Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language

Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language

Article excerpt

I SHOULD think that most of us in speech use they to mean 'he' or 'she'; it comes in handy when we do not wish to specify the sex.

I have just come across a nice example of they in a Dorothy L. Sayers detective novel, Unnatural Death (1927), written before many of us were born. Lord Peter Wimsey is consulting a clergyman about the morality of killing someone with a fatal illness. The clergyman says: `The consequence you mention - this thing which the sick person wants done - does the other person stand to benefit by it, may I ask?'

Lord Peter, not wanting to give any hint of the identity of the person involved, answers: `Yes. That's just it. He - she - they do.'

You can call the usage wrong if you like, but stranger things have happened in the development of English. Who would have thought, for example, that the apparently intrinsically singular one could acquire a plural, ones, as in: 'I like the big ones'? …

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