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Plural pronouns and group identifiers, part 1

Several years ago, a friend updated his Facebook status with a link to a news article about how some group of Muslims was offended by being portrayed badly in media or something similar. My friend's comment on the story was very close to: "When they start worrying about offending us by crashing planes into buildings, then we can start worrying about offending them."

Most of the time I don't bother commenting on things like that, but I couldn't resist a comment:

The 'they' in the first half of the sentence refers to a different group a people than the 'them' in the second half.

He came back with "Fine: 'Islamic terrorists' then. Is that better?"

I decided to not continue because I could tell it wasn't going to go anywhere productive, but he didn't understand that his sarcastic "correction" proved my point. Which plural pronoun was "Islamic terrorists" supposed to replace?

The first?

When [Islamic terrorists] start worrying about offending us by crashing planes into buildings, then we can start worrying about offending them.

The second?

When they start worrying about offending us by crashing planes into buildings, then we can start worrying about offending [Islamic terrorists].

Both?

When [Islamic terrorists] start worrying about offending us by crashing planes into buildings, then we can start worrying about offending [Islamic terrorists].

None of these seem quite right. Islamic terrorists wanted us to be "offended" by crashing planes into buildings, and no one is complaining about Islamic terrorists being offended. So what could his original comment mean?

In context of the story, the "them" in the second half must refer to "non-terrorist Muslims". When you properly replace those plural pronouns, the result is nonsensical:

When Islamic terrorists start worrying about offending us by crashing planes into buildings, then we can start worrying about offending non-terrorist Muslims.

Basically, after his "correction", people are only supposed to worry about offending non-terrorist Muslims when Islamic terrorists worry about offending their targets.

This demonstrates the problem of plural pronouns, and all group identifiers, in fact.


Of course, for completeness, we should really replace all the plural pronouns:

When Islamic terrorists start worrying about offending [Unites States citizens] by crashing planes into buildings, then [Unites States citizens] can start worrying about offending non-terrorist Muslims.

This could help people understand that some Unites States citizen are Muslims, and that probably non-US citizens are offended by terrorist acts too.


Anyway, English would be awkward with out plural pronouns, but just make sure your pronouns are properly referenced.

2013-09-28 #politics   #skeptical-zen  
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