Matthew Parris

Just who are They, and what are They up to?

Just who are They, and what are They up to?

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They asked me how I knew/My true love was true.... Or so the song goes. But who were they, and why did they ask anyway? They don't appear very sympathetic - they with their sneering inquiries about how I knew my love was true. Are they the same They as the They who don't know It's the end of the world (It ended when you said goodbye)?

They pop up not only in song but all over the place in English discourse. They sound like a bossy and snooty crowd of know-it-alls. They are well placed. They are in touch. They are in the loop. They can make waves. They are depressingly indifferent to our fate. They push us around. They talk behind our backs. They don't understand how we feel. Who do they think they are? When will they ever learn?/When will they ever learn?

They are also closer than we to where it's at. Everything's up-to-date in Kansas City/They've gone about as far as they can go/They went and built a skyscraper seven stories high/About as high as a building oughta grow. But then they would, wouldn't they? It's the kind of thing they do.

I have been sitting in a village pub in Derbyshire, pondering Them and their significance in popular thought. Conversation overheard can be more revealing than conversation joined, and I listened unnoticed to a discussion of how They can now impound your car without so much as a by-your-leave, in a range of circumstances known only to them. Not only was it unclear from the context whether They were the police, the local authorities or some official bully unspecified; it was highly doubtful whether anyone involved in the conversation really cared to know.

'They' was a more satisfactory way of putting it, permitting the conversation to rest at the participants' preferred level of generalised dissatisfaction with the myriad monstrous interferences in our lives. To discuss in any detail what precisely the rules were, or who made and implemented them, might have drawn the conversation on to pricklier or more challenging ground - such as why there were rules in the first place, what the rules ought to be, or even (heaven forbid) whether we ordinary folk might make some sort of effort to get them changed.

The third-person plural is a marvellously sloppy get-out. 'I' or 'we' might involve personal complicity; 'you' or 'he' points an invidious finger and invites a comeback. But the use of 'they' allows the speaker to shift responsibility on to a sketchy entity just about able to bear the weight of our grievance, but not so clearly outlined as to amount to anything we could confront, check our facts with, or take our complaints or inquiries to. 'They' have no address or telephone number and do not stand for Parliament. The term is a shorthand for saying, 'This is my grouse but I don't plan to do anything about it': a sort of generalised shrug which suggests there wouldn't be any point. They never listen anyway.

Do other language-groups use the third-person plural in this way? Spanish sometimes does, I am told, but not so commonly. The French would tend to employ 'on' - using, for example, 'on dit' where we might use 'they say'. Though on does carry some of the other-people-ness of 'they', it does not carry so much. 'On fait...' simply indicates current practice, including perhaps our own. 'They're carpeting ceilings now,' I heard a fellow coach traveller once observe, staring at the interior trim above us. 'One carpets ceilings' would have made a different point, suggesting this is a fashion we, too, may follow.

'One', though rather grand, is a more democratic expression. For 'they' implies the abnegation of democracy and equality. Used variously to hint at resentment, dismay, sometimes wonder and even admiration, it not only separates the speaker from the perpetrators of whatever it is They do, but also implies that they are almost another order of beings, inhabiting another world beyond our control. Recourse to the term suggests passivity in the speaker, as though he and his intended audience are mere onlookers to the march of history. There is no suggestion that he or they could intervene to challenge, change, join or even understand Them and their doings. So, though 'they' implies dissatisfaction, it does not presage action. It is not a manner of speaking one would hear much from members of the Establishment and is used (I think) less often by upper-class than by humbler speakers, less often in town than in rural Britain, and least often in London - for, after all, They are quite likely these days to live in Islington.

This habit of speech is ancient, and very English. It echoes from an epoch when most people (and especially the poor) lived much closer to the land, and all the great decisions were made far away in London. Then, They really were a different world - of which, without daily newspapers or radio and television, most people's knowledge was as much hearsay or rumour as personal experience or direct news.

I can think of no better unwitting guide to a modern individual's estimation of his and his peers' own powerlessness in the universe than his recourse to the third- person plural as a shorthand for other human beings. Do you think that we have set foot on the Moon, or that they have? Do you think that we are searching for a cure for cancer, or that they are? Can we fly faster than the speed of sound these days, or can they? Do we understand the origins of the universe, or do they? Will we - or they? - be cloning humans next?

Note that one can say (for instance) that 'we' are searching for a cure for cancer without meaning to imply that one is doing so oneself. I can without hesitation write that we may be about to go to war with Iraq when I myself would disapprove of this and might refuse to go myself. I say 'we' because I feel involved in national decisions; I feel this is my country, in whose policies I have a say and for whose actions I bear a responsibility. Paradoxically, such expressions as 'next month they may go to war with Iraq' are more likely to come from the very people who really could say 'we': the ones who will be sent to fight there.

Where have all the soldiers gone?/Gone to graveyards every one,/When will they ever learn?/When will they ever learn?

Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.