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Rosie Right

Our language and how it works.


Its, his or theirs

Among the prejudices that mark me as a product of a school where conservative grammar was cherished is the distaste I have for the use of their to refer to a singular subject. I was sternly taught that one should say, for example, "Each of us picked up his or her coat and left," or "Each of us picked up his coat and left." The latter of the two examples did not even seem to alert me to the fact that the writer was leaving out half the human race.

Conscientiously, I have tried in every way possible (without ruining the writer's tone) to have a singular pronoun refer to a singular subject, but most good writers have been way ahead of me. The new Fowler's (Third Edition, 1996) pretty well throws in the towel and tells us: "The issue is unresolved, but it begins to look as if the use of an indefinite third person singular is now passing unnoticed by standard speakers (except those trained in traditional grammar) and is being left unaltered by copy editors."

This actually is a moderate statement. A Google search turned up a page of linguistics posted by one Henry Churchman on which he writes: "Singular 'their' etc. was an accepted part of the English language before the 18th-century grammarians started making arbitrary judgements as to what is 'good English' and 'bad English,' based on a kind of pseudo-'logic' deduced from the Latin language, that has nothing whatever to do with English."

This is exactly what I wanted to find. It gives me the freedom to pass such sentences as, "The hip-hop group The Strict Grammarian bring their stuffy music to Richmond."

Stylish Language

"The biggest threat to America and its values today is not communism, authoritarianism or Islamism. It's petrolism. Petrolism is my term for the corrupting, antidemocratic governing practices — in oil states from Russia to Nigeria and Iran — that result from a long run of $60 a barrel oil." Thomas Friedman in "The New York Times," Jan. 6, 2006.

Let Rosie hear from you by mail (1707 Summit Ave., Suite 201, Richmond, VA 23230); by e-mail (; or by telephone (358-0825).

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