Dot Wordsworth

Mind Your Language | 13 June 2009

What is wrong with the following sentence, taken from a newspaper? ‘Any MP announcing they will step down should face a by-election because they are no longer representing their constituents.’ 

What is wrong with the following sentence, taken from a newspaper? ‘Any MP announcing they will step down should face a by-election because they are no longer representing their constituents.’ 

What is wrong with the following sentence, taken from a newspaper? ‘Any MP announcing they will step down should face a by-election because they are no longer representing their constituents.’

Quite apart from any political consideration, the grammar is awry. A single MP should not be followed by plural pronouns (they, their). Yet we all do this in speech, partly to avoid the difficulty of a singular pronoun, he, standing for women as well as men.

I mentioned a book last week, Grammar & Style by Michael Dummett, and more than one person has mentioned how good they have found it. Professor Dummett knows the ways of academics, and noted that, in order to avoid using he as a pronoun of common gender, ‘virtually all American academics have gone over to using she’. This supposedly non-sexist usage is not so obtrusive in sentences such as, ‘If a sceptic were asked, she would reply.’ But ludicrous results follow when the person referred to would surely have been male: ‘If an Athenian general had been asked, she would have replied…’.

To avoid persecution by deranged feminists, many people employ plural pronouns to avoid specifying. This is pusillanimous, but not uncommon. It is no more illogical to use they to refer to one man than it is to use you (a plural pronoun) instead of thou to refer to one person. In any case, English happily uses plural verbs with formally singular subjects: ‘The bank say they won’t lend me any more money.’

Nor have non-sex-specific plural pronouns appeared only since feminist language guerrillas went to war. The great Robert Burchfield was not a logician but a noted philological historian. In his edition of The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1996), he points to examples from past centuries of they standing for he or she. The OED quotes John Fisher, a saint, using the construction in 1535: ‘He never forsaketh any creature unlesse they before have forsaken them selves.’

The use of they for he or she was always more common when any, every or no qualify the noun: ‘Nobody does anything well that they cannot help doing,’ wrote Ruskin. My argument may tend towards decriminalising they as a singular pronoun. Certainly we cannot resist the change. Yet when I spot it in print, I still wish to rewrite the sentence.

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