Contractions: which are common and which aren’t?

Contractions – “you’re”, “we’ll”, “can’t”, “don’t” etc. – generally make language sound less formal, and avoiding them makes it more formal.

Over the years, contractions have become more acceptable higher up the formality spectrum. This is part of a general shift that’s been going on for decades: styles of language that were once firmly seen as casual are now more widely used in more businesslike contexts. Likewise, styles of language that would have been common and neutral in, say, the 1950s now tend to come across as very formal.

On the whole, your best bet is to trust your judgement. Use contractions or not depending on whether you feel comfortable saying the phrase that way, in that sentence, in that context, for that audience. But take care: if your tastes are more old-fashioned or new-fangled than your audience’s, you may miss your mark.

And if you’d like some evidence to double-check your judgement against, I have plenty – from COCA, the Corpus of Contemporary American English.

COCA is a database of English use – 450 million words’ worth – from a wide range of sources. It covers fiction, newspapers, magazines, academic journals, and transcripts of unscripted TV and radio, from 1990 to 2012.

I searched COCA for 77 contractions and their spelt-out counterparts (there are others, but life is short). For instance, I searched for “didn’t” and “did not”, recorded the number of uses per million words, and then divided the “didn’t” number by the “did not” number.

This gives the relative frequency of use for each contraction: how common each is relative to its spelt-out version. A small number means a phrase is rarely contracted, 1 means both versions are equally common, and more than 1 means it’s usually contracted. The more common a contraction is, the more comfortable you can feel about using it.

Before we get into the detail, here are two top-level findings, averaged across all 77 contractions. First, the trend over time:

cont time

Over just a couple of decades, contraction use has increased.

Second, the differences between different kinds of source (averaged across 1990–2012):

cont sources

No surprises here. Contractions are extremely common in speech and fiction, quite common in magazines and newspapers, and less common in academic journals.

The next tables, getting into the detail, only cover non-fiction writing. This is because I think people are generally happy judging when to contract phrases in speech (and fiction, for those who write it). So from here on, I’m only looking at newspapers and magazines (averaged together, as their overall results are similar) and at academic journals.

Here are contractions ending in “–n’t”:

cont not

The lower the frequency, the more cautious it’s wise to be. But even for common contractions, there will be sentences where it’s better to spell them out. And for rarer contractions, there will be sentences where they work better.

The other common kind of contraction is the sort that joins a pronoun and a verb of the “be” or “have” families or “will”, “would” or “had”.

Here it gets a bit tricky:

  • “Would” and “had”. “I’d” can mean “I would” or “I had”. So to get meaningful results, I had to search for slightly longer phrases. I compared “I would be” with “I’d be” and “I had been” with “I’d been”. Likewise for other pronouns.
  • “Is” and “has”. “It’s” can mean “it is” or “it has”. So I compared “it is being” with “it’s being” and “it has been” with “it’s been”. Likewise for the pronouns “he”, “she”, “who” and “that”. This doesn’t work for “there”, because “there is being” doesn’t really get any use. So I compared “there’s been” with “there has been” and “there is a” with “there’s a” (“there has a” is pretty much non-existent).

These are the results:

cont new&mags

cont journals 2

“Be” verb phrases are the ones most often contracted. In newspapers and magazines, the other kinds (especially “will”) are also often contracted. “Is” is contracted more often than “has”, and “would” is contracted more often than “had”. In journals the pattern is mostly similar but the numbers are smaller.

In both tables, “you” phrases are the most often contracted, followed by “I” and “we”. First-person writing tends to be more casual, and writing that addresses the reader in the second person even more so. Phrases using other personal pronouns – “he”, “she” and “they” – are next-most-often contracted. “It” and “there” phrases follow, although most of the contractions there are “it’s” and “there’s”. Bringing up the rear are “who” and “that” phrases (with a strong showing from “that’s”).

I looked at a few other contractions that don’t fit either of the above groups.

“Should’ve”, “would’ve” and “could’ve” are pretty rare, with relative frequencies of 0.02–0.03 in newspapers and magazines, and 0.00 in journals. “Let’s” (for “let us”) is very common, scoring 3.79 in newspapers and magazines and 0.70 in journals.

I’ll end by quoting some recent usage manual and style guides with advice that, in light of this data, seems fair:

Contractions of the type I’m (= I am) and don’t (= do not) are exceedingly common in informal and online writing and increasingly found in various kinds of fairly formal contexts (e.g. in book reviews).

– Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (2015)

In the past they were felt to be too colloquial for the written medium, and editors of academic journals are still inclined to edit them out. The writers of formal documents may feel that they undermine the authority and dignity of their words. But the interactive quality that contractions lend to a style is these days often sought, in business and elsewhere. They facilitate reading by reducing the space taken up by predictable elements of the verb phrase, and help to establish the underlying rhythms of prose.

– Cambridge Guide to English Usage (2004)

Many writers, especially those who write in formal situations, feel uncomfortable with contractions. And perhaps contractions don’t generally belong in solemn contexts.

But why shouldn’t writers use them in most types of writing? Some excellent writers use contractions to good effect, even in books…

The common fear is that using contractions can make the writing seem breezy. For most of us, though, that risk is nil. What you gain should be a relaxed manner – not breeziness.

– Garner’s Modern American Usage (2009)

Sometimes, lots of ‘cannot’, ‘should not’ etc can seem archaic and formal. That’s a tone we can move away from without jeopardising the overall tone of information coming from government.

Writing for GOV.UK (2015)

Most types of writing benefit from the use of contractions. If used thoughtfully, contractions in prose sound natural and relaxed and make reading more enjoyable. Be-verbs and most of the auxiliary verbs are contracted when followed by not: are–aren’t; was–wasn’t; cannot–can’t; could not–couldn’t; do not–don’t; and so on. A few, such as ought not–oughtn’t, look or sound awkward and are best avoided. Pronouns can be contracted with auxiliaries, forms of have, and some be-verbs. Think before using one of the less common contractions, which often don’t work well in prose, except perhaps in dialogue or quotations. Some examples are I’d’ve (I would have), she’d’ve (she would have), it’d (it would), should’ve (should have), there’re (there are), who’re (who are), and would’ve (would have). Also, some contracted forms can have more than one meaning. For instance, there’s may be there is or there has, and I’d may be I had or I would. The particular meaning may not always be clear from the context.

– Chicago Manual of Style (2010)

The triumph of the linguistic free market

The Idler’s annual Bad Grammar Awards are not about ridiculing grocers. They are about promoting the public discussion of grammar and, perhaps more importantly, exposing cant and humbug.

This is a noble aim and I am proud to support it.

By chance, I myself noticed a fine dose of cant and humbug the other day, in the Idler’s announcement of its Bad Grammar Awards.

It singles out Oliver Kamm’s “utilitarian approach to grammar”, saying:

He reckons that if a mistake is made enough times, then it is no longer a mistake. We don’t agree: we reckon grammar is more like the law. There is a set of agreed rules but the rules change over time. Both are based on a principle: with the Law the principle is fairness; with grammar the principle is clarity. We need a common language in order to be able to communicate.

Grammar – and, like so many pontificators on the topic, by grammar they mean language in general – is not like the law. Language is a set of social customs.

The law is defined by a particular group of people whose job it is to define the law. No such group exists for language, apart from the entire English-speaking population.

The “agreed rules” of English are agreed only tacitly, although we can try to codify them. And, at any one time, many of them cover only part of the population, or only some situations. The agreements change as more and more individuals change their linguistic habits; there is no moment of decision when a change is agreed.

The principle is clarity – and the people best placed to judge clarity are the people. All of us. We are the ones reading, writing, talking, listening. If we find that one way of using words helps us communicate more clearly than another, then we will favour the better way. There would be no point in having some committee of the great and the good to ponder its way towards these decisions on our behalf.

Most people who complain about language as the Idler’s judges do aren’t making a linguistic analysis, based on fact and reason. They’re just venting their conservatism.

I find it sad, and a little puzzling, that conservatives find it so hard to grasp that language is controlled by market forces. Nobody is in charge, and that makes our language far more dynamic, efficient, and rich.

Common words you’re probably misusing

The English language is marvellous, and it’s evolving all the time. But amid the change, you should still stick to correct grammar. To help you avoid mistakes, I’ve put together a list of common words that people often get wrong:

  • Misusing
  • Correct
  • Grammar
  • Mistake
  • Wrong

(Apropos of this and a thousand similar articles.)

Playing it safe is a dangerous game

Here’s an argument I sometimes hear:

Sure, some of the so-called “rules” of English that you hear about are silly and pointless – don’t split infinitives and so on. But there are still a fair few people who believe in these rules, so it’s worth toeing the line to avoid annoying them.

