Errors & Omissions: Battle of the genders claims another victim


Several readers have written in to raise objection to this headline, which appeared above a comment piece on Monday: "At last – a public figure who refuses to deny their past." The public figure in question is the Tory MP Louise Mensch. Why follow the fashion for using "their" in a singular sense, my correspondents demand. Surely it should be "her past". I am not so sure, much as this column hates to be outdone in pedantry by its own readers.

What we have here is a language in transition, responding to social changes. Modern English long ago lost nearly all its inflections for gender. They are found only in the third person singular pronouns: "he" for a male person, "she" for a female person, "it" for a thing. There is no distinctive form for a person of unspecified sex. Until about 30 years ago, the gap was filled by "he", on the assumption that the normal thing for a person to be was male.

Then came feminism, and that would no longer do. In the 1980s everybody conscientiously wrote "his or her" and "he or she". But that was awkward, and we have now settled down into the comfortable habit of using the plural forms "they/them/their" for a singular person of unspecified gender. It seems to work.

But, cry the critics, Louise Mensch is not a person of unspecified gender. She is a woman (the author, indeed, of a string of successful chick-lit novels). So why "their past"?

The answer is that "At last – a public figure who refuses to deny her past" would paint the wrong picture. It would imply that all these public figures who do deny their pasts are female. For "they/them/their" is becoming the default usage. When you use "his" or "her" you are drawing specific attention to gender.

Think again: A political story on Wednesday reported: "The polling was done on behalf of the Fabian Society, a centre-left think-tank." That is like calling Charles Dickens "a novelist".

The Fabian Society, founded 1884, could, I imagine, lay claim to the title of the world's first think-tank. It is certainly one of the pillars of British socialism, associated in its early years with such titanic names as Shaw, Wells and the Webbs. At the very least, it deserves to be labelled "the centre-left think-tank".

Underground movement: On Tuesday a news story told of the arrival in British shops of a luxury potato variety called "La Bonnotte". It reported: "Usually only around 20 tonnes are grown each year and they are hand-picked because they are too fragile to be harvested by machine." Picked? That suggests harvesting fruit from a tree. Potatoes are lifted.

Thinking in clichés (1): "Teenager survives 10-hour ordeal with suspected bomb around neck." That headline appeared over a news story on Thursday. Madeleine Pulver certainly underwent a dreadful ordeal after an extortionist attached to her neck what appeared to be a bomb. But in what sense did she "survive" it? There were no explosives and her life was never actually in danger – a fact reported in the story.

Thinking in clichés (2): A travel feature published on Wednesday referred to "St Ambrose, a fourth-century Christian martyr". All those old Christian saints were martyrs, weren't they? Not necessarily. Ambrose, theologian and Bishop of Milan, remembered particularly for excommunicating the Emperor Theodosius the Great, died a natural death in 397.

Picture this: "They [political leaders] can hardly blame ordinary people for clearing their debts too, which is now contributing to the lack of consumer spending." That is from a piece of political analysis published last Saturday. Political language works best when it appeals both to the logical mind and to the imagination.

"Contributing to" here works perfectly well as information; you know what it means. But it paints no picture the imagination can grasp. To contribute is to put something into a common pot. You can contribute to an abundance or a sufficiency, but what could you contribute to a lack?

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