He/She Mistake in the News

I was most intrigued when I saw a snippet of a recent article in the China Daily about the new U.S. ambassador to China:

“The ambassador also introduced her family to the media in fluent mandarin…”

huntsman familyThis surprise me because I thought the new ambassador was Jon Huntsman. Turns out he is, and this is just the classic “he/she/(it)” mix-up.

It could be an innocent typo (of which I myself make many on this blog!), but more likely the article was either written by a native speaker of Chinese or the article was translated from Chinese (couldn’t confirm). Here’s the full quotation:

“The ambassador also introduced her family to the media in fluent mandarin and invited reporters to enjoy an episode his eldest daughter Mary Anne played on piano in the living room.”

For anyone new to the “he/she” fiasco, the defense usually goes like this:

“We Chinese have only one word for ‘he/she/it’: . So when speaking English we often make mistakes. It’s a case where a divergent concept in English (like doubt/suspect, borrow/lend) is responsible for this mistake as well as others.

The prosecution now says:

“Yes, but when writing Chinese characters you have to chose one of three depending on what you’re talking about. ,, and are all pronounced , but mean ‘he,’ ‘she,’ and ‘it,’ respectively. And now here’s an article in a major Chinese publication that shows the mistake in print, even though there is no divergence between the Chinese and English writing of ‘he/she/it.'”

I’m not really interested in a “verdict,” I just thought it was interesting to see more evidence that the “he/she” problem isn’t just in the realm of speaking (my writing students in China have been known to write “he/she” wrong from time to time even when talking about their own family members!).

And now, just to indulge my fantasy of becoming a forensic linguist, I’d like to point out that whoever wrote the article was most likely trained in British English because of the collective treatment of “family” here:

“Now my family are very happy to come here to serve on behalf of the US government.”

I think Mr. Huntsman would have said “my family is very happy,” hence my theory that this has been translated into English by someone trained in British English.

That was fun.

9 Replies to “He/She Mistake in the News”

  1. In my opinion, the he/she mixup is evidence that the article was originally written in English by a native Chinese speaker, rather than first written in Chinese and then translated. If it were translated, then you’d expect that the translator would see the and translate that to “he” appropriately because of the visual cue. But, if the article were originally written in English rather than translated, then there would be no such visual cue, and the writer would simply convert the “ta” sound (said in the writer’s mind) to the appropriate Chinese word, leading to the mixup.

    (Also, there are some other grammatical irregularities, such as “he will spend the next few weeks to meet…” and “She will attend in a local school” which indicate that the article was written by someone whose first language is not English)

  2. In the UK, I’ve noticed that Chinese students often make the mix up. Indeed, my wife does too and it’s contagious – I’ve even found myself making the same mistake as a result. I do think that generally it’s just a slip where in spoken Chinese you wouldn’t think about which ‘ta’ to use, and just say it.

    Of course, if you were French you’d have a different excuse – the equivalent possessive pronoun is dependent on the gender of the object, not the subject.

    As for “my family are” – common usage here in the UK is my family is – I’ve not heard people generally use the plural, but then the debate on that one is for another day/blog!

  3. As a Chinese newbie, this has always been confounding for me. I took 3 years of Spanish in high school and the whole idea of masculine and feminine nouns is very much a part of my language understanding.

    What’s even more interesting to me is whether this gender confusion is as taboo/funny in Chinese as in English. In English if I make a slip and accidentally refer to a man as “she” or vice versa, it’s something to be quickly corrected. Since spoken Chinese derives distinction from context, are gender mixups more common and less of a faux pas?

    It’s also quite possible that as a mere 1st year learner, I just don’t have enough experience to know that gender confusion isn’t a big deal (any more than it is in English) for people more fluent than myself!

  4. I am glad to find this blog, as I myself just want to write an article about this he/she mistake made by Chinese learners. I am now a postgrduate, majoring in English and I think my classmates as well as me have already learned many grammatical rules, even some complicated ones such as many verb tenses,attributive clauses, but to my surprise,during our first class of Second Language Acquisition, my classmates made many he/she mistakes(I think we all know when and how to use he/she, therefore it should be very simple) during the self-introductions.It is funny as I believe they should be above that mistake which is always made by my high shool students ( I was an English teaher for 6 years befor the present post graduate study. What is more funny is that I myself is frequently corrected the same mistake. Even if I pay special attention to it, it just can not be avoided completely. What leads to this? I just want to find the answer. Any ideas about this phenomenon will be much valued and gratituded.

  5. Shannon,

    Your question about what leads to the perennial “he/she” mistakes has plagued me for these past 4.5 years I’ve been in China. I still don’t have a good answer for that. All I know is the answer is not: “In Chinese there is only ‘ta’ so it’s difficult to remember to say ‘he’ or ‘she’ when speaking English.” That’s an excuse, but not a good explanation 🙂 There are so many other things that are different between English and Chinese that students don’t have a problem with.

    If you find the answer please tell all of us. We’re all dying to know.

  6. Personally, I explain it to myself like this.

    When Chinese native speakers talk to one another, the grammatical concept of “sex separation” simply doesn’t exist in their heads. (Or, more precisely, it doesn’t exist on a subconscious level in their heads. And it is on a subconscious level where all language patters are formed milliseconds before they are pronounced as words.) And when the Chinese start talking English, it should be very difficult for them to introduce this concept of sex separation and start using it when talking. (Especially, when talking quickly.) Once again, I’m talking about the subconscious level only here. The problem is that the he/she distinction is a very basic grammar, something that we apply automatically, without thinking, without concentrating on it, no matter if we speak our native language or a foreign one. So I guess the Chinese make this mistake most when they speak English quickly, automatically. That is, when the absence of the concept of sex separation in their minds takes control!

    I wonder if my attempt to give an explanation is useful for somebody. This is my first post on this website, but I follow the topics and discussions here for quite a while and I’d like to say thank you to Albert for keeping this website going and for providing such an interesting content for all of us to enjoy!

  7. Someone gave me a very interesting response to this discussion that I never thought of. She said while she was growing up in Vietnam (she is chinese vietnamese) and learning English, literature was very much male dominant – everything they read talked about a “he”. Therefore starting a sentence with “he” became habitual and it takes thought to switch to “she”. I realize that this is true in Hong Kong as well. We made sentences with he much more than she.

  8. I’ve read more than once “here” instead of “hear” and “to” in lieu of “too” in major american magazines, so I guess this falls into the same category.

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