SHANE’S EXCELLENT NEW WORDS: “Just Who Are ‘They’ Anyway?”

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Forget who you are. Exactly who are they, anyway?

Are “they” the same beast, or different creatures?

These considerations have bedeviled analysts for a very long time. Here’s a point of view from 1993, from which I’ve drawn today’s opening sentence.

Just Who Are “They” Anyway?, by Michael Blumfield (Orlando Sentinel)

“They won`t let you get away with that.”

“They tell us everything we eat will kill us.”

“They say every cloud has a silver lining.”

You hear about them constantly — on radio talk shows, in bars, at political rallies, on the job.

The thing is, nobody seems to know exactly who they are. And just why is it so important to us to know what they think, anyway?

That little four-letter word is more complex than it lets on, representing everything from lazy language usage to the pangs of paranoia. Psychologists and linguists have reason for examining the pronoun …

And that’s exactly what “they” are is — a pronoun.

Pronoun

A pronoun is a substitute for a noun. It refers to a person, place, thing, feeling, or quality but does not refer to it by its name. The pronoun in the following sample sentence is bolded.

The critique of Plato’s Republic was written from a contemporary point of view. It was an in-depth analysis of Plato’s opinions about possible governmental forms.

Antecedent

An antecedent is the word, phrase, or clause to which a pronoun refers, understood by the context. The antecedent in the following sample sentence is bolded.

The critique of Plato’s Republic was written from a contemporary point of view. It was an in-depth analysis of Plato’s opinions about possible governmental forms.

While the pronouns I and you can be replaced by nouns, the context of a sentence does not always require the nouns to make clear to which persons I and you refer. However, the third person pronouns (he, she, it, they) almost always derive their meaning from their antecedents or the words for which they stand. Remember that pronouns in the third person communicate nothing unless the reader knows what they mean:

It is the best source available.

What source is that?

Obviously, the questioner doesn’t know, or wouldn’t be asking. Accordingly, in each of the instances from Facebook pictured above, the question could be more clearly stated.

What is being done to Green Valley Road?
What is being built next to the gas station by Waffle House?
What is being built on Mt. Tabor?

Sample sentences illustrating antecedent (bold) and pronoun (italic) usage:

Jeff Gahan and his merry band of shameless bootlicking sycophants are intent on destroying public housing in New Albany. They should be fired by the electorate in 2019.

They can take him away at any time, natch.

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