Discussions of singular ‘they’ are abundant, and sometimes impassioned. Is it an awkward, undignified, new-fangled logical absurdity or a handy, well-established usage that’s maybe a bit on the informal side? I find that its supporters have by far the better of the argument.
But what’s rarer to see is a discussion of the first-person equivalent, the singular ‘we’. I must have come across this usage thousands of times, but I’d never noticed it for what it is until I spotted a couple during my review of the Queen’s Christmas messages last week:
each one of us will have our own special triumphs or tragedies to look back on (1969)
each one of us has a primary and personal responsibility for our own children (1979)
Here, the first part establishes a singular subject, ‘each one of us’, that is later given what is apparently a first-person plural: ‘our’. (Despite the speaker, these aren’t cases of the royal we.)
A traditionally minded pedant would replace both with ‘his’; a more modern pedant might use ‘his or her’:
each one of us will have his own special triumphs or tragedies to look back on
each one of us has a primary and personal responsibility for his or her own children
But the usual problems arise: ‘his’ and its associates (‘he’, ‘him’, ‘himself’) are predominantly associated with maleness, while ‘his or her’ and its associates are pretty stilted.
Singular ‘we’ is the natural solution. So natural, in fact, that complaints about it – or even mentions of it – are rare. So why all the fuss about singular ‘they’?