Enlightened singular they

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Today's Questionable Content:

For Judeo-Christian spiritual guidance on this point of usage, see "'Singular they': God said it, I believe it, that settles it", 9/13/2006, with additional discussion here. A sample of secular perspectives can be found here.


  1. Stan said,

    January 22, 2014 @ 8:02 am

    Very enlightened, since in theory anyone can become a Buddha. Zen is also pleasingly close to ze, proposed once or twice as an epicene pronoun.

  2. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 22, 2014 @ 11:37 am

    I use singular "they" sometimes and I normally have no trouble understanding it, but this comic really baffled me. Why "the Buddha is" and then "they", not "he"? Is the speaker making a point that she sees the Buddha as beyond gender as well as sex?

  3. Brett said,

    January 22, 2014 @ 11:57 am

    I think the previous line is relevant, which sets the scene in which the Buddha appears. Nobody today is going to meet Gautama Buddha on the road; that man is long dead. But it still makes sense to talk of meeting a the Buddha on the road, who might be either male or female.

    On a further linguistic note, I just typed "a the Buddha" naturally, and it sounds unremarkable when I read it back in my head. However, I don't know if I've ever used that combination of indefinite and definite articles before.

  4. Shmuel said,

    January 22, 2014 @ 12:33 pm

    I think the previous line is relevant, which sets the scene in which the Buddha appears.

    Indeed. And given that Marten is heterosexual, and given the context of the strip (he's replying to "I hope Tai brought you to this party to try and get you laid," which is, in fact, the case), the Buddha he'd be kissing would almost certainly be female.

  5. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 22, 2014 @ 12:40 pm

    Thanks, Brett and Shmuel, that's helpful. Are there Buddhists who believe in female Buddhas? Not that what Buddhists believe is necessarily relevant to the characters in this comic strip.

  6. SlideSF said,

    January 22, 2014 @ 1:02 pm

    I'm pretty sure "the previous line", relevant or not, is a play on the title of Sheldon Kopp's book, "If You Meet The Buddha on the Road, Kill Him". Had it read "if you meet a Buddha, kiss a Buddha" it might sound too much like Robert Burns..

  7. Rube said,

    January 22, 2014 @ 1:07 pm


    Indeed, when I saw "If you meet the Buddha, ki– the Buddha" I filled it in as "kill", and what quite confused by the reference to making out until I realized what the comic actually said.

  8. Brett said,

    January 22, 2014 @ 1:39 pm

    I've never heard of Kopp's book. "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him," is an old Zen saying. Different sources appear to disagree about what the koan means (but they would probably all agree that that was part of the point.)

  9. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 22, 2014 @ 2:43 pm

    The "kill" version supposedly goes back to circa the 9th century. It would likely first have arisen in some version of LIterary Chinese (pronouns in the old days not marked for gender, I think) and then probably been transmitted to pop-Anglophone sources via Japanese (situation I believe somewhat complex but pronouns often gendered). It would be interesting to know whether the traditional Japanese formulation of the koan implies an assumption/prediction (and if so how strongly) on the sex and/or gender of the Buddha who ought to be killed if met on the road.

  10. Xmun said,

    January 22, 2014 @ 3:15 pm

    According to Justin Lewis-Anthony, the author of the saying was Lin-Chi, who was born in the Shandong province of China during the Tang Dynasty (AD 608-907). Lewis-Anthony quotes the story in his book If You Meet George Herbert on the Road, Kill Him (2009). His quotation is taken from Burton Watson's book, The Zen Teachings of Master Lin-Chi: A Translation of the Lin-chi Lu (New York, Columbia University Press, 1999). This text uses no pronoun but repeats the noun: "If you meet a buddha, kill the buddha".

  11. Piyush said,

    January 22, 2014 @ 3:41 pm

    @ Jerry Friedman:

    "Are there Buddhists who believe in female Buddhas?"

    I think so. See, e.g., Avalokiteśvara and Guanyin.

  12. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 22, 2014 @ 4:45 pm

    The alternation between indefinite and definite articles in Watson's translation seems odd (especially if the relevant sort of Chinese doesn't have either sort of article . . .).

