Friday, January 18, 2013

The singular they

I have always thought this one of the most useful features of English, but pedants and ignoramuses alike object to it. (David Cohen will be the first to comment here, closely followed by Steve Whitehouse, neither of whom is an ignoramus: all others are welcome to weigh in.) The Economist, whose Style Guide is near-essential for any writing professional, has declared itself to be in my corner, on the grounds that the singular they is the “most convenient solution”. Yes: convenience rules. Quote unquote:
If singular they has deep historical precedent, then it is dispositive on the sub-question of what is traditionally correct.[…] Putting the referent in the plural – “All the students aced their projects” – nixes the troublesome (grammatically singular but semantically plural) each student. 
Read on. You know you want to.

I first heard the singular they on The Archers when I was 12. Someone somewhere in Ambridge had done something wrong and the speaker growled, “When I find out who it was, they’ll be sorry.” Which neatly avoided ascribing a sex to the offender. How useful, how convenient, I thought then and I still do. Avoids all that “he or she” nonsense which the Economist rightly condemns as “ugly and awkward”.

5 comments:

Mark Hubbard said...

The 's/he' nonsense is awkward. There was a woman (and see, off topic, but I'd rather use lady there, it sounds gentler, friendlier, to me, however to do so then distracts attention to assumptions about me, over what it is I'm saying) on Twitter who wanted to know if there is a novel written only using gender neutral pronouns.

I thought possibly Ursula Le Guin, though haven't read enough of her to name an instance, quite possibly a short story by Pat Cadigan, and Margaret Atwood would be most likely to in the future.

But can anyone name one?

Katherine said...

As a former teacher (I couldn't keep up with the paperwork) I used 'they' instead of 'he or she' quite often, but always felt I was letting the side down. Not that anyone would have noticed through the other teacher's hazes' of mi'splaced apostrophe's'.

helenalex said...

I am disinclined to take writing advice from anyone who produces a quote link the one you've used. Even though in this case I agree with them.

Stephen Stratford said...

@Mark, I have no idea. Possibly someone French. Or Canadian.

@Katherine, you were right and they were wrong.

@helenalex, the Economist is actually a really useful non-pedantic guide to current usage - and sometimes they take the piss a bit. It can be hard to tell.

Stephanie said...

L really appreciated the link, and passed it on to my colleagues - we write instructional guides - and the key principles can never be stressed too often. I must admit my pet peeve is the number of them (colleagues) who suffer from apostrophe syndrome and semi-colon disease.

But then, they are Australians!

Or am I just a pedant?

PS I've used 'they' for years as the other is just too silly, and definitely too PC.