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Wednesday, 15 June 2011

THEM - The Creeping Horror!

Another post from Brian Duncan 
Grouchy old pedants such as I - unless we are completely stupid - have long accepted the status of gender-neutral singular pronoun that political correctness has now firmly assigned to  "they" and its kin.  
We acknowledge that such usage is not only time-honoured, but dignified in the works of masters of English literature (though perhaps there may be a measure of irony in Wodehouse's gloss of "the psychology of the individual" as "what they are like").  
We may even, while eschewing the usage ourselves, accept that it is preferable to the clumsy  "he or she".  In any case, it is no sillier than the formal Italian use of "lei" (= "they") for "you".

However  .  .  .  where is the sense in the following from Evan Davis on "Today" the other morning? 

Evan Davis

"  . . . here is someone else who wants to express their view on this topic:  Lord Warner . . ."

Lord Warner

I acknowledge that my quotation is woefully inaccurate, but the absurdity contained within it is not.   That Lord Warner is a man is beyond doubt:  were it not so, his title would be "Lady".  That "Lord" is a noun of the masculine gender is a matter of fact, even were the sex of its holder a matter of conjecture.  Why, then, in the name of all that's reasonable, does Mr Davis find it appropriate to say "their" instead of "his"?


  1. His would be ambiguous. It wouldn't really matter, because one meaning would be overwhelmingly more likely, but the theoretical possibility of ambiguity makes indefinite their an attractive choice. I doubt whether Evan Davis was consciously aware of any of this, but that doesn't make it any less real.

    The ambiguity is that when speaking of one of a generality expressing 'his' view, one could mean

    1. each of the generality expressing Lord Warner's view
    2. each of the generality expressing his or her own view

    The attraction of they, them and their is that they are non-specific in reference
    — as to gender (masculine or feminine)
    — as to number (singular or plural)
    — as to the individual or individuals in question

    I admit that most languages I know of could use the equivalent of his. However, Russian would make a distinction between

    1 a generality of people each expressing his=Lord Warner's view
    его (yevo) 'of him'

    2 a generality of people each expressing his or her own view
    свой (svoy) 'my own, your own, his own etc'

  2. There is a flaw in my logic: the gender of "Lord" is irrelevant, since the word was not used in Davis's original sentence.

    But I think there's a flaw in yours too, David: if we accept the putative ambiguity of "his", we must also accept the ambiguity of "their". Is the view going to be that of the (at this point) mysterious interviewee, or that of some group that he represents?

    Thanks, by the way, for your elegant presentation of my limping old hare.

  3. if we accept the putative ambiguity of "his", we must also accept the ambiguity of "their"

    I think not. The ambiguity I have in mind is ambiguity of reference.

    His could refer either to Lord Warner or to each and every person who expresses a view

    Their explicitly does not refer to Lord Warner (except as as example of each an and every person expressing an individual view

    the gender of "Lord" is irrelevant, since the word was not used in Davis's original sentence

    It matters not a jot that Evan Davis had not yet mentioned Lord Warner. He had Lord Warner very much in mind, which is what matters when formulating reference. He could have decided (unconsciously, of course) to refer to Lord Warner as that specific male individual. Instead he (unconsciously) decided to refer to some generic anonymous individual (or collective) that may be about to express a view — and then to introduce Lord Warner as a specific example.

  4. It matters not a jot that Evan Davis had not yet mentioned Lord Warner. He had Lord Warner very much in mind

    There's a technical grammatical term for this: cataphora or cataphoric reference.

    This contrasts with the more common anaphora or anaphoric reference where the pronouns etc refer to something or somebody already mentioned. For example:

    Here is Lord Warner. Let's listen to him. What are his views? What does he have to say?

    Opposed to both these text-based modes of reference is deixis or deictic reference where the speaker indicates physically the object of reference — by pointing, for example, or by ostentatiously turning to look. For example

    She turned her gaze to the approaching figure of Lord Warner. 'He knows something about it, my friends', she said meaningfully.

    Clearly any anaphoric to Lord Warner may usefully be specific he etc. The wording makes clear that the referent is singular and male.

    (This may not be enough. The speaker may have to disambiguate between two or more singular males already mentioned. But at least it's a start.)

    Similarly, any deictic reference may usefully specify MALE and SINGULAR. That way, the hearer knows that the speaker isn't pointing to any female bystander or background object.

    (Again, the speaker may need to disambiguate further if there is more than one male individual in view.)

    With cataphoric reference, by contrast, the addressee has not yet heard or read or seen the identity of the referent. So the speaker (or writer) may choose to use non-specific referring expressions. In fact, it sounds rather literary to use specific referring expressions as:

    He who would valiant be
    They also serve who only stand and wait

    More colloquially we might use indefinite or non-specific

    Anyone who aspires to act bravely
    Even those who do nothing but stand and wait do nevertheless serve

    Non specific expressions may also be used

    — for deictic reference
    'That's the cause of it all', he said, pointing at Lord Warner.

    — for anaphoric reference (sort of)
    Lord Warner? What a brilliant success/disaster that was!

  5. Thank you for the poster, David. After that, no movie could fail to disappoint.

    It strikes me that I should have written "they" instead of "we" in my opening sentence - since my intention was to dissociate myself from pedants stupid enough to reject the singular "they" out of hand. Not that it's relevant to our discussion, of course: I just wanted to preempt anyone else's picking me up on it - an unlikely event, since nobody much seems to come around here much.

  6. I thought this was going to be about the band that spawned Van Morrison. (Reminiscent of another banf called "The The"

    So Lord Warner's opinion appears to be representative of a whole group of opinionated people?

  7. Perhaps we should encourage the total disappearance of the third person singular - just let it (or should I say "them"?) follow the second person singular into antiquity.

  8. I am normally quite happy with their, certainly instead of the very clumsy he/she. But my local newspaper (that I write for) irritates me every week when they put in a recipe from a reader. They write: "This week's winning recipe was sent in by Jane Bloggs of Tiny Town. They will receive a $25 voucher from Balclutha New World."

    I suppose this covers them in the event of them not being certain if the recipe comes from a woman (almost every time) or a man, but generally it just grates. "They" won't receive, only "she" will receive. It won't be addressed to Mr and Mrs Jane Bloggs, or to Joe and Jane Bloggs; it will be addressed to Jane Bloggs.


  9. Since they are bound to be copying and pasting, it also saves them the trouble of editing the second sentence every time. My vet's computer system (which must have the gender of each patient in its database) is doing the same thing:
    "Our records show that Morris is now due for their annual health check."

  10. Yes, but they have to edit the name of the person they are sending the $25 to, or the name of your pet. Is it that much more difficult to change his to hers at the same time? It reads so oddly and irritatingly to me.

  11. The Italian 'Lei' is not 'they' but 'she' (your excellence, like, this latter noun being feminine in Italian and requiring 'she'). 'Lei' is a polite way of saying 'you' to someone who (as you say in English) are not on first-name terms.

    'They' has the same function (polite 'you' in both singular and plural) in German, where it is 'Sie' (zee).

  12. "Lei" - polite 3rd person. Cf in court, "As your Lordship pleases".