Subject: Re: PART TWO: winning industrial-use of lisp:  Re: Norvig's latest paper on Lisp
From: Erik Naggum <>
Date: Fri, 21 Jun 2002 22:03:00 GMT
Newsgroups: comp.lang.lisp
Message-ID: <>

* Tim Bradshaw <>
| If I understand you, then I agree. The syntax must make sense, so it's
| `they are' but not `they is'.  `They is' or anything where the
| disagreement is too glaring would immediately make me think the
| writer/speaker was not very literate.

  My point exactly.  However, there is no telling what people who want to make
  changes to a language might want to do.  Mismatch in number is already a
  grammatical error.  One could regard compounding this grammatical error with
  another as worsening the already sorry situation.  At one point, of course,
  you have a completely different sentence, which has become grammatical
  through any number of individual ungrammatical steps.  Where to start?  Where
  to stop?  _How_ do you decided that some ungrammatical form is acceptable?

  Of course, you might argue, a native speaker would never write "they is", so
  you do not even consider that an option.  HOWEVER, people have actually done
  this in the past, a long time ago.  Whether it was another stupid stunt to
  try to get rid of he/she or not, I have no way of telling, but what I wrote
  was precisely what I have found.  This is, again, why I write "there is some
  record" of this phenomenon.  That I either did not interpret "singular third
  person pronoun" to mean "of course, we don't treat it as a singular for any
  _other_ purposes" or the person who argued this was blindly _unaware_ of the
  historical record that some _illiterates_ (in my view as well as the position
  taken by linguists both then and after the fact), it is hard to tell, but I
  am so fucking tired of people who attack me for their own goddamn emotional
  problems and general failure to cope with unwelcome feelings and events.

| What is OK is something like: `someone broke in last night, but they did not
| steal the biscuits' where the `they' quite clearly refers to an (unknown)
| individual.  I *think* that this would not have been corrected, but I can't
| do a retrospective experiment...

  I would not object to that, but I would not call it a _singular_ pronoun.  It
  is something else.  Indefinite or whatever, but calling it "singular" would
  imply the singular form of other words, too.  The fact that "you are" is the
  same for singular and plural does not mean that randomly using another
  pronoun in a new role carries anything similar with it.  Languages do not
  grow that way.  Historically, languages have grown through steps of least
  resistance.  Is there less resistance from "he is" to "they is" or to "they
  are"?  People _have_ in fact differed in this view, regardless of the fucking
  annoying ignorance of James A. Crippen and his need to blame me for it.

| There's a fine skating-around-of-syntactic-problems that goes on in this
| usage I think.  It's possible to construct linguistic situations where things
| really jar, and in previous exchanges with people I've had about this they've
| spent a lot of time trying to construct such situations to make me admit I
| would not really use `they'.  I think the answer is that in those cases I'd
| probably revert to `he', or just avoid them.

  It is fairly obvious to me that you _cannot_ just make a simple change like
  "s/he/they/".  In order to make this work, you have to change the whole way
  you think about referring to people.  I consider it massively stupid to even
  _attempt_ to believe that "he" can be replaced with "they" without serious
  ramifications.  There is a difference betwen "may the best man win" and "may
  the best man or woman win" -- you would instead say "may the best contestant
  win".  If you would say "someone broke in last night, but at least he left
  the aquarium intact", is it better to rewrite to "they" than to rewrite to
  "someone broke in last, fortunately leaving the aquarium intact"?  The use of
  pronouns is just one of several ways to refer back to something.  Simple and
  short sentence structures with subject-verb-object forms need pronouns more
  than more complex sentence structures.  It may be highly preferable to find
  other forms of expression if the pronouns get in the way than to use more
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