Tuesday, June 01, 2010

They Is The One

Have you ever noticed that people who die tragically young, or as innocent victims of criminal malfeasance, are invariably described in news reports as being the kind of person who could "light up a room with their smile" or "always had a kind word for everyone" or some such thing? And that the accompanying photo always depicts the victim "in happier times"? Me, too. That's why, in the interests of self-preservation, I'm dedicating myself to being a selfish, frowning, misanthropic asshole. Hey, it's worked for Andy Rooney.

Hang on a tick--did I just say "light up a room with their smile" when talking about an individual person? Strictly speaking, it should be "his or her smile" but that's an awkward phrasing that can lead to whole paragraphs of "he or she/ his or her" prolixity. Yet, seeing as how the English language has not been kind enough to provide a gender-neutral third person singular pronoun, many language authorities have come around to accepting they/their as a serviceable substitute--and I, for one, am willing to pull the stick out of my arse far enough to accommodate that.

But getting back to our unfortunate innocent victims, what are we to make of this excerpt from the weekend's Province, summarizing the words of the daughter of a woman who died when her car was rammed by a drunk driver?
She described her mom as being a selfless volunteer, a champion of the underdog and someone who always had a smile on their face.
Well, that's just wrong. In this case, we know the person being described was a woman, and the smile rightfully belongs on her face.

Perhaps the confusion arises from the word someone, which seems generic and gender-neutral. It's kind of like that other grammatical trickster, "one of those people who...", which is another singular/plural mind-bender. For example, we would say the victim was "one of those people who always have a smile on their face." (That's assuming we accept their in this context, and for Pete's sake I thought we already agreed on that.) So why not "one of those people who has..."? After all, one is singular so shouldn't it take a singular verb? No. Why not? Because people is plural and that is the word that governs the verb choice here. What we are saying, in effect, is that "of the people who always have a smile on their face, she is one."

My word, that was exhausting. I'm going to have to lie down now for awhile.


Bonus insensitive quibble: A headline from the San Francisco Chronicle reads, ONE DEAD, SEVERAL CRITICAL AFTER RAVE PARTY. What were they being critical of?