I came across this sentence:

In addition, I must offer an apology to the reader on a quite different matter. I can well appreciate that she or he might take exception, were I to refer to her or him in a way that appears to make presumptions as to her or his sex—and I shall certainly not do so!

I could not figure out the sentence grammatically. For example "were I to refer to" is a very strange structure.

  • I have no trouble understanding oddly worded sentences, but this takes the cake for the absolute, most hideous wording ever. I understand your confusion, verdery. – Adam Oct 8 '15 at 4:43

Another way of saying "were I to refer to" could be "If I referred to...". In this case, the second sentence (which is the most difficult part and is most likely what's causing you trouble) could be rephrased as:

"If I referred to the reader as a he or a she, she or he could be offended by it - that's why I won't do it."

The "take exception" idiom means "to take offense at something", as you can see here. Everytime you find some weird-looking phrase that makes no sense if interpreted literally, try googling it - it's very likely an idiom. Hope that helped.

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This is a quote from Roger Penrose's book Shadows of the Mind wherein he will explain that

it may be necessary to refer to some abstract person* such as 'observer' or a 'physicist'. It is clear that there is no implication as to the sex of such an individual, but the English language does not have a neutral gender third-person singular pronoun.

Penrose finds the use of the plural pronoun they for such a reference to one person "grammatically offensive." He finds no merit in alternating the references between feminine and masculine. And he thinks using "he or she" every time is awkward.

And to illustrate that awkwardness he has written a very awkward sentence that uses the "his or her" convention three times.

"Were I to refer to" is the same as "If I were to refer to." The verb form is in the so-called subjunctive mood for a condition contrary to fact, i.e, Penrose is not actually going to refer to an actual person in a way that makes a presumption about the person's sex, but if he did, he would understand that it might give offense. Ordinarily you say "I was," but in the cases that call for the subjunctive, you say "I were."

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  • I find the example quite a good argument for the use of singular they, as using it would remove several words of clutter. And singular they is well established. It's not perfect but it's better than this clumsiness. – Chris H Oct 8 '15 at 6:25
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    @ChrisH I didn't mean to endorse RP's point of view. I think the singular they is unobjectionable when rephrasing the antecedent in the plural is clumsy. But, hey, it's Roger Penrose. – deadrat Oct 8 '15 at 6:37

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