Saturday, 28 July 2012

Singular "they" and Minecraft

A quickish note about a recent posting by Notch of Mojang. Notch, the original creator of Minecraft (which I really haven't had a chance to play for some time), notes that though the default character skin appears somewhat masculine (and is referred to as "Steve"), the original intent was that characters in Minecraft be genderless. Notch points to the genderless aspects of the other living creatures in Minecraft (cows, birds, pigs etc.) and the fact that all of these can breed with any other member of the same species to produce offspring as part of the same outlook.

The linguistic angle is his closing footnote, which relates to referring to Minecraft's default character as him:
* I do regret using masculine terms to talk about the default character. These days I try to use the up-and-coming use of “they” as a genderless pronoun.

They, of course, has been an "up-and-coming" genderless pronoun for at least a few hundred years now:
Matt. 18:35: So likewise shall my heauenly Father doe also vnto you, if yee from your hearts forgiue not euery one his brother their trespasses. [Tyndale's translation, 1526]
It has been pointed out repeatedly that singular they has been used in the Biblical translations of Tyndale and the King James translators, as well as other reputed writers of English literature such as Shakespeare and Jane Austen:
There's not a man I meet but doth salute me
As if I were their well-acquainted friend
[Shakespeare, A Comedy of Errors IV, 3]
"It had been a miserable party, each of the three believing themselves most miserable."
[Austen, Mansfield Park]
 For more on singular "they", see Language Log's collection of posts on the topic, as well as Wikipedia's extensive page.


  1. What is up-and-coming, because hardly needed before, is the use of they to refer to a specific person whose gender is not apparent. Traditional singular they applies to indefinites only, as in both your examples. The first Wikipedia example of the "indeterminate gender" function is "One student failed their exam", which is still indefinite — we don't know which student it was. For me, "Terry Nichols failed their exam" is ungrammatical, to say nothing of "Lucinda Smith failed their exam."

  2. I have the same judgement about sentences like *"Terry Nichols failed their exam". What's funny about that is---assuming I'm not certain with Terry is a man or a woman---is that "their" would be useful to use there.

    On the other hand, where pragmatically not only the specific nature but also the gender of a person is known, we get grammatical (for me) uses of singular "they", as in the example Language Log has from Obama, where he is clearly referring to Prof Henry Louis Gates:

    "...the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home."


  3. That works for me, perhaps because the reference is only pragmatic, not visible on the surface.

    I'm coming around to definite they, too.