Monthly Archives: November 2012

A writer needs to consider the impression his words make

Oliver Kamm defends Chris Patten – and the generic ‘he’ – against charges of sexism (Times, 17 November). Patten had said that the new Director-General of the BBC “will need a good team around him”. Many people on Twitter, and probably elsewhere, took this to mean that Patten expected or even intended the new DG to be a man.

Kamm says that these critics have misunderstood something about English: “the generic singular pronoun is the same word as the masculine singular personal pronoun. That’s not sexism: it’s just a linguistic quirk.”

He considers what Patten might have said instead: “around him or her” he dismisses because it’s clumsy (I agree, although as linguistic clumsiness goes, this is small fry); “around them” he condemns because it’s ungrammatical to use a plural pronoun with a singular antecedent.

But Kamm himself has misunderstood a well-known and long-established English idiom: singular ‘they’ is fine. This generic singular pronoun is the same word as the plural pronoun. That’s not ungrammatical: it’s just a linguistic quirk.

Whether one prefers singular ‘they’ or generic ‘he’, it’s undeniable that each has been commonly used for centuries, and that they equally depend on one word playing different roles in different circumstances. Singular ‘they’ is no less grammatical than generic ‘he’, although either, when you think about the logic, might seem quirky.

Merriam-Webster reports that the users of singular ‘they’ and its derivatives have included Chaucer, Shakespeare, the King James Bible, Byron, Austen, Auden, Wharton, Swift and Thackeray. “They, their, them have been used continuously in singular reference for about six centuries, and have been disparaged in such use for about two centuries.”

These disparagers have included Lindley Murray in the 18th century and HG Fowler in the 20th. Fowler, though, had to admit: “In colloquial usage the inconvenience of having no common-sex personal pronoun in the singular has proved stronger than respect for the grammarians, and the one that is available in the plural has been made to serve for the singular too.”

A quick look at a Google Books ngram suggests that for the 19th century and most of the 20th, generic ‘he’ dominated (at least in published books), but singular ‘they’ surged into the lead about 20 years ago. While modern feminists certainly didn’t invent singular ‘they’, it seems that the disparagement they’ve heaped on generic ‘he’ has helped to make a venerable colloquialism more acceptable.

Is this disparagement fair? Maybe not. Generic ‘he’ seemed to work well enough for lots of well-intentioned people – indeed, its first known advocate was a woman, Anne Fisher in 1745. No doubt plenty of men and women have used it, and still do, without any sexist intention.

What use, though, is the speaker’s or writer’s intention when all the audience has is words?

Kamm concludes his article: “Patten didn’t mean to refer only to men and no one would have understood him that way.” But the reactions Kamm quotes count against the latter claim. Personally, I’m happy to take his word for this, but I don’t know Chris Patten. Most people don’t know Chris Patten.

What most people do know, though, is that there is still a good deal of casual sexism around. One aspect of this is an assumption, tacit or otherwise, that women are not cut out for important jobs.

So when you use generic ‘he’ as Patten did, your audience may not know your intention. Some will guess one way, some the other (often without even realising they are guessing). And those who guess that you are a sexist will be lost to you.

Their guesses may well be unfair. They may well be as wrong as the people who scorn singular ‘they’ for being ungrammatical. But that’s tough: a negative reaction is a negative reaction. If your aim is to communicate, then you need to consider the impression your words make on the audience you have, not the audience you would like.

This is a pragmatic argument – not a moral one – about effective word choice. It’s much the same point made by Bryan Garner (no fan of singular ‘they’) when he says that “if one is writing for an unknown or a broad readership, the only course that does not risk damaging one’s credibility is to write around the problem”.

In Patten’s shoes, I would have said: “The new Director-General of the BBC will need a good team.” It’s not always that easy, but it’s rarely impossible.

Postscript: To be honest, in Patten’s shoes, I might well have just used singular ‘they’. I often do. While it grates for some people, I think it grates for far fewer than generic ‘he’ – especially in conversation, when it mostly feels natural. But in more formal contexts it’s likelier to feel awkward.