This sounds like a reasonable, pragmatic position: play it safe. But there are two problems with it.

First, playing it safe takes a lot of knowledge, concentration and time. If you want to keep the complainers happy, here are just a few of the imagined “common mistakes” that you’ll need to avoid:

  1. A/an: When the following word begins with an h sound but the second syllable carries more stress than the first, use an, not a: an historian, an horrific, an habitual, an heroic.
  2. Above: Do not use this to mean more than.
  3. Acquiesce: One acquiesces in something, not to it.
  4. Acronym: An acronym is not just any set of initials but a set that is pronounced as a word: NATO and AIDS but not BBC or USA.
  5. AD: Place it before the year, not after.
  6. Admit to: While confess may or may not have a to, admit never should.
  7. Aggravate: This does not mean annoy; it means make worse.
  8. Agnostic: To be agnostic is to believe that knowledge (typically about the existence of god) is impossible. It is not to be doubtful or noncommittal.
  9. Alibi: This is a legal defence based on having been elsewhere at the time of the crime. It does not mean any excuse that allows someone to escape blame.
  10. All of: The of is usually a redundancy (except when followed by a pronoun, e.g. all of them) and should be omitted wherever possible.
  11. Alright: Do not use. The correct form is all right.
  12. Also: Do not use also as a sentence-opening adverb.
  13. Alternative: There can only be two alternatives. Three or more are options.
  14. Among: Use whenever there are three or more objects; for two objects, use between.
  15. And: Never start a sentence with and.
  16. Anniversary: This means the date marking a number of years since an event. Three-year anniversary is redundant; three-month anniversary is just wrong.
  17. Anticipate: This does not mean expect; it means act in expectation of.
  18. Anxious Do not use this to mean eager where there is no sense of unease.
  19. Anymore: Do not use. The correct form is any more.
  20. Appeal: When appealing against a decision, the against is not optional.
  21. As: The use of as to mean because can be confusing and therefore should be avoided.
  22. As [adjective] as [pronoun]: The object form of the pronoun is wrong in he is as tall as me and similar comparisons. Use the subject form instead: he is as tall as I.
  23. As such: This means in this capacity. Do not use it to mean in principle or therefore.
  24. At about: The at is usually redundant; delete it.
  25. Attorney-General: The plural is Attorneys-General, not Attorney-Generals.

These “rules” are all opinions that are noteworthy enough to be discussed in usage guides by Bryan Garner, Jeremy Butterfield, Pam Peters or Merriam-Webster. I’ve been highly selective: those books’ A sections are on average 95 pages long. And the alphabet also has other letters.

This list is a mixture of exaggerations and misunderstandings, relics and myths, personal preferences and reasonable tips. Judged against the standard of usage, there’s not a single rock-solid rule among them.

There are maybe five of these “rules” that make me twitch with distaste when I see them broken. But so what? My personal twitching doesn’t define the boundaries of good English, and nor does anyone else’s; other twitchers could pick their own pet peeves from the list.

To keep us all happy, you must follow all the “rules”. You must find out all the things that various people believe are wrong and spend time restricting your language to fit.

But this leads to the second problem with playing it safe: many of the “rules” can cause offence when you follow them.

There are maybe eight on my list that I often or even always prefer broken. In a couple of cases this is because the “rule” is based on ham-fisted linguistic analysis. A treaty among the countries of Europe? No: it has to be between.

In most cases it’s because I find the “rules” make language stilted, archaic or prim. An historian? He is as tall as I? Sorry, but I’m twitching. And I’m not alone. You can’t satisfy the people who have reactions like this while satisfying the people who insist that a historian and he is as tall as me are wrong. You have to disappoint one group.

Don’t assume that the louder group is the larger. People who think they’re right are more likely to write angry letters of complaint; people who simply don’t like the tone usually just stop reading. And if general usage keeps ignoring the rule-mongers’ efforts, that suggests the other group is larger. If so, the “rule” is, pragmatically, a bad idea.

And that’s the danger of following every “rule” that has a clique of enforcers: by armour-plating your language too heavily, you weigh it down and make it weak.

We need to talk about drug-resistant infections

Do you know what “antimicrobial resistance” is?

Most people don’t. That’s one of the findings from a series of focus groups and interviews commissioned by the Wellcome Trust (where I work).

