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Mind your language

Why I’m a convert to singular ‘they’

Those more annoyed by bad grammar than by sexism will suffer till things settle down

3 December 2016

9:00 AM

3 December 2016

9:00 AM

‘When I asked the bank,’ said my husband, ‘they were no help at all.’ My attention was distracted from his Kafkaesque predicament, which is both typical and too complicated to explain. Instead I was pondering the reference to the bank as they.

This is well established in British English. The bank, Sainsbury’s or England (the cricket team) can be they, or equally correctly, it. Just be consistent. But my husband’s ramblings had reminded me that David Willetts, when talking on the radio about adult education, had said ‘someone in their thirties or forties’. The Willettsian usage has their, a plural personal adjective, referring back to someone, a singular antecedent. I think we are stuck with this, and strict grammarians should stop complaining. There have been two ways to avoid this apparent failure in agreement in number. Either it is adjusted to ‘someone in his thirties’, which seems to specify the sex of the person. Or someone is changed to a plural noun like people. Here, advocates of so-called inclusive language have much to answer for. Half a century ago they declared, erroneously, that he was a sexist pronoun that couldn’t stand for half the population, even in contexts such as: ‘If anyone has ears to hear let him hear.’


Yet by their insistence the agitators have changed the language. Churchgoers reciting the creed now feel awkward on reaching ‘For us men and for our salvation’, as though God didn’t save women like me. The awkwardness is accentuated by people in some churches dropping the men. In France, awash with grammatical gender divorced from sexual reference, they happily chant ‘Pour nous les hommes’. In Germany I suspect there is even less problem with ‘Für uns Menschen’. After all, in German, man serves as an impersonal pronoun, and, though spelled differently from Mann (‘a man’), it shares the same origin.

Those more annoyed by bad grammar than by sexism will suffer till things settle down. It can’t have been comfortable in the 13th century when you (second person plural) began to usurp thou to refer to one person. When someone heard it for the first time, they must have been puzzled.


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