Douglas Crockford

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Pronouns

First Person Pronouns

The first person pronouns are used by a speaker to refer to the speaker and possibly others as well. They suffer from a lot of problems.

Capital I

The word I is capitalized even when it is not at the beginning of a sentence. The I is capitalized as if it is a proper noun. It is the only pronoun that does this. This was due to the slightness of the miniscule i, which could easily be confused with a stray mark. We eventually added a dot to the i to strengthen its recognizability as a letter. With that improvement, capitalization of I became unnecessary, but we continue to do it anyway.

Verb agreement

Consider these sentences:

I like Bernice.
Stella likes Bernice.

I is a singular pronoun, but it takes a plural verb. I, being a singular pronoun, should take a singular verb.

Am

I does not go with is or be. Instead, I goes with am. That is the only thing that am can do. We do not need am.

Nominative and accusative cases

Consider these sentences:

I like Bernice.
We like Bernice.
Bernice likes me.
Bernice likes us.

In nominative (or subject) position, we use I and we. In accusative (or object) position, we use me and us. One of my favorite things about English is that it does not bother with nominative/accusative case distinction, except for the pronouns. This is unnecessary complexity.

Possessives

Consider these sentences:

It is my book.
The book is mine.
It is Bernice's book.
The book is Bernice's.

The first person pronouns have extra possessive forms. In the singular, my is used as an adjective, and mine is used as a noun. In the plural, our is used as a adjective, and ours is used as a noun. Ordinarily, the possessive form can be used in either position.

Recommendation

Delete I and us, using me and we instead. Delete am, using be instead.. There are some dialects that already do this. I think they got it right.

And while we are at it, delete is and are, using be instead, and delete was and were, using been instead. With is gone, the confusion between contractions and possessives disappears.

The complexity of verb noun agreement leads to errors. We do not need singular verbs. They add a lot of hissy sibilance and unnecessarily double the number of verbs in the language. So, delete likes, using like instead. The same goes for all of the singular verbs.

Delete mine, using my instead. Delete ours, using our instead.

Second person pronouns

The second person pronouns are used by the speaker to refer to the listener or listeners.

The second person pronouns do not have any of the case, capitalization, or verb agreement problems of the first person pronouns, but they have another problem.

Singularity

We do not have a singular second person pronoun any more. There used to be one, thou, but it was doomed by the evil conventions of class stratification and biblical association. As a result, you must do double duty, being both singular and plural, which can lead to ambiguities. In some dialects, a new plural form is used, such as yall, youse, yinz, you’uns, and you guys. There should be a standard way of addressing a group.

Recommendation

Make yall the standard second person plural pronoun.

Third person pronouns

The third person pronouns are used to refer to things and people that are not the speaker or listener. They can refer to specific people and things, or act as variables, referring to potential members of sets of people and things. The variable functionality is powerful. But there are problems.

  Singular Plural
Masculine Feminine Neuter Epicene
Nominative he she it they
Accusative him her it them
Possessive Adjective his her its their
Noun his hers its theirs

The it pronoun is well behaved. It does not have alternate forms for the accusative case or the possessive noun. It should be the model for the other pronouns.

Nominative and accusative cases

The accusative case, which should not exist in English, intrudes in the pronouns. The regular nouns are not bothered by it. The English language should not contain any remnants of the accusative case.

Possessives

The possessive noun forms are unnecessary.

Recommendation

Delete him, using he instead. Delete her (in object position), using she instead. Delete them, using they instead.

Delete hers, using her instead. Delete theirs, using their instead.

Gender

In many languages, nouns are assigned genders for the purpose of attaching case ending or other forms. A noun's gender does not necessarily say anything about the gender of the thing the noun represents. English lost most of its gender as a consequence of being invaded many times by peoples with incompatible gender assignments in their languages. The difficulty of having a word in one language be masculine, and the corresponding word in another language arbitrarily being feminine ultimately led the English to let go of gender almost entirely. Gender still exists necessarily in words like man, woman, boy, girl. Gender still exists in some occupational roles, like actress, executrix, and queen, although we seem to be phasing these out. The biggest problem is with the third person singular pronouns.

There is a theory that gender identity can be encoded into a single bit, but that theory does not adequately serve people whose gender identity requires more information. For some, it is less offensive to be referred to not as he or she but as they. The plurality of they is broader, more accepting of nuance, and less disclosive. I understand why someone would want to be referred to as a they, and I agree that they have a right to that consideration. At the same time, I am distressed because we are confusing the plurality of they, repeating the mistake we made with you.

The thing that is great about they is that it is epicene. They is free of gender so they can include any gender or no gender. The greatest defect of English is that it lacks an epicene third person singular pronoun. We have a neuter pronoun, but it is inexcusably rude to refer to anyone as an it.

There have been attempts to remedy this, including the inclusive he, he or she, s/he, heshe, and worse. None have worked.

  Singular Plural
Masculine Feminine Neuter Epicene Epicene
Nominative he she it pe they
Accusative him her it per them
Possessive Adjective his her its per their
Noun his hers its pers theirs

What we need is a pronoun that says that someone is a person, where the gender is irrelevant or unknown. My proposal is that we start with the word person, truncating it to form a new set of pronouns.

One objection is that person contains the word son, carrying a distasteful masculine taint, but this just a coincidence, like the her in father. Person comes from Latin's persona, a noun with a feminine declension. Son is Germanic in origin.

Recommendation

My pronouns are pe/per/pers. Your pronouns can be pe/per/pers too.