Not a difficult subject, I’d have thought. We all know “Between you and I” is wrong, though some progressive types claim that it’s neither here nor there. Yet other examples of the personal pronoun used in the wrong case occur all the time. “Interesting times for we lovers of progress and diversity …” (Andrew O’Hagan in Daily Telegraph, 20 February 2007). O’Hagan is not just a journalist but a novelist, yet he can make this elementary mistake. “…for us…” should come naturally to him, and “… for we lovers of progress…” should sound wrong in his ears; but the slight alteration of context trips him up. Odd.
But what about this? “They think us over-70s are ‘vulnerable’”, said John Simpson the other day, speaking for many. It would be more correct to say “They think we over-70s…” because “we” is the subject of the indirect (reported) sentence “we over-70s are vulnerable.” When written, that should be the form. But in spoken informal English it’s more natural to use the accusative case, as though the pronoun were the object, rather than the subject, of the longer sentence of which “think” is the main verb.
The problem has been compounded by the pressures of political correctness in alliance with feminism: “In times of scarcity it emerged that every person was for themselves” (The Guardian, April 2020). Ouch! The correct, and surely instinctive, form would be “every person is for himself.” But “himself” is “gender-specific”, which is a no-no nowadays, and instead of rephrasing our sentence to avoid the problem we have recourse to clumsy periphrases, which can be absurd, and are nearly always unnecessary if we could accept that the word “man” can stand for all human beings, as it has done for centuries.
That of course is the legacy of the old evil “patriarchal conspiracy” that feminists are out to destroy. In their crusade they have invented all manner of strange alternatives for traditional nouns and pronouns, often unpronounceable: “womxn” is a fine specimen. But such is the infection of this irrational fear that even when the gender referred to is unequivocally female, an awkward neutral form is preferred. In a recent article on domestic abuse: “Abusers wear their victim down, so that the victim comes to believe that they are as useless as the person they love claims they are. … A classic example is … controlling the household finances to the point that the victim has no agency of their own even to buy basics …” (Spectator, April 2020). The reluctance to use a “gender-specific” pronoun is baffling here, as the victims are, as stated in the piece, women. Why avoid saying so, and produce a contorted and grammatically illiterate sentence in the process?
Such is the tyranny of political correctness – a tool for censorship and thought-control which we should all fight wherever possible – that no-one dares take the most sensible course, and we end up with unacceptably ugly sentences like the one I’ve quoted. If there is a pleasant alternative, by all means use it; if not, be content with the “correct” form, even if it’s politically incorrect. Let’s hope no-one hates the whole masculine gender that much!