Errors and Omissions: We might need a solemn oath to save ‘he’ and ‘she’ from extinction

Our peerless pedant looks over this week's Independent coverage

Share

Could this be a first sighting? Our Wednesday coverage of the papal election reported: “Each cardinal swore a solemn oath with their hand on the Bible.”

Over the past 30 years or so, the use of “they/them/their” to refer to a single person has become more and more common. It has marched hand in hand with feminism. Today it seems bizarre that any time up to the 1970s it was perfectly normal to use “he/him/his” for a person who might be male or female. In the 1980s, that was replaced by “he or she”, and more recently that clumsy formula has been replaced by the once singular “they”. Nowadays, nobody bats an eyelid at a sentence such as “Each person swore a solemn oath with their hand on the Bible” – where some of the people are men and others women.

But the cardinals are all men. There would have been no problem at all about writing: “Each cardinal swore a solemn oath with his hand on the Bible.” So the question arises: is the use of “they” in a singular sense becoming simply habitual, regardless of gender issues? Can we expect “he” and “she” to lose further ground as the decades pass?

One too many: On Monday we carried a review of the BBC Countryfile programme featuring the Prince of Wales. The headline: “One wants to be just one of the farm lads, really.” It is easy, and predictable, to try to raise a snigger by putting the word “one” into a headline about royalty. I don’t think the prince actually uses it very much these days.

You can’t do that: Laura Kaufman writes in from Horsmonden, Kent, to point out a misapplied word from a leading article published on Tuesday. The leader commented on the amazing variety of planets that have been found orbiting distant stars: “Some are unfeasibly dense, their iron terra firma washed by molten metal seas.”

“Unfeasible” is being used here as if it meant “amazing” or “incredible”. No, “feasible” means capable of being done or carried out. A plan or project may be feasible. The word dates back to 1460, and derives from the French “faisable” – as in “faire”, to do. The density of a planet can’t really be described as feasible – except presumably for a divine creator.

Go carefully: This is from a comment piece on Monday, about Vicky Pryce and how the desire for revenge led her into danger: “Of course she made some dreadful mistakes and should have been more chary, but I recognise her pain because long ago I felt it too.”

“Chary” and “wary”, a pair of words similar in both sound and meaning, cause a great deal of trouble. “Chary” means careful, cautious or sparing in giving something out. “Wary” means habitually on one’s guard. You are chary of something desirable that you have, but wary of something you fear, as Vicky Pryce ought to have been.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Implementation Consultant (VB,C#, SQL, Java, Eclipse, integ

£40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: SQL Impl...

SQL Technical Implementation Consultant (Java, BA, Oracle, VBA)

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: SQL Technical ...

Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, Fidessa, Equities)

£85000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, ...

Lead C# Developer (.Net, nHibernate, MVC, SQL) Surrey

£55000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Lead C# Develo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: Still all to play for at our live iDebate

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
 

The leak of Jennifer Lawrence's nude photos isn't her fault. But try telling that to the internet's idiots

Grace Dent
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor