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He said, she said, they said



"Maybe this individual will come to their senses before they get back into society." A reader who saw this quotation in an article about a prisoner seeking parole disapproves of the pairing of individual (singular) with their and they (plural). So do I, usually. In this case, correction would be easy. Just look at the parole-seeker and then say, "Maybe this individual will come to [his or her] senses before [he or she] gets back into society."

But there are times when I'll accept they as a singular pronoun, to avoid the he-she problem. The serial use of he or she and him or her is clumsy and distracts from whatever your main point is. And I was long ago persuaded that the use of he for both sexes is unacceptable. There are two, after all. Success With Words says:

"The case against using they as a singular pronoun is based on rigid adherence to the rule that a plural pronoun must refer exclusively to plural antecedents. As a language evolves and adapts, such rules are often modified ... There is a clear tendency for they to follow suit, in order to function as a singular and indefinite pronoun of common gender."

The quotation also demonstrates the indiscriminate use of individual for person. Individual means essentially "person considered as a separate entity, in contrast to a group or society." Most of the time, including the example above, person is simpler and better, and individual is merely pretentious. Sometimes individual is apt, of course: The Bill of Rights protects the individual against the majority.

I say!

Headline from the police beat: "Robber's car drags shopkeeper a bit." A bit? I wonder if the writer was British; this sounds like British understatement. Or maybe it was the shopkeeper. "Oh yes, the villain's car dragged me a bit, but hardly worth mentioning, you know." The article doesn't tell us exactly how far the victim was dragged, or at what point dragged a bit turns into dragged a lot or dragged to hell and back.

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