviable, this is not your native language. In any case, you are surely aware that probably more than any other language, English is a work in progress, constantly mutating. One could say that "English is as English does" (you can search this site for that phrasing substituting 'handsome' for 'English').

: : : : Taking you at your word that you are 'seriously' asking how can one 'trust' such a site as, the answer is a question in return: 'trust' for what? Wordspy serves an entirely different purpose from Oxford English Dictionary, or the Cambridge dictionary sites--it discusses neologisms and current street slang, such as 'askable parent', and gives on-the-fly pronunciations.

: : : : Before PC raised its ugly head, the grammatically 'correct' form of the singular pronoun for a person of unknown sex was 'him', 'his', etc. 'Their' is undoubtedly plural, but is now used more and more as the singular possessive pronoun to avoid the messiness of 'his or hers'. Actually this usage long antedates the 1960s. Merriam Webster Online ( gives for 'their': "2 : his or her : HIS, HER, ITS -- used with an indefinite third person singular antecedent ". And American Heritage Dictionary (see 'they', at also gives a long and detailed usage note tracing the plural pronoun used in the singular back to 1300.

: : : : Probably the most respected and authoritative dictionaries are OED, which unfortunately is a pay site, and Merriam-Webster and American Heritage, both of which are free online. The easiest access to both of these latter, as well as to many other dictionary and encyclopedia sources, is through Cambridge is listed there as well, but Cambridge's utility leaves something to be desired.

: : : : I was very surprised to find that not only Cambridge, but also both MWO and AHD, rendered the middle syllable of 'furniture' as a short 'i', and none of them gave a schwa as an alternative. I agree with Frenk that this word is more frequently heard with the 'i' spoken as a schwa. To this, what can I say? The dictionaries are wrong; the 'i' in 'furniture' IS frequently--but certainly not always--pronounced as a schwa.

: : : : So the answer to your serious question is, well, you can trust wordspy, for what it purports to do. And if in doubt, look around further. "Trust but verify."

: : : : BTW, I've read recently somewhere, but don't recall where, about a baby with THREE different BIOLOGICAL mothers, and no father at all.

: : : Hi GPP
: : : Thank you for your friendly and helpful comment. You're quite right, English is not my native language (Danish is). Does this mean I don't have the right cast my vote against the use of 'their', even when this usage is considered inappropriate amongst many native speakers? This would certainly be disappointing to me, although not entirely unreasonable. To tell you the truth, I am unsure myself on this question, although I think it must ultimately come down to the argument I (or anyone else) can make. I don't dispute the fact that PC 'their' is widely used, and hence part of the English language. I just think that, on logical grounds, it's often grotesque, as in the example with a parent and 'their' child. I feel 'their' should have been his or her, or the whole thing rendered in plural (parents - their). However, the URL you gave me to the AHD gives me reason to reconsider. It has come as a surprise to me that the established lack of concord goes so far back.

: : : In terms of seriousness, I regret that such a message board as this, despite being truly a wonderful thing, is not good at conveying one's mood. What came through in my 'seriously asking', was my all-or-nothing attitude. That is, an idiosyncrasy. I had spotted something I really disliked and turned my back on the whole shebang. My question was serious in so far as I needed someone else to tell me that the site was worthwhile, before I could go back and engage with it again. This is all very childish, I admit, and my 'seriousness' was therefore only to a degree.

: : : About the pronunciation of furniture, you're right that the schwa would be a possibility, but this is hardly what is indicated by 'fur.nuh.chur'. Rather it's the /3:/ (as in fur) - thrice over. But never mind that. Consider 'ASK.uh.bul pair.unt'.

: : : Anders

: : I have often thought that 'his or her' and similar duel pronouns always place the male first and are not overwhelmingly gender neutral as the PC advocates would prefer. I think 'a parent and their...' probably reads more naturally than the slightly more cumbersome 'his or her'.

: You like it too, huh? Y'all comin' down on me like a tons o' bricks, now ain't ya? It juz don't look good.

:-) That's good. I would have changed only the "juz" to "jus'"; "juz" sounds more like kewl. (Google 'kewl'--it won't be in a dictionary.)

18th and 19th C usage would most likely be 'his' alone--no 'her' need apply. Probably early in the 20th C people were becoming uncomfortable with this, but not until around 1960 did 'his or her' start being used widely; and it's always been seen as a clumsy construction, to be avoided whenever possible.

You need to remember that English grammar wasn't really set in stone until the late 18th C / early 19th C, when grammarians got to work on it and tried to impose rules imported from the Latin. Their heyday was around 1850-1950, with universal public education, and schoolkids being taught RULES of English. (They still are, of course, but now no one pays attention.) Shakespeare would flunk freshman English.

The problem has always been that English has no singular pronoun that doesn't denote sex (or the lack of it). So using 'his', or 'his or her', or 'his/her', or 'their', is probably just a matter of taste. Janes_kid's objection that the 'his' always precedes the 'her' is also a point very well taken. Which form is the least grotesque? You vote with your tongue, or keyboard.

About the pronunciation of 'furniture', the makeshift orthography shown as "fur-nuh-chur" will make more sense to a native English speaker; only the 'nuh' should be interpreted as a clean schwa. An English 'r' always changes the value of the preceding vowel, and 'fur' would be interpreted as meaning "pronounce as you would the word 'fur'". Then the 'chur' ending should be pronounced, by analogy, to rhyme with 'fur'. Orthography is very messy; no two dictionaries seem to follow the same scheme. WordSpy is just using a very quick-and-dirty method, to get you in the ballpark. Same with their "ASK.uh.bul pair.unt"--it's nonsense, but it gets the job done.

I want to say that you make a valid and very important point with your last short paragraph, above. There's a vast difference between formal English, written for publication, and informal slangy talk. You have to know the rules of the language, and follow them, to be taken seriously in any formal context. Here you should try to avoid using a singular pronoun of indeterminate gender; but when you must, then it's probably best to use the "he or she" / "him or her" / "his or hers" forms.