No sooner did I post a rant about syntactical mistakes that editors (and teachers) hate to see, in yesterday’s blog on ways to get the media to toss away a news release, when low and behold—I pull from my mailbox an incredibly embarrassing example of the offense that gets made fun of by editors perhaps more than any other: the use of “they” for “he’, “she” or “it.”
Here is the headline from a 9” X 6” postcard sent by Fragasso Financial Advisors, a financial planning firm:
Did your advisor talk with you during the downturn?
What did they say?
The mistake, of course, was to use “they” to refer to “your advisor,” since “advisor” is singular and “they” is plural. Of course, to write “What did he or she say” is pretty stiff, as are all the variants: he/she, he or she, heshe, shehe, et. al.
I would rewrite it as “Did your advisors talk with you…,” pluralizing “advisor” so that “they” can refer to it.
If the text were for a speech, radio ad, TV or other spoken application, “they” would be useable, if not preferred. Spoken language is always less formal than written nonfiction prose. On the other hand, those elements of language that arbiters most resist changing usually have to do with logic and there is nothing logical about a single entity being referred to as plural entities.
An open question is why the firm uses “advisor” instead of “financial advisor?” The less precise term could refer to a wide range of professional service vendors and thus lends an element of inaccuracy, or perhaps imprecision, to the headline.