BMJ 1995; 310 doi: (Published 11 February 1995) Cite this as: BMJ 1995;310:393
  1. Alex Paton

    Problems with pronouns

    In 1875 Robert Browning wrote: “We've still our stage where truth calls spade a spade.” Not any more: 120 years on political correctness paradoxically dissembles truth. Good old Anglo-Saxon words are replaced by woolly circumlocutions: the old are chronologically challenged, the dead are (sic) non-living persons, and the fat differentially sized. And its effect on sex has been to turn the writer of English into a contortionist in order to avoid being charged with sexism.

    The constant awareness of the need to address both sexes and yet to avoid the repetitive he and she leads to curious and inappropriate use of pronouns: “The individual was also impaired in their personal development” and “It is helpful if the counsellor appreciates that they can lean towards the client. This can encourage the client and make them feel more wanted.” A simple solution if you don't want to get tied up with single (singular) sex is to use plurals for the subject—individuals, clients, patients—when their follows logically.

    A similar problem arises with a collective noun like everyone. You don't say “Everyone were” so sentences like “Everyone was assumed to be Christians” and “Everyone should have the opportunity to express themselves in imaginative language” (from the Arts Council) are strictly speaking ungrammatical. But I gather the Times has given its imprimatur to plurals like their after a singular subject.

    Confusion of a non-sexist kind is if anything worse when dealing with institutions, where singular and plural are mixed indiscriminately: “While the town council was privatising anything it could lay their hands on,” and “The Royal College of Psychiatrists have arranged its first Christmas lecture.” The rule should be to treat such collective nouns as singular.

    To get back to sex, I am always careful to be politically correct, as, for instance, in describing airline desks as “womanned by BA representatives.” So I find it bizarre to read an academic survey of views of both sexes about living wills (by a man) addressed to the reader as she; and am surprised by a woman doctor whose article was directed solely to he and his. Imagine the outcry if the author had been a man. But this was nothing compared with the shock produced by a picture of the successful England women's world cup cricket team, which included the woman who had been “declared man of the match.”—ALEX PATON, retired consultant physician, Oxfordshire

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