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Brandon Robshaw: English Usage #8

Them and us

The other day I was having a conversation with my niece-in-law, if that's a word, and she was talking about applying for a job as a school counsellor. The thing that was giving her pause was having to work with teenagers because, she said, "They're so boisterous".

I had a sudden revelation, and said, "Why use the word 'they'? Why not say 'We’re so boisterous at that age'?"

It was one of those epiphanic moments. I've always unthinkingly used "they" to refer to people of other age-groups than the one I myself happen to be in at the time of speaking. Everybody does. But, I now saw, it's unnecessarily distancing, unempathetic and exclusory; it's also not true to our experience, because we once were teenagers (and children, and infants) and we know what it was like. We haven't all been old, but we (hope we) will be; we can both observe and imagine that future state. So we shouldn't use they/them to talk about the elderly, either – that's us, a few years down the line. This way of speaking and thinking would surely increase understanding and sympathy between generations.

My niece-in-law agreed. And she's going to apply for the job. Hope she gets it.

Dr Brandon Robshaw lectures for the Open University in Philosophy, Creative Writing and Children’s Literature. He has written several children’s books including a philosophical YA novel, The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers. He and his family starred in BBC2’s Back in Time for Dinner. You can find his website here.


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