Who they?

16 May

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about the pros and cons of singular “they”. Just to make a quick point as the last blog through the door on the subject:

I’m broadly in favour of “they” as a replacement for “he or she”. Yes, I’m not thrilled about the frequently discordant semantics, but we desperately need an epicene pronoun and this is by far the likeliest candidate. Well-meaning efforts over the years to popularise hisher, heesh, hizzer, shehe, h’se, tey, shem  and all the others have got nowhere (because, as may have been observed before, not even the most eminent language-improvers were ever in a position to “impose” an idea on an unwilling populace). So now we have a more-or-less functional alternative that has emerged, in impeccably descriptivist fashion, out of common usage.

It’s not quite perfect in all situations, though. When you’re using a plural-indeterminate pronoun to stand for a singular subject, for instance,  following up with “they” can force the subject, willy-nilly, to be taken as plural.

For example, imagine you are concealing the identity of a source in a story, and it is important to make clear that your information has come from one whistleblower, but no more than that (because the whistleblower is anxious to protect colleagues from a multiple-suspect witch-hunt, say). If you were to write “I can’t reveal who wrote to us, but they were proved to be absolutely correct”, there is a clear implication from “they” that more than one author was involved – with possibly unpleasant consequences for the likeliest suspect’s close colleagues and associates. If you were attempting to conceal the identity of a single author without being more misleading than necessary, you’d be more or less forced back into using “he or she”.

4 Responses to “Who they?”

  1. the ridger May 17, 2013 at 9:18 am #

    You can of course fix that easily in the rare cases it would matter (I can’t reveal who my correspondent is but they were proved to be absolutely correct). And as for the “discordance” we live quite happily with a plural for one person when it’s “you”. For what it’s worth, in Russian “who” is always singular, leading to things like “the men who was here are” and people don’t seem to get confused.

    Indefinite they has been around for centuries; Jane Austen used it when it had to mean “him” – just an unknown him.

    • edlatham May 17, 2013 at 11:48 am #

      Yes, indeed, you can always avoid it. I was just thinking that one of the genetically engineered alternatives, like ‘heesh’, would cover even that eventuality. But they aren’t gonna happen. (Be great if they did, though – language repair! What a career option for sub-editors.)


  1. The secret of singular ‘they’ | Ten minutes past deadline - August 3, 2015

    […] “they” is a good thing. It helps you avoid the clunkiness of “he or she”/”his or […]

  2. Hits and misses | Ten minutes past deadline - December 21, 2015

    […] on innovation isn’t always so successful. For example, the many inventive proposals for an epicene alternative to “he or she” – heshe, hizzer, heesh et al – all foundered in the face of singular “they”. But […]

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