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November 26th, 2003

Calling one person they / whereabouts is or are?

by Barbara Wallraff

Laurel Gord, of Venice, Calif., writes, “My sister Robin’s husband has a controversial attitude toward the use of pronouns. He believes that if the person’s sex is irrelevant or unknown, it is appropriate to refer to the person in the third-person plural, as ‘they.’ This revelation touched off quite a lively dinnertime dispute. We’re counting on you to clear this matter up.”

I used to find it obvious that people who let “they” mean the same thing as “he or she”—at least in writing, where they can edit themselves—are asking for trouble. If we start blurring what’s singular and what’s plural, how is anybody supposed to tell which pronouns refer to what? Consider “Parents whose child has food allergies should let the school know who they are.” “They” ought to be the parents, who are plural, instead of the singular child. And fixing that sentence would be so easy: just make it read “Parents whose children have …” or end it at “should let the school know.”

But then a few years ago I visited Great Britain to learn more about global English. I had lunch with a couple of British dictionary editors, who assured me that in British usage “they” as a singular pronoun is absolutely standard. Surprised—suspicious, even—I checked some respected language-reference books intended for British readers. These bear those editors out. And the British don’t seem to have any more trouble understanding one another than we Americans do. What’s more, in spoken American English “they” meaning “he or she” is extremely common, and I can’t remember ever having seriously misunderstood anyone because he or she used “they” this way.

All the same, American and British English differ in many respects, and over here it is not standard in writing to allow “they” to refer to one person. The American Heritage Dictionary calls the singular “they” a “usage problem.” And the new Garner’s Modern American Usage advises, “Where noun-pronoun disagreement can be avoided, avoid it. Where it can’t be avoided, resort to it cautiously because some people may doubt your literacy.” I’ll second that!

Laurie George, of Albany, N.Y., writes, “Which is correct: ‘The subject’s whereabouts is unknown’ or ‘The subject’s whereabouts are unknown’? I work in the criminal justice profession, where we use that terminology frequently, and I’d like to be able to advise staff of the official correct use of the language.”

Unlike in your field, in language hardly anything is ever official. Most up-to-date American dictionaries will tell you that either a singular verb (such as “is”) or a plural one (“are”) can be used with “whereabouts.” However, when I checked an online database for you, I found that newspapers publish “whereabouts are unknown” nearly nine times as often as “whereabouts is unknown.”

If I were you, I’d urge my co-workers to treat “whereabouts” as plural, even though “whereabouts is unknown” can’t be called out-and-out wrong. In fact, in my research for you the only phrasing I noticed that is definitely wrong is “Anyone with information on his whereabouts are asked to call …”

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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