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

By Guy Keleny

Saturday 22 October 2011 22:33

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.

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