Geoffrey Pullum brings us news of a bra that delivers electric shocks to would-be rapists – or, more to the point, he brings us news that the BBC said this about it:
So how can the wearer be sure they won’t be on the receiving end of a hefty electric jolt?
That’s a singular ‘they’ where a ‘she’ would have done the job. But isn’t the point of singular ‘they’ that it’s gender-neutral?
Its best-known use is for gender neutrality, but, as Pullum says, it “also occurs in cases of reference to an arbitrary individual whose identity is not fixed” – whether gender is known or not.
I have a scrap of evidence to support this: a conversation I had with two friends, who I’ll call Henry and Jen, years ago at university.
Jen had announced that there was a new guy she was keen on. She was being faux-cagey about who, but was willing to be drawn into a twenty-questions sort of thing. Henry led this, as I was pretty sure I knew who the guy was, although I kept that to myself.
To start with, Henry used the generic ‘they’: do they live in this building, were they at that party, and so on. He could have used ‘he’, as the mystery man was definitely male, but he didn’t. Until, after a while, he did switch: is he on this course, does he do that sport, and so on.
When I noticed that switch, I knew that Henry now had someone specific firmly in mind. He – unconsciously, I’m sure – used ‘they’ to blindly fish for information and then ‘he’ to confidently test his theory.