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What does 'they' refer to in the following paragraph?

You see, what we’re doing is we’re bringing up children and educating them to live the same sort of lives we’re living, in order that they may justify themselves and find satisfaction in life by bringing up their children to bring up their children to do the same thing. So it’s all retch and no vomit—it never gets there. And so, therefore, it’s so important to consider this question: “What do I desire?”

I guess the first they and themselves refer to 'we'. Also, the sentence uses 'their children' twice; I think the first one means 'our children' and second one refers to 'our grandchildren'. Am I understanding the sentence correctly?

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    I think you meant "What DO 'they' and 'their ' refer to?", right? Commented Nov 8, 2022 at 22:54
  • 2
    The whole paragraph is a bit of a mess; I certainly wouldn't use it as an example of how to write English.
    – chepner
    Commented Nov 9, 2022 at 20:21
  • So it’s all retch and no vomit I have not heard this expression before. Is it common? Commented Nov 9, 2022 at 20:25
  • @JohnGordon I don't think I'd heard it before either. Some info on it at english.stackexchange.com/questions/91874/…
    – Dave Costa
    Commented Nov 10, 2022 at 3:51
  • Apparently this quote is transcribed from Alan Watts' seminar "Do You Do It, or Does It Do You?" (specifically, a portion frequently referenced as "What if money was no object?"). Here's a timestamped clip that includes these lines of audio from it.
    – V2Blast
    Commented Nov 10, 2022 at 3:55

3 Answers 3

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They and themselves would seem to refer to "children". There is no other third person plural noun it could refer to. It can't mean "we". Don't use "they" to mean "we".

So "their children" means "our children's children" (ie our grandchildren) and the second "their children" means "their children's children" (ie our great-grand-children)

This looks like transcribed speech, rather than written English. It could benefit from some editing for clarity.

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    I think they used the parallel phrases for rhetorical effect, at the slight expense of clarity. It suggests that this should repeated in every generation, not just these three specific ones.
    – Barmar
    Commented Nov 9, 2022 at 15:24
  • Yep. Apparently this quote is transcribed from Alan Watts' seminar "Do You Do It, or Does It Do You?" (specifically, a portion frequently referenced as "What if money was no object?"). Here's a timestamped clip that includes these lines of audio from it. Watts is commenting on society at large here (or at least "Western society") – he's saying that basically everyone is raising their children in this way, and thus the next generation repeats the cycle, and so on.
    – V2Blast
    Commented Nov 10, 2022 at 4:06
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that they

A new group comprised of our own children.

may justify themselves

The same group (our children) but now referring to that groups self.

and find satisfaction in life by bringing up their children

The previous groups children, our grand children.

to bring up their children

the group comprised of our grandchildren from above, but now referring to their own children (our great grandchildren)

to do the same

Additional clarity could be achieved by referring to the named groups:

that our children may justify themselves and find satisfaction in life by bringing up our grandchildren to bring up our great-grandchildren to do the same

It should be pointed out that the set of pronouns (they/them/their) can also be the preferred singular pronoun for an individual as well.

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    and for completeness, "they/them/their" can be used to refer to an arbitrary singular person of yet-to-be-determined gender, for example in a job advertisement.
    – nigel222
    Commented Nov 9, 2022 at 14:12
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While others have correctly identified what the they/their refer to in a strict sense, a literal reading of the referents misses some subtleties in the rhetorical structure.

The repetition of "their children" (and the associated switch in who "their" refers to) is likely deliberate. Setting up the repeated structure "bringing up their children to bring up their children" invites the reader/listener to mentally continue the pattern. ("... their children to bring up their children to bring up ...")

The argument isn't limited to the grandchildren and great-grandchildren, the intent is that the pattern and argument would apply and continue to all descendants. The repetition of "their children" as-is brings that concept into the sentence in a way that explicit references (e.g. "bringing up our grandchildren to bring up our great-grandchildren") doesn't. It also differs from simply saying "all our descendants" by explicitly invoking the concept of an unbroken chain of parents passing things on directly to their children, versus passing something from the ancestor directly to a distant generation.

Reading things this way makes the otherwise unclear change of who "their" is referring to less unclear. The precise people to which "their" refers to in "bringing up their children to bring up their children" doesn't quite matter, as the construct is read as a whole, implying a whole collection of descendants, rather than any particular generation.

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