There is a loose use of the plural which is sometimes encountered in English, where the plural is used as a marker for generality.
Examples: a prisoner who is sentenced might recount to a fellow prisoner that “they gave me 20 years”, when it was actually a judge (singular) who did so. Similarly, someone might whisper about a convicted murderer “Be careful of him. He shoots people!” when it is clear that the murderer has only ever shot one person. A somewhat similar issue arises when a speaker tries to avoid use of gender specific pronouns; they might use “they” (or cognates) instead (as I just did, for illustrative purposes).
Is there a name for this use of the plural? I appreciate it may often be strictly ungrammatical, but it is sufficiently common that I thought there might be a specific name for it, along similar lines to the Oxford comma, etc.
Thanks Fry. I had in mind something more focused. Like one of those elaborate greek expressions you can find at sites devoted to rhetoric or the like. There seems to be one for every possible method of expression. Tmesis is my favourite for a word whose reason for existence is so tenuous as to be barely observable. If there is a word to describe “abso-bloody-lutley” I figured there had to be a word for my little problem.
Could it be an Impersonal Plural? In your first example, the judge is just the point man of The System and the criminal is blaming The System, not the judge. A clearer example would be, “They say that…”
Yes, the judge by himself or herself can’t give anyone 20 years: he or she can only give a sentence as part of the criminal justice system. So the prisoner is recognising that it’s not the judge personally but all the people in the system that gave him or her the sentence.
And the “he or she” and “him or her” there illustrate another reason why you might use “they” or “them” for a single person: when you don’t know the person’s gender. So I could rewrite that first paragraph as:
“Yes, the judge by themself can’t give anyone 20 years: they can only give a sentence as part of the criminal justice system. So the prisoner is recognising that it’s not the judge personally but all the people in the system that gave them the sentence.”