First of all, “antimicrobial”. A lot of people have never come across this word. Antimicrobials are a family of drugs that kill microorganisms. It’s a broad über-category spanning several types of drug – including antibiotics, which pretty much everyone has heard of.

You probably have a rough idea what antibiotics are, even if you don’t know the exact definition: they treat infections that are caused by bacteria. Other types of antimicrobial drug treat infections that are caused by viruses or by fungi.

So, based on that, what’s antimicrobial resistance?

This still flummoxed the people in the focus groups. They hadn’t heard the phrase, but some of them thought they could work out what it meant: it’s when a person who has taken antimicrobial drugs for a while develops a resistance to them.

It sounds logical. It’s also dangerously wrong.

Scientists and health policy makers use “antimicrobial resistance” to mean that the microbes develop a resistance to the drugs.

This is the sort of confusion that happens when you carelessly use an abstract noun like “resistance” – whose resistance to what? It’s especially confusing when you couple it with a scientific word that most people don’t know.

A better term, the research suggested, would be “drug-resistant infections”. This clearly says who is resistant to what.

People need to understand this. Not because science is cool, but because people’s behaviour contributes to the growth of infections that are immune to our best drugs. For instance, as my colleague Kate Arkless Gray says, “if people think that they will develop a resistance to antibiotics, they may be less likely to finish the full course, when in fact not finishing the course could increase the rate at which resistance develops”.

We must talk to people in a language they understand. It can be hard to appreciate how little specialist language really seeps into public awareness, but it’s essential to make the effort to understand your audience.

And that’s why we need to talk about drug-resistant infections.

Synonymous with correct usage

One of the common mistakes I come across when I’m editing involves the word synonymous. You can see it in sentences like this:

Roger Federer is synonymous with great tennis.

Does that seem OK to you? If so, I’m afraid you’ve fallen prey to a confusion that affects many people. But it’s easy to explain.

A synonym is a word having the same meaning as another. It originally comes from the Greek syn (meaning same) and onyma (meaning name). Based on this, the adjective synonymous is defined as “having the same meaning”.

So big is synonymous with large and field is synonymous with meadow – but Roger Federer is not synonymous with great tennis. The man is associated with the game, sure, but the two terms don’t mean the same thing – otherwise people would talk about Serena Williams playing some really Roger Federer. And that’s obvious nonsense!

For centuries, people used synonymous without any difficulty, but recently some have started to extend its use, blurring the true meaning. This misuse is now widespread, but careful writers still avoid it – and so should you. If you use synonymous in this loose modern way, you risk not just confusing your audience but also degrading the word so much that it becomes unusable.

This would impoverish the English language and make it harder for us all to communicate. But it’s not too late to avert this, if we just make the small effort to use synonymous only in its original, logical, correct sense. Continue reading

Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th edition) – by Jeremy Butterfield

“Is that good English?”

Century after century, people ask this and publishers sell books to answer them. A lot of these books are terrible but some are linguistic treasure troves. A lot of them sink without trace but some endure for decades.

This is one of the good ones.

A brief history of Fowler

One of the biggest names in usage guidance over the last 100 years, especially in Britain, has been Fowler.

Henry Fowler published his Dictionary of Modern English Usage in 1926. It contained a lot more learning, insight and modesty than many of today’s usage guides, but it was fundamentally a book of Fowler’s opinions. These opinions, shaped by his lexicographical work, were sometimes wise, sometimes idiosyncratic. His writing style was sometimes witty, sometimes obscure. It was a hugely influential book, which is why its successors still bear the Fowler name.

In 1965, Ernest Gowers edited the second edition. There were cuts and additions and polishes, but it was essentially an update, and the bulk of the book stayed the same.

The third edition came in 1996, edited by Robert Burchfield. This was a near-total rewrite, although there were still plenty of traces of Fowler. It marked a shift in approach towards greater objectivity and more systematic analysis. Burchfield had built up a database of language use far exceeding Fowler’s more hotchpotch collection, and he used it to inform his judgements. That said, he wasn’t shy with his opinions.

Now, in 2015, we have the fourth edition, edited by Jeremy Butterfield. It’s an update of Burchfield’s version, but a pretty substantial one. There are over 250 new entries and many of the others have been partly or mostly rewritten. Butterfield again improves the standard of evidence by using the immense resources of the Oxford English Corpus – a database holding 2.5 billion words of 21st-century usage from all sorts of sources. And while his own opinions still figure, they play a smaller role than Burchfield’s did. Continue reading

They know not what they do

One of my more exciting hobbies is checking whether prescriptivists follow their own advice. Often, they don’t. For instance, a stunningly high proportion of people who criticise the passive voice use the passive voice themselves, even as they’re criticising it.

