Singular use of ‘they’

The use of they or their as a singular is a frequent subject of discussion among translators into English and also on the Internet in general. It’s been used for centuries – the article quoted below says the first use in the OED is in the 14th century , but under their there is a 1420 reference (‘the sun and moon, each with their own light’). Usually discussions are exhausted in pointing out to critics that it is not an invention of the women’s movement (which apparently is sufficient to disqualify usage in many quarters). However, one sometimes hesitates to use it in written, especially formal written, English even where it would be the most elegant alternative.

The latest issue of Clarity gives a link to an article on the website of the Canberra Society of Editors on the use of they as a singular, particularly in legal texts.
The article quotes the ‘big three’ dictionaries (Random House 1987 is the third), none of which criticizes the usage. It is in favour of it, but points out one problem:

bq. There are some situations in which the use of they could lead to ambiguity, for example:
Where an applicant notifies the other residents, …………. must lodge a section 12 notice within 14 days.
To insert they in the blank here would not work if we want it to refer unequivocally to an applicant. Readers could quite legitimately and most probably would – interpret they in this sentence as referring to the other residents.

However, it doesn’t see this as an argument against the usage, but recommends redrafting.

Clarity says the author of this article is Robert Eagleson, whereas the site quotes a Simplification Task Force that produced the paper in 1995. It does quote work by Eagleson:

bq. In 1974 Robert Eagleson conducted a series of usage tests in Sydney to see how much support remained for he in a universal or indefinite context and how effective the efforts of teachers had been (‘Anyone for his’ in Working Papers in Language and Linguistics (1976) 4: 31-45).

The Clarity website does not have full copies of the journal, but it does have other materials. Thanks also to Robin Bonthrone for reminding me of this conference on clarity and legal language planned for 2005 in Boulogne-sur-Mer.

2 thoughts on “Singular use of ‘they’

  1. I don’t know if you’re aware, but there is no usage problem.

    Check the OED for examples stretching back centuries. That’s usage.

  2. Yes, I am. Thanks for reminding me to be more explicit. I’ve added the link now and a paragraph at the beginning. The problem is not the fact that the usage exists and is good usage (the article argues that it used to be good usage but went through a period of being criticized), the problem is whether a translation customer will accept it or regard it as a sign of ignorance!

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