  13. J Silk said,

    January 22, 2014 @ 6:22 pm

    Not to be dogmatic, but Avalokiteśvara (=, not and, Guanyin) is a bodhisattva, not a buddha. The only Indian source I know of which recognizes a female buddha is the Buddhakapālatantra, which contains the (to me astonishing) form tathāgatā, fem. This is very well attested, but as far as I know, not elsewhere to be found (and in any event, I *believe* that outside of tantric literature, such a thing never occurs — once again, I can only speak with any certainty of Indian sources.)

  14. dainichi said,

    January 22, 2014 @ 6:49 pm

    @J. W. Brewer

    "The alternation between indefinite and definite articles in Watson's translation seems odd"

    Why? Once you've introduced "a buddha" into the discourse, surely "the buddha" is the natural way to refer to it (if you have to repeat the noun). "A buddha" in the second instance would mean "some buddha, not necessarily the same one". Or am I misunderstanding you?

    "It would be interesting to know whether the traditional Japanese formulation of the koan implies an assumption/prediction"

    Not sure if it's the traditional one, but the version I've heard is
    which literally means "If/when you meet buddha, kill buddha" (No articles or gender markers).

  15. dainichi said,

    January 22, 2014 @ 6:51 pm

    Whoops, I now notice my "it" to refer back to "a bhudda". I guess that should have been…. "them".

  16. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 22, 2014 @ 7:06 pm

    I think I would use "that buddha" for the second reference (to refer back to the particular "a buddha" already introduced). That may be because of the oddity (which is perhaps an artifact of my not being deeply immersed in things Buddhist) of the polysemy between "the Buddha" referring to a specific/unique individual/entity and "the buddha" meaning a particular member of a larger set including a multiplicity of buddhas. But taking dainichi's version of the Japanese as the standard, whether to make the first reference "buddha" v. "the buddha" v. "a buddha" (not to mention what to do with capitalization) seems like a translator's option.

  17. Matt said,

    January 22, 2014 @ 9:10 pm

    This text uses no pronoun but repeats the noun: "If you meet a buddha, kill the buddha".

    This is the original in the latest Iwanami Bunko edition (ed. Iriya Yoshitaka):


    "Meet Buddha, kill Buddha." I think that Prof. Mair has discussed the "XY → If X, then Y" structure in Chinese a few times on Language Log before.

    Re the pronoun, "they" seems quite appropriate if we keep in mind that "佛說一切諸法非男非女" (Buddha taught that in all things there is no male, no female), as Kumarajiva's translation of the Vimalakirti Sutra says.

  18. Timothy Mills said,

    January 23, 2014 @ 12:33 am

    Re the use of singular "they", I just read that if you tell Google that you have "other" gender, or want your gender private, it will use "singular they" in references to you (see here).

    Surely, if anyone is still awaiting normative sanction for this usage, they now have it. The ur-Google has decreed it, and it is good.

  19. V said,

    January 23, 2014 @ 8:14 am

    @Timothy Mills: Facebook did not require you to declare a gender when registering some years ago; they have since changed that, but if you did not declare a gender when registering, you are grandfathered in. They use "they/them" when refering to you. This varies greatly between languages, when translating, because they used to crowsource translations — I don't know if they still do.

  20. V said,

    January 23, 2014 @ 8:16 am

    They only allow male and female now, by the way; that caused quite a bit of outrage. And if I remember correctly, neither did Google+ initially.

  21. V said,

    January 23, 2014 @ 8:20 am

    Sorry, I meant to say that Google+ orginially, during the beta, only allowed male and female as gender, and it was mandatory to declare one. And it's still just three optioons (which cover mine, but others' requirements). That hapened after lots of people expressed outrage. I think this is a very small compromise on their part and not a solution at all.

  22. V said,

    January 23, 2014 @ 8:24 am

    And the way he's handling gender issues in this and older storylines has only increased my respect for Jeph, not that I expeceted anything less from him.

  23. V said,

    January 23, 2014 @ 8:27 am

    *But not other's requirements — sorry, I tend to get emotional about these topics.

  24. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 23, 2014 @ 10:35 am

    I am intrigued to learn (via dainichi's Japanese text) that the kanji for "Buddha/buddha" can also mean "France." It can also, perhaps more relevantly, mean "the deceased, a departed soul," with has an interesting resonance with the "meet X, kill X" formulation.

  25. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 23, 2014 @ 12:50 pm

    Thanks to Piyush, J Silk, and Matt for addressing my question.

  26. Nathan said,

    January 23, 2014 @ 1:32 pm

    Meet Buddha, kill France?

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