– The anonymous they

Crowd blurToday I heard students discussing feedback that their team had received from a few instructors on a presentation. The students’ sentences uniformly began with the pronoun “they.”

They liked [such and such].

They said [so and so].

They didn’t like [such and such].

After several of those sentences, the “they” became a blur, and, even though I had a sense of who those instructor/feedback-givers were, it all started to feel vague to me. The actors — the givers or performers of the feedback — were made anonymous by the use of the nonspecific, plural pronoun.

I don’t want to shake my finger at the students. Indeed, I’ve heard teachers use the same pronoun to the same effect, referring over and over to an anonymous conglomerate of students as “they.”

They don’t do [such and such].

They seem to like [this or that].

They want [more].

This usage cloaks the identity or characteristics of individuals in a particular group. “They” also indicates that a group is not “we.”

And so, by designating an anonymous and even homogeneous them, we somehow reinforce the unity and presence of our us. There’s an implicit binary.

I have noticed that this tendency to invoke an anonymous “they” is not restricted to the realm of education. For example, after the dot-com bubble crash, I would sometimes hear people, still in great pain from having lost money and hope, rail against the violations of an anonymous They. They did this. All they wanted was that. They never told us that [something bad] could happen.

“They” is a very useful pronoun. It effectively and succinctly signifies a large group of others (in fewer letters than “large group,” or “the regulators,” or “the instructors,” or “the students in my intro psych class”), a group somehow distinct from our group. I do not think we should or even can eliminate the word from our speech.

However, when I catch myself using the pronoun “they,” I do wonder what experience or characteristics I’m trying to distance myself, and my peers, from. That’s what this use of “they” does — creates distance.

What does that distance offer us?


Image “Liverpool Street station crowd blur” by victoriapeckham on Flickr. License via Creative Commons.

5 thoughts on “– The anonymous they

  1. This makes sense to me. The anonymity of individuals is key to making “them” part of a faceless other.

    I’m interested in how “they” can work differently in fiction. In that case, if the narrator is anonymous and the characters are more clearly defined, there’s probably no “we.”

    • Do you think, in such instances, that the reader might stand in for the “we,” or at least an “I”?

      I don’t know the answer. I’m trying to recall my experience of a novel the last time I read one with a 3rd person, anonymous narrator.

      Hmm. You just made me think, unexpectedly, of Roth’s Everyman, which I read last winter. It’s a first person narrator, who’s anonymous. The reader becomes intimately familiar with the narrator, who yet never names himself. He is distanced from himself, as he is others, although the others do get named.

      Emily Dickinson plays some skillful tricks with personal pronouns.

      j3, this seems to be an interesting topic for obsessed writers. 🙂

  2. I came across a similar analysis of “they” once before – Michael Crichton, in his autobiographical work “Travels” used it to refer to the division between men and women. And I sometimes hear friends refer to “they” or “them” in discussions between the rich vs. the poor.

    I personally suspect that “they” reference is a creation of the person speaking more than an organized body of individuals though. Maybe a direct result of unconscious paranoia. But that’s just me… 🙂

    • I think you’re onto something, dwanderingmind, whatever it’s the results of. Yes, I sometimes hear a tinge of distrust in the voice that speaks the “they.”

      And thank you for telling me about Michael Crichton’s take on this.

  3. Actually, Crichton’s conclusion was that the best way to deal with the apparent war between the sexes was to treat “them” as though they weren’t really all that different from us. 🙂

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