The secret of singular ‘they’

3 Aug

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Singular “they” is a good thing. It helps you avoid the clunkiness of “he or she”/”his or her”/”himself or herself” all through an article where gender is irrelevant. It is sometimes the preferred non-specific pronoun when referring to a trans person. And there’s one other thing it can do as well: it can help avoid a lawsuit.

The Sunday Times’s high-profile revelation about doping in athletics comes with some alarming statistics, but no names – at least, not of the guilty. It has identified and exonerated some favourite British stars, to widespread national relief, but also found one “top UK athlete” whose blood-test results are said to be highly irregular.

But because journalists agreed with the whistleblower who provided the data that they would not identify anyone on the suspicion list – and possibly also because the athlete in question, who emphatically denies the allegations, has threatened to sue – identities have been strictly concealed. Everything is withheld: the name, the events, the sport, and, thanks to singular “they”, even the athlete’s gender.

A top British athlete looked shaken last weekend when the Sunday Times showed them the list of their own results in the blood-doping data …

The athlete firmly states that they “never cheated” and supports calls for more money to be spent on stamping out blood-doping …

The data shows that the athlete’s blood scores increased as their performances improved on the national stage …

… the athlete swore on the lives of loved ones that they had never doped …

Last week the athlete said their score had been elevated because it had been taken when they were dehydrated after winning a race in summer temperatures.

Thanks in part to singular “they”, the whole article largely avoids the danger of jigsaw identification. All that can be gleaned from it is that the person in question is a “top UK athlete” (whatever that means); that they were some kind of racer (which rules out the Olympic ball sports or field events like javelin and hammer); that they were active in the first decade of the 21st century; and that they are, perhaps, retired (with a hint of finality, the article refers to them having tested unusually highly “on three occasions during their career”). That’s all.

In those circumstances, perhaps specifying gender wouldn’t have gone much further in directing suspicion. But incorporating all athletes of both sexes that fall within those very loose parameters leaves even the most eager speculator with little to go on.

 

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6 Responses to “The secret of singular ‘they’”

  1. Steve Dunham August 7, 2015 at 5:45 pm #

    It still sounds awfully clunky to me. “The athlete” would need only six more letters than “they.” I know, ink is so expensive that newspapers omit a comma to save a tenth of a drop. 😉

    • edlatham August 7, 2015 at 8:45 pm #

      Yep – ad revenues aren’t what they were!

  2. Jeff August 25, 2016 at 8:53 pm #

    What’s going on here: “For centuries mankind has built mighty monuments dedicated to their endeavours…” (https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/aug/23/unbuilt-london-monorail-straight-river-thames)? Mankind is surely singular but isn’t “its” more appropriate than “their”? Is this just poor English or has someone been drinking too much of the gender-neutral juice?

    • edlatham August 25, 2016 at 9:14 pm #

      Possibly the latter, although not enough of the gender-neutral juice to write ‘humankind’!

      • Jeff August 25, 2016 at 9:40 pm #

        Good point, but then the alliteration would be lost. “humankind has put up hefty headstones…”?

  3. edlatham August 25, 2016 at 10:06 pm #

    Yes! And you’re right – although there is sometimes a case for plural agreement with singular nouns when the sense is plural – ‘one in six respondents are unsure’, rather than ‘is unsure’ – mankind/humankind is nearly always singular

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