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Lord Quirk Drops the Ball

For three-quarters of an hour one afternoon a week ago, the British House of Lords was entirely occupied with a discussion of pronoun grammar. The discussion had been requested by a former judge, Lord Scott of Foscote, and the impetus was a promise by the previous government that future laws would be framed in gender-neutral language, at least “so far as it is practicable, at no more than a reasonable cost to brevity or intelligibility.”

Predictably, Lord Scott defended what The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language calls “purportedly sex-neutral he”: the old-fashioned notion that saying “anyone who thinks he deserves it” doesn’t exclude females. (Of course it does. There’s a reason why it sounds silly to say “You can bring either your father or your mother if he wants to come”—he simply cannot be understood as covering your mom.)

What Lord Scott mostly wanted to grumble about was of course phrases like “A renter is entitled to an additional bedroom if they satisfy various conditions.” He was greatly worried that renter is a singular noun followed by a singular verb form, is, but they is a plural pronoun followed by a plural verb form, are; it “reads very oddly,” said the noble lord.

He rambled on through several other such examples (“The claimant or their partner is …”; “a child who requires their own bedroom”; etc.); and he claimed that any such expression “is not only unacceptable and unnecessary but is, I suggest, an insult to the lovely English language.” Eventually Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon shut him up by pointing out that he had overrun his time.

The answer to Lord Scott is quite simple: No, it doesn’t read oddly, and no, it doesn’t insult the language. Standard English has used they in such contexts for hundreds of years. Jane Austen used it copiously. I’ve discussed this topic here on Lingua Franca three times (Pronoun Agreement Out the Window? [12/16/11]; Dogma vs. Evidence: Singular They [1/5/12]; and We Do Not Seek to Rule [4/26/13]—what I tell you three times is true!); note also Anne Curzan’s interesting pedagogical take in Singular ‘They’: a Footnote [5/10/13].

Lord Mackay of Clashfern joined the debate, observing that the briefing pack prepared for the lords by the parliamentary library specifically noted that they with singular antecedents “is thought by some to be grammatically incorrect, though it reflects common usage and is well-precedented in respectable literature over several centuries.” Lord Mackay declared himself “slightly surprised” by this, and although he admitted the briefing pack “seems to be fairly authoritative” he proceeded to rebut it with his unsupported opinion that “it does seem” that singular they “is not very common usage,” as if his vague impressions of frequency counted for more than scholarship or literature.

It was all fairly typical for amateur discussions of language. The debate cried out for the professionals to be called in. And to my delight, as I read on in the Hansard record of the debate, I saw that they had one: Lord Quirk of Bloomsbury, a distinguished scholar of English grammar and usage, and a former vice chancellor of the University of London, was next to speak. He made this excellent point:

Gender neutrality is only one part of the grammatical problem. We lack also the means of expressing number neutrality. After all, when we speak of “anybody” or “everybody,” we are not concerned with specifically singular entities but, well, with everybody. This is another factor tempting us in the direction of “they.”

Of purportedly sex-neutral he, “the convention that masculine pronouns are deemed to include feminine reference,” he said:

If it ever worked, that convention no longer does, and there have been convincing psycholinguistic experiments showing that sentences such as “Anyone parking his car here will be prosecuted” predominantly call up images of a man doing the illicit parking.

And he further noted a shockingly strong tendency in certain legislative amendments to stick entirely to purportedly sex-neutral he whenever the pronoun referred to a judge. (The high-level judiciary in Britain is almost entirely male.)

However, delight turned to dismay as I read Lord Quirk’s closing remark:

At least the amendments show reassuringly little intrusion of the controversial “anyone … they” formulation. Of course, we hear it daily in this House and read it daily in the press, but it has no place in the language of statute, where its comfortably colloquial imprecision is seriously unwelcome.

The same old prejudice! What imprecision attaches to “Anyone seated in an exit row should speak to a flight attendant if they feel unable to perform these duties”? None. Try constructing a case of truly pernicious in-context ambiguity involving a natural use of singular they: It’s really difficult.

Lord Quirk, the only linguist in the House of Lords, had a chance to tell his noble and learned peers to stop being a bunch of grammatically ignorant old sexist fools (notice, everyone who spoke in the debate was male), but he squandered his opportunity.

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