Law and Conversation

October 30, 2009

Singular and plural

Filed under: Books and writing,legal writing,Uncategorized — Helen Gunnarsson @ 5:15 pm
Tags: , ,

An AP article posted this week in the online edition of the Chicago Tribune at,0,5187017.story , “Facebook keeps profiles of people who have died, though removes some features,” disturbed and disappointed me.

 You’re right—the article’s header is awkward.  But what REALLY bothered me was in the text of the article. 

 Here it is:

 “… only the deceased person’s confirmed friends can find them in a search.”

 PLEASE!  Has the AP—or the Tribune—cast aside all grammatical standards?  The word “them” refers to “person.”  “Person” is singular.  “Them,” therefore, is incorrect.

 I know, I know.  You speak this way.  (Full disclosure:  so do I.)  Prose in newspapers and magazines, and even in some documents filed in court, has become increasingly informal, more like speech.  I use an informal, spoken style myself for the articles I write for the Illinois Bar Journal.  It makes articles easier to read for busy people who are short on time and, perhaps, attention span.  So why is it not OK to write this way, too, and use “them,” or “they,” or “their,”  to refer to one person?

 Because it’s just WRONG, dammit.

 This sentence should be revised to read

 “…only the deceased person’s confirmed friends can find HIM OR HER in a search.” 

 Granted, “him or her” is clunky, using three words when you’d prefer one.  So why didn’t the writer—or the editor—follow Rene J. Cappon’s suggestion in “The Word:  An Associated Press Guide to Good News Writing,” by revising the sentence to put the whole business into the plural, like this: 

 “…only the deceased persons’ confirmed friends can find them in a search.”

 Or the writer could have tightened it up even more by eliminating “persons’,” like this:

 “…only the deceased’s confirmed friends can find them in a search.”  (Note that the term “deceased,” when used as a noun, may refer either to a singular dead person or to a multitude of dead people.)

 I shudder when I see this mistake in print, not only in some of what are supposed to be the finest publications in the country but also in court filings.  (Facebook itself consistently uses plural pronouns to refer to its singular users.)  Why on earth would any editor let a construction like this go to print?  Didn’t the writer, or the editors through whose hands the original piece passed, know any better?

I’ve read that, far from being a novelty, recorded examples of this substandard construction go back to Chaucer.  I know it’s inevitable for language and accepted style to change.  I even agree that change is good—that’s how English as we know it not only came into existence but also became so colorful and expressive.  But this is one change to reject.

Create a free website or blog at