Posted on 24TH AUG 2018
tagged MERS-CoV, United Kingdom

A ProMED-mail post
ProMED-mail is a program of the
International Society for Infectious Diseases

Date: Fri 24 Aug 2018 14:54
From: Steve Hawkins [edited]

Regarding the use of "they" in the MERS press release [see MERS-CoV (28): UK (England) ex Middle East, RFI 20180823.5983079], I think you will find this is not a grammatical error but rather a use of a gender-neutral pronoun that is, increasingly, preferred to identifying or mislabeling the person concerned.‎ For example, there may have been only a few women on a flight from Saudi Arabia, making them easier to identify, or the writer may have been instructed to use gender-neutral pronouns in general so as not to upset anyone in gender minorities.

Steve Hawkins
Luton, UK

[Many thanks to our subscribers in the UK and a Twitter follower of mine in the UK for signaling a translation issue in my moderator comment to yesterday's post [MERS-CoV (28): UK (England) ex Middle East, RFI 20180823.5983079]. I erroneously did not follow my initial instinct to add [s/he] next to each use of "they" in describing the patient with confirmed MERS-CoV infection in the UK. We/I have heard from several individuals in the UK regarding the use of "they" (3rd person plural) as a singular pronoun for an unspecified gender.

Note the subtle differences in description of this usage between Oxford and Webster's dictionaries (the former being the UK-preferred dictionary, the latter being the USA-preferred dictionary):

Oxford, "third person plural singular used to refer to a person of unspecified gender"

Webster, "often used with an indefinite third person singular antecedent
e.g., everyone knew where they stood -- E.L. Doctorow
e.g., nobody has to go to school if they don't want to -- N.Y. Times"

So rather than blame my poor knowledge of grammatical usage for my moderator comment, I'd like to explain my interpretation based on common usage in the USA, with our current preference to use "s/he" and "him/her" when there is an unspecified gender.

That being said, an apology is due to Public Health England and the UK government for creating any problems with my comment, and an acknowledgement on my side that I am not as bilingual as I thought I was. - Mod.MPP]

See Also
MERS-CoV (28): UK (England) ex Middle East, RFI 20180823.5983079