Errors & Omissions: This battle against the misuse of pronouns is getting personal

By Guy Keleny

Time for this column to declare a new campaign.

This is from a political story about the Milibands, published on Wednesday: "In some respects it is not a speech his elder brother could have delivered either, as he inadvertently made clear when he was caught on camera expressing implicit disapproval." In this sentence "his" refers to Ed, but "he" is David. The reader pauses for a moment to work that out.

From time to time we have pointed out instances of this "who he?" problem. They seem to be getting more serious and more frequent.

This problem is all about four third-person pronouns. One is singular and masculine: he/him/his. The second is singular and feminine: she/her/hers. The third is singular and neuter: it/its. The fourth is plural: they/them/ their/theirs. The different functions of the various forms I have separated by slashes are interesting in themselves, but they do not concern us here. The point is this: where any of these four pronouns, in one or more of its forms, appears more than once in the same sentence, it should, throughout the sentence, represent the same person or thing. That way the reader does not have to perform mental gymnastics while working out who is who.

I believe that this rule is instinctively observed by good writers. Readers who write in ( pointing out instances where reputable authors have used the same pronoun for different people in the same sentence may be rewarded by the mention of their names here, and the sight of me struggling to explain the anomalies away.

In everyday conversation, people tend not to worry about this issue at all – "He told him he had said that, but he just turned round and said ..." In conversation it doesn't matter, because both speaker and listener are familiar with all the people involved, and the listener's comprehension is helped by stress, intonation, gestures and facial expression. But when such habits of speech spill over into newspaper writing, we start confusing the reader. We need to make a conscious effort not to. Watch this space.

Apparently so: I suppose it is too late to rescue "heir apparent", but let's have a go. A news report about North Korea on Wednesday said this: "While most of the attention this week is on Kim Jong-un, the Dear Leader's youngest son and heir apparent, his aunt and uncle are probably being groomed for a role as his mentors."

"Heir apparent" is a term in monarchic genealogy. It means an heir who will certainly succeed if he survives the incumbent – in effect, an eldest son. Any other heir, such as a daughter, brother or nephew, who can be supplanted by the birth of a closer heir, is not an heir apparent but an heir presumptive.

In these ruling dynasties of nominal republics, such as the Kims, Castros and Assads, there can be no such thing as an heir apparent, since there are no formal laws of succession. Kim Jong-un's position is much more akin to that of an heir presumptive: he is expected to succeed unless something happens to prevent him.

The trouble is that the word "apparent" has changed its meaning since the heyday of feudal monarchy. People assume that some one who is apparently the heir is the heir apparent. Not so. Let's leave "heir apparent" in the medieval past, where it belongs. There are plenty of alternative terms – "likely heir", "designated heir", "apparent heir" or just plain "heir".

Wrong way: "Fears grow that Irish economy will befall same fate as Greece," said a headline yesterday. No. The fate will befall the economy, but the economy will suffer the fate.

Such a misuse of "befall" is a new one on me, but there are plenty of paired verbs each of which goes only one way, and some are easily confused. Millions of people say "learn" where speakers of standard English would say "teach". Some observers would call that an error: others would call it dialect. And knowing the difference between "imply" and "infer" is a rare accomplishment; it is worn as a badge of honour, like the correct placement of "only", by those who relish logical precision in language.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power