I’ve seen four of these in the last week or so (most if not all via Oliver Kamm).

First, in an article on LinkedIn, Bernard Marr writes:

While there’s nothing absolutely wrong about passive voice, it’s considered weak writing.

I’ve underlined Marr’s use of the passive voice. And I don’t think it’s weak – and nor are the other nine uses of the passive in that article.

Second, in a blog post, Nigel Dudley writes:

Organisations use the passive in their statements, particularly when they have been criticised and want to dodge responsibility.

True, the passive voice can be used to avoid mentioning who was responsible for something. But here, there’s nothing evasive about Dudley’s use of it. He’s talking in general, not about any particular instance of criticism. It’s a perfectly good turn of phrase.

He says that we should “doubt the integrity of those who use the passive a lot” – but I disagree, because he’s clearly sincere even though he uses the passive another six times in the post.

Third, and more shockingly, the Economist Style Guide’s entry on “passive” says:

Be direct. Use the active tense. A hit B describes the event more concisely than B was hit by A

Talking about the “active tense” or the “passive tense” is a howler: they’re voices, not tenses. Either can be used in any tense:

  • A is hitting B; B is being hit by A
  • A will hit B; B will be hit by A
  • A had hit B; B had been hit by A

And while this entry doesn’t use the passive itself, the two immediately below it do:

Peer (as a noun) is one of those words beloved of sociologists and eagerly co-opted by journalists who want to make their prose seem more authoritative.

Per capita is the Latin for by heads; it is a term used by lawyers when distributing an inheritance among individuals…

The “per capita” example could have been written in the active with a tiny gain in concision (“…it is a term lawyers use when…”). But the “peer” one would have been awkward and in fact longer (“words beloved of sociologists and which journalists eagerly co-opt when they want…”).

Many other entries on the P page of the Economist guide use the passive – and use it well.

Fourth, and most spectacularly, Toby Young writes in the Spectator:

On the contrary, nearly all of Gove’s rules can be traced to George Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language’, an essay that’s generally regarded as the best guide to writing good English that has ever been produced. To give just one example, Orwell’s fourth rule is ‘Never use the passive where you can use the active’. Kamm singles this out for condemnation in his Times article, apparently unaware that it was first set out by the finest prose stylist of the 20th century.

There’s one final reason why it was sensible of Gove to set out these rudimentary principles. I’m absolutely certain that for every Oliver Kamm who bridles whenever these old–fashioned rules are observed, there are 10,000 Toby Youngs who feel almost physically assaulted when they’re ignored.

Part of the beauty of this self-blindness is that Orwell’s essay also used the passive voice extensively, including in his complaint that “the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active”. So Young is truly a disciple of his hero.

(Other professional writers who condemn the passive while using it include Stephen King and Simon Heffer.)

So, what’s the moral of all this?

I am shallow and I can’t deny a certain cheap ‘Gotcha!’ satisfaction in spotting examples like these. But I’m not faulting these writers’ uses of the passive: this rule-breaking prose is mostly well-written, and there’s something to learn from that fact.

Young, in particular, knows how to put sentences and paragraphs together. But he apparently doesn’t know how he does it. He thinks certain grammatical rules make him “feel almost physically assaulted when they’re ignored”. But that passive construction, and the others, didn’t make him feel assaulted. He wrote them, probably read them over once or twice, and thought they were fine. And on that point, at least, he was right.

The passive voice is an essential tool in every good writer’s repertoire. Oliver Kamm, in the Times, gives a superb example of Orwell using it in his essay:

Orwell describes the reality of the anodyne term pacification: “Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets…” – passive clauses, every one. It’s powerful writing because Orwell ignores his own advice.

I’ve written plenty about the passive voice before. In summary, it can indeed be stuffy, verbose and evasive – but it can also be useful for shifting focus and improving flow.

But today I’m making a point about the psychology of prescriptivism (or what Joseph Williams called “the phenomenology of error”).

When people insist that a certain use of language is bad or wrong but use it themselves, even while doing the insisting, something is amiss. Their beliefs about language have become unmoored from their use of language.

