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“Other” wise

Q: A colleague and I are arguing over this quote: “An 88-year-old man was killed and three others injured.” I say “others,” as a pronoun, must refer to 88-year-old men in this construction. My colleague says it effectively means three other people. The injured were not all 88-year-old men. Which of us is right?

A: Your colleague is right. In cases like this, “others” doesn’t mirror its exact antecedent (“88-year-old men”). Here the plural pronoun simply means additional people.

Among its various functions, the word “other” can be an adjective. Examples: “other charges” … “other drivers” … “other 88-year-old men.” As an adjective, “other” modifies the noun that follows.

But “other” can also be a pronoun, in which case it stands alone instead of modifying a noun. Examples: “Who is the other?” (singular) … “Let’s wait for the others” (plural) … “Others were injured” (plural).

The Oxford English Dictionary says that as a pronoun, “other” (or “others” in the plural) can mean “another person, someone else, anyone else” as well as another person “of a kind specified or understood contextually.”

In the example you mention (“An 88-year-old man was killed and three others injured”), the writer is obviously using “others” in the looser sense of other people.

The OED has written examples of this usage going back to early Old English, but here are a few more recent ones:

“Others indeed may talk.” (From the philosopher George Berkeley’s Alciphron, 1732.)

“If one has too much in consequence of others being wronged, it seems to me that the divine voice which tells us to set that wrong right, must be obeyed.” (From George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch, 1872.)

“He had always worked in places where others had established the English corner before he came.” (From Graham Greene’s novel England Made Me, 1935.)

Your question points up a possible usage problem. If “others” can refer to people in general as well as people of a specific kind, it can sometimes be misunderstood.

If all the victims in your example are indeed 88 years old, the writer should be more precise in the wording: “Four 88-year-old men were victims—one was killed and the others were injured.”

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