The Finer Points of Pronouns

Why, when we were children, were they so insistent that we refer to people by name?

I can hear myself now, inadvertently getting into this particular kettle of fish. ``Mum!'' I'd say (I used HER name all right). ``Mum ... ''

``Don't point, darling.''

``Mum, she asked me to ask you to ... ''

`` `SHE?!' Doesn't Granny have a name? `SHE' is the cat's mother!''

What an enigma those adults were. Maybe they were a different species. I mean, how could they say that my grandmother was the mother of a cat?

``She - I mean, Granny - says could you please put some more coal on the fire, she - Granny - says, for her - I mean for Granny - please, Mum.''

``That's better.''

Yet everyone knew that ``she'' meant Granny, so why did I have to keep naming her? Ah, well, I suppose they knew best.

* * *

They? It was then, I suppose, that the idea of ``they'' was born in me. Here was I - and there were they. They were the ones in charge. They also fed and clothed you and sent you to school, where a whole lot more ``theys'' were there to teach you.

We never, it seems, really quite escape the ``theys.'' I suppose they take different forms, such as the bureaucrats, the civil servants, the tax inspectors, and the managers. They are the ones who believe they are running things, so they're the ones who must shoulder responsibility when things do not go according to plan. Personally, I am rather content not being one of them.

But there is another, quite different kind of ``they.'' I like this concept of ``they.'' As a journalist, I am not supposed to, however. It just does not do to write ``they say'' to support some noteworthy trend or generally held opinion. A journalist has to quote a person with a name and, if possible, with some sort of credentials.

But I find that ``they'' is a word of immeasurably useful amorphousness and vague application.

In a broad sense, ``they'' simply means ``people.'' Folk. Many things worth quoting are said by Anonymous. They are overheard on a bus, at a railway station, or at the next table in a cafe. What is the poor snooping journalist supposed to do? Clear his throat and approach them, notebook in hand, and say: ``Excuse me - I just overheard you say an extraordinarily apt and intriguing thing. I am a journalist. May I quote you? Could you also give me your name, age, and references?''

So I find myself being asked by editors what I mean by ``they.'' But the possible answers are, of course, as variable as the chameleon is prismatic. In essence, they are anyone and everyone. They are the most quotable people, because they do not even know they are quotable. They are the most interesting, because they are not trying to be interesting. They are - and should be - unnamed: the great, wise appraisers of the world, the ones without a name.

Unless, of course, we just call them ``the cats' mothers.'' Yes, that is probably who ``they'' are. Everyone's granny.

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