They have heard that the passive voice (or adverbs, or split infinitives, or fused participles, or singular “they”, or “who” as object, or whatever) is bad. They have seen a few examples of it being used to bad effect. This has convinced them that it is bad, and so they’ve started to preach the rule against it themselves.

But they haven’t thought enough about possible good uses of the passive (or whatever). And because they don’t realise that the human mind is far from transparent to itself, it doesn’t occur to them that their proud, firm belief isn’t reflected in their own fluent, natural behaviour. They don’t notice how useful they find the thing that they condemn.

They understand how to use language. That understanding runs deep – deeper than the conscious belief they’ve adopted – and it is what keeps them good writers even as they become bad writing advisers.

There is no surer sign of a bogus rule than that it cannot take root in its own evangelists’ minds.

Michael Gove on “however” and contractions

Michael Gove, the Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, has given his civil servants some guidance on writing.

I won’t go over all of it, but a few things stand out.

First, some positives. He urges civil servants to take a “warm tone” and be “gracious in thanking people for their letters”, to avoid being repetitive or “too pompous”, and to acknowledge their correspondents’ views and arguments even if not agreeing with them.

This is good. Official letters are often impersonal, stern and even hostile, so this shove from the top is welcome.

He also tells civil servants to avoid using “this” and “it” on their own, instead wanting them “to write exactly what they are referring to”. This can help – sorry, this advice can help – to make writing easier to understand.

But two things I disagree with. Continue reading

Everything you ever wanted to know about singular “they”

Some people don’t like the singular, gender-neutral use of “they” (along with “them”, “their” etc.):

  • They hung up without saying anything.
  • Who finished their work first?
  • If anyone forgets their hat, you’ll have to leave them out of the photo.
  • Nobody who cares about their future can ignore this.

The objection is:

“They” and its cousins are plural and can’t be singular. The first two of the sentences above are about a single person, so they’re just wrong. The other two may be about several people, but “anyone” and “nobody” are still singular words (we say “anybody is”, not “anybody are”), so they’re still ungrammatical. While the traditional generic “he” can seem odd or sexist, and “he or she” can be clumsy, that doesn’t mean we should break the logical rule that separates singular from plural.

If you’re inclined to agree, I’d like to try to convince you otherwise. It’s fine to dislike singular “they”, but maybe you needn’t worry about it so much.


Pronouns are a mess, but they’re a familiar mess

Here’s a simple, irrefutable proof that a pronoun can be both singular and plural: “you”.

We gave up on the distinction between singular “thou” and plural “you” centuries ago, and it hasn’t done us any harm. This means the so-called logical objection to singular “they” is wrong.

In fact, logic is a poor guide to English pronouns, which are an inconsistent mess:

  • Most have different subject and object forms – “I” and “me”, “he” and “him”, “she” and “her”, “we” and “us”, “they” and “them” – but “you” is both subject and object.
  • Third-person singular pronouns vary by gender – “he” and “she”, “him” and “her” – but other pronouns don’t.
  • Reflexive pronouns are irregular: “myself”, “yourself”, “herself” and “ourselves” are formed from the possessive “my”, “your”, “her” and “our” – but then instead of “hisself” and “theirselves”, we have “himself” and “themselves”.

Our pronouns are deeply illogical, but we don’t notice this because we’re so familiar with them.

And there’s another oddity. “We”, “us” and “our” can be, and often are, singular:

“Each one of us will have our own special triumphs or tragedies to look back on.”

Here, “each one of us” is singular, but the following possessive is “our”. This is natural and clear – and grammatical (spoken by someone with unimpeachable command of the Queen’s English).

We’ve all come across this sort of thing many, many times, but we haven’t been trained to find it illogical, so we don’t. We don’t even notice it. Google “singular we” and you’ll find pretty much nothing; Google “singular they” and you’ll tumble into a vortex of angry pedantry.

This shows that dislike of singular “they” isn’t a natural, logical reaction to a real grammatical mistake; it’s an artificial constraint that takes effort to internalise.

A third-person version of that sentence would be:

“Each one of them will have their own special triumphs or tragedies to look back on.”

Equally natural and clear – and grammatical.

“You” can be singular as well as plural, which everyone accepts. “We” can be singular as well as plural, which no one notices. “They” can also be singular as well as plural, and the only problem is the people who believe it’s a problem.

Let’s meet a couple of them. Continue reading


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 5,533 other followers