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Reminding Starbucks that Beautiful Code Should Make Beautiful Language (aarondinin.com)
15 points by apdinin on July 17, 2013 | hide | favorite | 41 comments

As a grammar nerd, I call bullshit. "They" as gender-neutral singular pronoun has been part of the English language for centuries, and it's only in the last hundred years or so (give or take a bit, I don't have time to look it up right now) that prescriptivists have started freaking out about it. Yeah, it's a little awkward, but modern English NEEDS a gender-neutral singular pronoun, and "they" is the best we have.

It was good enough for Shakespeare, and it's good enough for me.

I dislike the premise of this article.

All the alternatives have worse disadvantages:

- repeating the name "Matt" is awkward

- gender is an awkward requirement for sending a giftcard

- assuming someone is male unless they are known to be female is awkward

- "he/she" is awkward

And, crucially:

- singular they is widely used and understood and has significant historical precedent https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singular_they

+1. This article is rubbish. Singular "they" is fine.

Of course, there's always the option of side-stepping the entire issue:

> Matt Hofstadt wanted to make your day, and has sent you a $20 gift card...

I don't understand the outrage over singular "they". I agree that it's not particularly logical, but what part of the English language is?? It sounds natural, at least. It's certainly widely used, and will likely become a "correct" form within a few decades.

The OP suggests guessing gender from names. There are too many unusual cases and gender-neutral names to be able to guess gender from a name alone. Even ignoring non-english-speaking world, I know several guys named "Kelly" and "Kim" and I have a female cousin named "James" (she goes by "Jill", though).

Adding a gender field is often not feasible and a bad idea for other reasons (gender identity, etc). It's far better to sidestep the issue with commonly-used-but-not-quite-formally-correct grammar, i.m.o.

Singular "they" is a real thing. People who get upset about it are the worst.

I'm with you 100%. John McWhorter wrote a nice piece on it recently for TNR: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/112896/tyranny-pronouns-f...

Luckily, grammar rule don't evolve from what grammaticians want but from what people use. And a singular "they" sounds natural and follows the trend of language streamlining where it is most heavily used (there's a trend of irregular verbs becoming regular verbs based on usage).

    Wasn’t that easy?
No, because there are a reasonably large number of people, especially in Starbucks' home town, who want to be referred to as ze, zer, or one of a number of other gender-neutral, recently-minted pronouns. http://www.warren-wilson.edu/~writingcenter/Gender-Neutral_L...

So now you either need to ask a user for their name and preferred pronoun, or just refer to them as "they".

Here are some more sources -




Using the singular-they seems to be completely acceptable and preferable to the alternatives provided by the author.

Did you read the article? The point he made was, if you don't know which gendered pronoun to use, just use their name!

"In a case like the generic email I got from Starbucks where the gender of the purchaser is likely unknown, the solution is even easier. Try this little programmatic trick:

    [$first_name] [$last_name] wanted to make your day so [$first_name] sent you a $20.00 USD Starbucks Card eGift to spend on your favorite beverage."
Or "this person" would work in many situations as well.

Also, what is "especially in Starbucks' home town" supposed to mean?

Bleh. I think his "correction" is as 'horrific a travesty against language' as the original:

"John Smith wanted to make your day so John sent you a gift card."

That is not even remotely elegant.

^ This. Using a noun instead of a pronoun just because you didn't know what pronoun to use defeats the entire purpose of a pronoun and makes a ghastly sentence which would have been thrown out of my grammar class back in high school.

Honestly, I'm surprised that:

a) He's writing this opinionated a post just to provide a solution which is that horrible.

b) He teaches English at UMCP. Pronouns in language are a difficult problem to solve at the best of times, and someone who proposes this sort of a 'bulletproof' solution of "Well, just Replace It with a Noun when you're confused!" worries me as an English professor.

A little creative writing can easily fix this. "John Smith wanted to make your day, so now you have this gift card." "John Smith sent you this gift card to make your day." "You got this gift card, because John Smith wanted to make your day."

It's not rocket surgery.

Seattle is home to a pretty progressive culture, and is much more amenable to pronouns outside of the traditional gendered binary breakdown.

> Also, what is "especially in Starbucks' home town" supposed to mean?

Seattle has a relatively large genderqueer population.

So the solution is to never use pronouns?

Speaking of pretentious-douchebag-grammar-nerds, allow me to explain the evolution of the “I’m going to refer to a singular noun with a plural pronoun” linguistic phenomenon. It’s a product of increased gender equality. People used to generically refer to everyone as males

That's entirely and entirely typically wrong. Singular "they" has been well-established in English for centuries. The great writers have always used it freely—that includes Chaucer, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Dickens, Oscar Wilde, and seemingly everybody else. "A person can't help their birth," says Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair. (Edit: it's fun to dig up these classical examples, because they sound so modern and fresh. "Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes"—Wilde. "It's enough to drive anyone out of their senses"—Shaw. "Everybody does and says what they please"—Byron.)

The ironic thing is that the "rule" about generic "he" (and later, "he or she" and all the other stilted variants) was fabricated by grammarians who looked at how English actually worked, said "Goodness no that can't be right because Latin doesn't do that", and started telling everybody their grammar was wrong.

