Dot Wordsworth

The new Fowler still won’t grasp the nettle on ‘they’

A usage problem where the answer is inevitable – but no one seems quite ready to accept it

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I’ve been having a lovely time splashing about in the new Fowler. It has been revised by Jeremy Butterfield, an OUP lexicographer. There’s a new usage in it that I want to talk about, but first a word about the title. The title page says Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage. In 1996, the previous edition, the third, edited by good old Robert Burchfield, was The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. In 1926 H.W. Fowler’s celebrated book had been published as A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. We called it Modern English Usage both before and after 1996, and more often Fowler — a metonym and more, as Jeremy Butterfield points out. So why doesn’t it now say Fowler on the cover, not Fowler’s? As it is, no one will call the new edition by either half of the publisher’s chosen title.

Anyway, an updated entry is for they. Here, I think, Mr Butterfield does not quite grasp the nettle. Most of the entry is taken over from Burchfield, who noted that Fowler’s own view was that ‘few good modern writers would flout the grammarians so consciously’ as to use they to follow a generalised noun or pronoun such as everyone or nobody. Plenty of good writers in the past have done so: ‘Now, nobody does anything well that they cannot help doing’ — Ruskin; ‘If a person is born of a gloomy disposition ... they cannot help it’ — Chesterfield. Burchfield observed that English lacked a ‘common-gender third person singular pronoun (as distinct from his used to mean ‘his or her’).’ What Butterfield adds is that such a use of his is ‘now politically verboten’.

In giving examples, he limits himself to those that refer back to indefinite determiners, such as someone or even a person. More doubtful, but not discussed, is the use of they as a non-sexist pronoun referring to a person whose sex is known to the speaker: ‘The car-park attendant came out of their hut.’ Sometimes it can amount to concealment of sex: ‘My friend wanted to have their portrait painted.’

I agree with Butterfield’s conclusion: ‘The process now seems irreversible.’ But that is not a new conclusion, for the words are Burchfield’s from 20 years ago.