Parts of Speech: They, them

July 30, 2009: Issue 299

This week’s “On Language” column in The New York Times Sunday Magazine surprised us. While the NYT has a reputation for stodgy style rules (“the actor George Clooney” on first reference, followed by “Mr. Clooney,” for instance), this column suggests that grammarians are too prickly about the words they and them.

Purists—count us among them—will tell you these are plural pronouns, not to be used as singular in an attempt to head off sexist interpretations of he and him. But the “On Language” column attributes this rule to one overreaching 18th-century grammarian, and it points out that writers such as Jane Austen and Charles Dickens felt free to ignore the rule. We, however, will continue to follow it.

Why? The NYT devoted more than 900 words to this discussion. A usage note in Web 11 reaches a similar conclusion—but the note is longer than any definition on that page. When you need that much space to explain that something should be common usage, it clearly hasn’t reached that status.

“On Language” offers this challenge: How do you quickly and clearly say “A texter worships his smart phone” in a nonsexist way? Our favorite dodge is to make the entire sentence plural: “Texters worship their smart phones.”

Read the entire “On Language” column (or pick up a hard copy in the CE department).

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