Magazine March 8, 2021, Issue

The Use and Abuse of ‘They’

A student works on a computer at the Pride School in Atlanta, Ga., December 7, 2016. (Tami Chappell/Reuters)

Journalists and essayists in recent years somehow formed the impression that the academic study of English grammar is partitioned into two mutually hostile tribes: descriptivists and prescriptivists. Both are portrayed in cartoonish stereotypes.

The descriptivists allegedly think that anything uttered by English speakers is ipso facto good English and can never be erroneous. So if people sometimes say, “It’s in the, the . . . the hall closet,” we must deem that correct, and posit noun phrases with three definite articles in a row. This insane view is purportedly associated with the political Left.

But the other tribe seems just as deranged.

This article appears as “A Question of Antecedents” in the March 8, 2021, print edition of National Review.

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Geoffrey K. Pullum — Mr. Pullum is a writer on language and linguistics, especially English grammar. He is the author of Linguistics: Why It Matters and a co-author, with Rodney Huddleston, of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.

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