(Notice how I just used singular "they". Should I have said, "telling everybody his grammar was wrong"? Or "his or her", or "his/er", or just "her", if you're one of those? Or, to adapt the OP's suggestion, "telling everybody everybody's grammar was wrong"?)

People never stopped using it, though, and by 1850 the grammarians were so indignant about this that they petitioned the British Parliament to make "he" the legal standard. And people kept on using "they", because it works.

Edit: There are so many sources on this that you can't kick Google without stirring some up, but http://motivatedgrammar.wordpress.com/2009/09/10/singular-th... and http://www.crossmyt.com/hc/linghebr/sgtheirl.html are particularly good and http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/002748.h... is hilarious.

Asking for a gender on a signup form with binary choice is a good way to end up at the center of a protest from the perpetually aggrieved. Repeating the sender's name in consecutive clauses is clunky and jarring. It would be much easier to just reconstruct the sentence slightly:

"Matt Hofstadt wanted to make your day by sending you..."

Singular they was covered on an episode [1] of Lexicon Valley, which might be enlightening to anyone who opposes its use (and interesting to pretty much anyone).

[1] http://www.slate.com/articles/podcasts/lexicon_valley/2012/0...

They isn't just plural, it's also gender-neutral.

Gender neutral pronouns: they're here to stay[1].

[1] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=46ehrFk-gLk

This would require either a whole new field on the checkout form (gender) or some incomplete database lookup for gender-name mappings; neither is a good option. Using 'they' is pretty common practice to refer to someone gender neutrally.

This is so fucking stupid. “They” has been a singular pronoun since the Middle English period (Linguist here).

You could have called Starbucks out for things a lot worse than using a singular 'they'.

For every Starbucks messing up he/she/they, I can count 10 websites that can't get this right:

  printf("%d %s in your cart",x,(x==1) ? "item" : "items");

  0 items
  1 item 
  2 items
I could swear eBay printed "1 items" for the first decade of it's existence.

you'll have to revisit that for localization, you could use ngettext or similar right away.

That's a whole level of difficulty above this, my friend.

    Redeeming your eGift couldn't be easier. All you need to do is:
    1. Redeem your eGift
That doesn't really work for me, either. Surely steps 2/3 would never be reached - you'd end up in an infinite eGift redemption loop!

Something a lot of people are missing: Not all cultures do [first name] [last name].

Indeed, and asking for (and subsequently handling) first-name/last-name splits can thus be awkward.

Also, while I haven't stepped through Starbucks' gifting flow recently, gift cards might be given by collective entities as well, like "Your friends on the swim team" or "The Middleton Book Club".

'They' works better for that, too.

Starbucks' copywriter (or copywriters) knew what they were doing.

"Matt Hofstadt wanted to make your day so Matt sent you..." is uglier and less pleasant to read than the version with "they've". I don't see any argument in the article for what's actually wrong with using "they" - sure, it violates one of English's alleged rules, but the author acknowledges that those rules don't actually matter.

(Personally I think women should insist on being called "he" - "she" is a grammatical diminutive which implies inferiority - but given that they haven't, singular they is the best approach available).

"she" is a grammatical diminutive which implies inferiority

No it isn't. No it doesn't! Where'd you get that from?

(I'm a woman and I really would rather not textually eradicate my gender, thank you very much.)

"poetess" has been more or less eliminated from the language, and "actress" and "policewoman" are on their way out - at the behest of feminist groups. So it seems your compatriots disagree with you?

Using singular they is fine, but since too many people will jump on you and say you're doing it wrong, it's probably a better play to just restructure the whole sentence to avoid gender and the awkward double first name. Something like:

"$NAME wants to make your day with a $20 gift card..."

The author here is incorrect. I also dislike namedropping random startups / people I've never heard of, or actually just namedropping in general.

Also: http://xkcd.com/326/

As the author, I should probably take my own advice and do what I always tell my students. If the structure of the sentence causes so much controversy that it distracts from the meaning, change the sentence. Allow me to offer an alternative that solves everything:

"Matt Hofstadt wanted to make your day by sending you a $20.00 USD Starbucks Card eGift to spend on your favorite beverage."

> "As the author, I should probably take my own advice and do what I always tell my students."

The structure of that sentence irrationally infuriates me. I find it so distracting that I have been unable to glean any meaning from the rest of your post. You should therefore change it.

> "the mistake is surely damaging the “high quality” brand Starbucks cultivates in order to sell $5 coffee."

I would love to see the author try to seriously defend that assertion.

Not only is singular "they" perfectly acceptable, but the author neglected to point out the missing comma in the first sentence.

they can be used for singular. grammarians are, necessarily, several decades behind their actual language (but they never seem to want to admit it).

anyway, if Aaron Dinin really wants a fix, they (!!!) should've just removed the sickening and pointless, "wanted to make your day". so:

"Matt Hofstadt sent you a $20.00 USD Starbucks Card eGift to...", blah blah blah blah blah.

ha! this is awesome coming from super expensive coffee selling Starbucks, who just increased the price of their products, so they can pay for professional editing...lol, j/k

The author's solution about using the first name of the person should be the standard across the board. It hurts to read these sentences as much as reading bad code.

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