Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
In my last post, I wrote about the power of pronouns and especially the power of “we” to include some people and exclude others. Today, I’m exploring the pronoun “they” and its power to separate as well as gather.
That’s what pronouns do.
As I wrote in the last post, prompted by a column by Leonard Pitts, Jr.
Pronouns reveal the unconscious nature of our language, words we human beings use automatically without struggling to choose just the right word. But sometimes we who care about being aware should choose those pronouns more deliberately. It may take someone else pointing out when we are using pronouns to exclude without awareness. And we definitely need those like Pitts to call out others using pronouns to exclude through prejudice.
Connie Schultz called out the current president for referring to Puerto Ricans as “they,” and she explains how it reveals his racism and his unwillingness to include Puerto Ricans as Americans. It reveals, in my terms, his unwillingness to include Puerto Ricans as “we.”
Donald Trump is dumping again on Puerto Rico, which was devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017 and remains in dire need of help that has never come. “I’ve taken better care of Puerto Rico than any man ever,” Trump said last week. “They’ve got to spend the money wisely. They don’t know how to spend the money.”
Of course we English-speaking human beings need pronouns like “we” and “they” in our language to refer to groups, but people give pronouns added power by using pronouns to separate “us” from “them,” the insiders from the outsiders, the right-thinkers from the wrong-thinkers. Americans from non-Americans.
Notice how different his statement would have been if he had included Puerto Ricans as “us”
“We’ve got to spend our money wisely in Puerto Rico.”
It might still have been just as wrong-headed a statement about the problems in Puerto Rico (as Schultz points out, Puerto Rico has received only about a quarter of the money allocated since the devastation of Hurricane Maria in 2017). But it would have been a statement about “our” problems and “our” actions, not some other “they” who don’t know how to spend the money “we” so generously give them.
Just like “we,” everyone uses “they” to refer to groups, but some “they”s mean more than others. Think about all the times you’ve heard or read someone describe some other group of people about whom they disapprove. It’s always about a “they”
“They” don’t know how to spend money
Well, some of them don't, are, and must be--maybe. But some of the individuals those statements lump together? Nope
You probably noticed that I lumped together some obviously prejudiced, racist, sexist, homophobic, political “they” statements with some seemingly less charged. I’m guessing you thought of “these kids today” (said in a growly low codger voice) spending all their time on their phones. Those “they” statements, too, lump together individuals who behave quite differently, who have different motivations and backgrounds, who are minimized by being separated out as “they.”
Every time people use “they” it creates a group who is not “me” or “you.” There’s a reason “they” is called a third-person pronoun. Not the center of the universe, the first person who matters, “I.” Not the people I know and recognize and speak to, the second person in the room, “you.” But the people outside this room, people being talked about by “me” and “you.”
[Don’t get me started on other possible uses of “you,” especially as in “you people,” as a speaker recently referred to my colleagues and me. That’s just talking about “them” but to their faces, as people at the receiving end of discrimination all their lives know far better than I do.]
Sometimes “they” refers to a well-defined and specific group. Sometimes it’s more insidious.
It’s one thing to say about my friends’ children, “They treated her very well on Mother’s Day,” another to say, “Children treat their parents so well. They are such a blessing.” Well, some are, some aren’t. It’s one thing to say about Felicity Huffman, Lori Loughlin, and other parents who bought their children’s way into preferred universities, “They are cheating.” It’s another thing to say, “Wealthy people—They think they are above the law.” I imagine some do, some don’t. Even when people are clearly referring to a category to which they don’t belong—as, say, my talking about rich people—the very act of creating a “they” is potentially harmful, a lumping together of individuals that we language-users need to be more aware of.
Who do we think of as “they”? Who doesn’t belong to “us”?
Notice your own use of “they” for a week, or for one day. Most often I’m guessing you’ll be referring to specific people—innocent, innocuous. Occasionally, perhaps, you’ll be creating an other, a group of “them” who are not like “you” or “us.”
Do you see what you’re doing there?
Becoming aware of language is tough. It starts, I think, with noticing other people’s language. Check out who is “we” and “they” in letters to the editor, political tweets, mission statements, office hallway conversations. Maybe then notice your own work or family conversations. Can you name the individuals you’re talking about, and are you saying something true about those individuals? Or are you getting glimpses into your own categories, your own ways of grouping people who are not like you?
That’s what pronouns do.
That’s what we all do, whether we notice it or not.
Let’s become an “us,” people who notice our “we”s and “they”s, who notice how others separate others from themselves. Maybe we even start to call out some of “them” who are using “they” and “we” insidiously.
Do you see what we could do there?