Mind your language

The new Fowler still won’t grasp the nettle on ‘they’

A usage problem where the answer is inevitable – but no one seems quite ready to accept it

4 April 2015

8:00 AM

4 April 2015

8:00 AM

I’ve been having a lovely time splashing about in the new Fowler. It has been revised by Jeremy Butterfield, an OUP lexicographer. There’s a new usage in it that I want to talk about, but first a word about the title. The title page says Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage. In 1996, the previous edition, the third, edited by good old Robert Burchfield, was The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. In 1926 H.W. Fowler’s celebrated book had been published as A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. We called it Modern English Usage both before and after 1996, and more often Fowler — a metonym and more, as Jeremy Butterfield points out. So why doesn’t it now say Fowler on the cover, not Fowler’s? As it is, no one will call the new edition by either half of the publisher’s chosen title.

Anyway, an updated entry is for they. Here, I think, Mr Butterfield does not quite grasp the nettle. Most of the entry is taken over from Burchfield, who noted that Fowler’s own view was that ‘few good modern writers would flout the grammarians so consciously’ as to use they to follow a generalised noun or pronoun such as everyone or nobody. Plenty of good writers in the past have done so: ‘Now, nobody does anything well that they cannot help doing’ — Ruskin; ‘If a person is born of a gloomy disposition … they cannot help it’ — Chesterfield. Burchfield observed that English lacked a ‘common-gender third person singular pronoun (as distinct from his used to mean ‘his or her’).’ What Butterfield adds is that such a use of his is ‘now politically verboten’.


In giving examples, he limits himself to those that refer back to indefinite determiners, such as someone or even a person. More doubtful, but not discussed, is the use of they as a non-sexist pronoun referring to a person whose sex is known to the speaker: ‘The car-park attendant came out of their hut.’ Sometimes it can amount to concealment of sex: ‘My friend wanted to have their portrait painted.’

I agree with Butterfield’s conclusion: ‘The process now seems irreversible.’ But that is not a new conclusion, for the words are Burchfield’s from 20 years ago.

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  • Perseus Slade

    We already have an excellent alternative for he/she/him/her: it.
    I use it all the time, and if that bothers anyone,
    just too bad for it.

    Nice and short, very easy to use.

    Don`t submit and use “s/he” !
    How would you say it anyway?

    • paulvew

      Correct English: the student combs his hair.

      • Perseus Slade

        What if it is talking about any student, not saying if it is male for female?
        Or possibly when the sex of the student is unknown or when it is not wished to be specific?

        In French it is different, it is he or him (il, lui) by default.

        • paulvew

          In English it is the same or used to be and should be. I hate ‘he or she’.

  • Paul Giles

    It’s odd that we use a plural verb after ‘they’, even when it refers to one person.

    Someone HAS left their car in my parking space. That’s the second time that they HAVE done that.

    But it happens naturally in colloquial English, so it’s good to see the formal grammarians catching up.

    • I feel sorry for those trying to learn English as a foreign language. It must seem irrational as h-ll. There’s no rule that doesn’t have ten exceptions, unless it has twenty. We don’t have a good grapheme-phoneme fit. And then there are the distinctions between national dialects (British, broadly, and American, broadly) — never mind local meanings and pronunciations. Even my husband, as an American, took twenty years to exhaust my supply of baffling anglicisms. Now he (finally) not only knows them all but has taken a few favourite ones for himself.

  • Dan O’Connor

    Europeans appear to be the only people who have difficulty distinguishing between
    ” us ” and ” them ”
    This is the kind of grammatical error that ends up with a one way express ticket to the Darwinian scrap heap of history.

  • NoWeCant

    The process may seem irreversible but that does not mean I have to join in.

  • Mech Shop

    The enforcement of feminist dogma through grammar is limited to certain departments in colleges. It has little effect on popular culture. The backlash against this is far bigger and rarely directly acknowledged. To see just how out of sync this is with main stream society see the movie Furious 7 with its record breaking box-office numbers. Furious 7 is over the top machismo and uses current standard English.

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