Valid Pronoun-Ambiguity Warnings

Dogmatic opponents of using they  with singular antecedents don’t argue for its wrongness; they simply assert. William Strunk called it a “common inaccuracy” 96 years ago; the revised version by E.B. White never revised this; and journalist Simon Heffer opines without argument in Strictly English (2010) that singular they is “abominable.”

Rebecca Gowers, in her revised update of her great-grandfather’s classic usage book Plain Words, is different. Exhibiting a sharp eye for ill-chosen pronouns, she provides actual arguments.

The original Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers has a chapter called “The Handling of Words” containing the best systematic survey of syntactic usage-related issues in any usage guide that I know of. Sir Ernest’s discussion of singular they opens with this accurate statement:

It is common in speech, and not unknown in serious writing, to use they or them as the equivalent of a singular pronoun of a common sex, as in: “Each insisted on their own point of view, and hence the marriage came to an end.”

He then added: “This is stigmatised by grammarians as a usage grammatically indefensible”–a false claim, for no serious English grammar scholar ever said any such thing. Indeed, Gowers undercut himself immediately by citing the greatest of English grammarians, Otto Jespersen, who noted examples in fine literature, like “Nobody prevents you, do they?” (from Thackeray).

Ms. Gowers, a novelist and Cambridge literature graduate, sticks with her great-grandfather’s opinion: In her view “it remains safer in formal English” to classify an example like The reader may toss their book aside as “incorrect.”

But in place of Strunk’s unsupported dogmatism and Heffer’s petulant prejudice she offers evidence and reasoning. To show that singular they can lead to its own interpretational difficulties, she returns to one of her great-grandfather’s examples:

Mr. F. saw a man throw something from his pockets to the hens on his farm, and then twist the neck of one of them when they ran to him.

I have indicated with color-coding the apparently intended reference of the pronouns. Sir Ernest’s original point was that the sentence whips confusingly back and forth between distinct third-person masculine antecedents for his and him (first the unnamed man, then Mr. F., then back to the other man again).

Ms. Gowers points out that if they can have singular antecedents, yet another interpretation rears its head: The pronoun they in twist the neck of one of them when they ran to him could be read as synonymous with “it”: We could take they to designate (as she puts it) “a sole, suicidal chicken.”

The grammaticality of sentences like One of the chickens got their neck wrung does indeed entail the availability of that unintended possible meaning.

This example may seem a little too ingenious; but Ms. Gowers has more convincing attested examples. In “Why snoots obey the rules of language mad hatters cannot abide,” in the Financial Times, she quotes none other than (small world!) Simon Heffer, who wrote this in the Daily Mail:

Until JFK, top-class politicians were chosen for their wisdom and devotion to their country. Now, it is someone who can perform a flirtatious interview with a breakfast television dolly bird, irrespective of what they say.

The first they is plural; but what about the second (underlined)? It apparently refers back to someone. Heffer means that candidate selection today is blind to what the person says. Heffer has not only used the singular they that he called “abominable,” but worse, introduced an unwanted ambiguity thereby.

In an article in The Guardian Ms. Gowers cites another example (which she spotted in that newspaper):

Were you hiring a manager for a small chain of discreet luxury business hotels, you would want them to look like Tony Gilroy.

Come again? The hotels should look like Tony Gilroy? Picking them to link back to a manager was a strikingly inept choice here. The writer may have felt trapped between unclarity and sexism: Were you hiring a manager for a small chain of discreet luxury business hotels, you would want him to look like Tony Gilroy would have been clear enough, but seems to presuppose maleness. However, using singular they liberates a crazy potential misreading.

Clearly, using they with a singular antecedent in a context that provides other spurious potential plural antecedents can lead to unclarity. So beware.

That doesn’t mean singular they is syntactically incorrect; it isn’t. But warning about the danger of unintended ambiguities is reasonable advice, much more sensible than the baseless prejudice of ignorant authoritarians like Strunk or Heffer.

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