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Recent Posts

The Singular “They”

pic_874741001189609820Yesterday I opened a can of worms. There were many worms in the can; some male and some female. I discovered that a few of the worms were married to each other. One couple was having a marital disagreement. They were arguing about grammar, of all things. The fight was about the proper use of gender pronouns. Here is the sentence under dispute:

“When a spouse greets a partner with derision because of an opinion, what should be ___ reaction?”

Fill in the blank. Should you use hishis or her, or their? This is a grammatical conundrum. Your choice will determine whether you will be categorized as “sexist,” “tiresome,” or “ungrammatical.”

Our vernacular has changed over the past years due to our sensitivity over the generic “he.” For some it is a matter of being politically correct. For others it is merely a way of being inclusive of both genders in their writing. In addition it can be simply a matter of using the common language of everyday speech.

So what is correct? I have polled a number of editors on this subject and find them equally divided. Some trained in journalism and others who are fierce copy-editors are vehemently opposed to the use of the “singular their.” Others claim to be more concerned about simple communication and lay the finer points of grammar aside. Yet even they are not unified on the issue. There is an entire website devoted to this question (The Anti-Pedantry page can be found at www.crossmyt.com/hc/linghebr/austheir.html).

Rosalie Maggio, in her book The Nonsexist Word Finder (Beacon Press, 1989) speaks to the issue of gender inclusive language:

“Defenders of the convention most often claim that is a point of grammar and certainly not intended to offend anyone. That is does in reality offend large numbers of people does not appear to sway some grammarians, nor does the fact that their recourse to the laws of language is on shaky ground. While he involves a disagreement in gender, singular they involves a disagreement in number [as in ‘to each his own’ and ‘to each their own’]. Eighteenth-century [male] grammarians decided that number was more important than gender, although the singular they had been in favor until that time.”

The plural pronoun has been used regularly for years. Few realize that some of the greatest writers in history utilized this method without criticism–Chaucer, Shakespeare, Swift, Goldsmith, Dickens, Fielding, Thackery, Byron, Austen, Orwell, Kipling, and even C.S. Lewis. Even The Chicago Manual of Style, 14th ed., “recommends the ‘revival’ of the singular use of _they_ and _their_, citing…its venerable use by such writers as Addison, Austen,…and Shakespeare.” (footnote on pp. 76-77 – 1993 edition)

Richard Lederer, in an article in Writer’s Digest wrote, “Let the word go out that anyonetheir is destined to become good, idiomatic English. It already pervades the speech of educated Americans, and daily it grows more common in writing.”

Member of the Copyediting-L e-mail list state, “‘They’ with a singular antecedent works well, because it’s already part of everyone’s vocabulary. Like the generic ‘he,’ it entails no new words, just a shift in semantics…[it] is just one item in the toolkit of those who wish to avoid using generic ‘he.’ It isn’t the only item, and it doesn’t fit every situation, but it is useful.” (http://atropos.c2.net/~srm/samples/net/celfaq.htm [link now broken])

My feeling is that it is entirely appropriate to use the “singular they.” We need to adjust, ever so slightly, to accommodate the changes in our language. While not succumbing to the landmine of being politically correct, I do believe that there are appropriate places to use “ungrammatical” words to effectively communicate to our readers. Even the Boston Globe agrees in their article from October 2008 “The Singular Challenge.”

Richard Lederer provided a wonderful exercise to illustrate the point. Fill in the blank in the following sentence: “Everyone in the building attended the party, and ___ had a wonderful time.” I suspect that nearly everyone supplied the word they.

For a nice, but not definitive, introduction to the subject visit the Wikipedia entry for this topic.

And please note that I am a NOT grammar expert by any means. Heaven forbid I get that much credit. While I am an advocate of great writing and proper use of the English language I am also an advocate of communication. And communication has a tendency to adapt over time, the written word is no exception.

An earlier and abridged version published as “Opening a Can of Worms” in The Advanced Christian Writer, June 1998.

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Book Manufacturing

If you ever get the chance to visit a printing press, do it. I’ve had the privilege to visit two of them. The first was Standard Publishing’s printing press in Cincinnati. Their plant is quite large and they do a wide variety of printing, everything from books to curriculum to Star Wars coloring books.

The other plant was Bethany Press International in Bloomington, MN. During my years with Bethany House Publishers I visited this plant many times since their building is about 100 yards from the back door of the publishing house! I watched them move from the old “film” method of processing to a completely digital technology.

The beauty of watching the books being printed is partly the fascination of cool machines, but also an insight into all of the incredible details that go into the manufacturing process.

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2009 ICRS Observations

Like many going into the 2009 ICRS convention (aka CBA or the Christian Booksellers Association convention) I was wondering what would be found. It was great to see that instead of the projected doom and gloom there was light and hope. (Yes, that is Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber in the photo to the left – courtesy of Christian Retailing Magazine.) A few observations:

1) The total convention exhibit floor was about 30% smaller than in past years and the middle section, housing CBA’s events and displays was HUGE. In fact you could walk through the entire book section very rapidly for the first time in years. Everything seemed condensed.

2) The net effect of the smaller sales floor was that you felt the crowds. There was noise, energy, and excitement in the air. This was a major change over previous years where it always felt so quiet.

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ICRS / CBA Bookseller’s Convention

Today is the official opening of the convention in Denver. This year will be my 28th consecutive ICRS (International Christian Retail Show) or CBA as we veterans still call it (Christian Booksellers Association Convention). I absolutely love the experience. I’ve attended as a retailer, as an exhibitor, and now as an “industry professional.” I find it amusing that each name badge is color-coded to help exhibitors know whether the person in their booth is a bookseller (and thereby a potential customer) or a browser, like me. What makes it particularly fun is that the “agent” color is black….the color of an agent’s soul.

PRO: There is nothing like the experience of walking the floor of the world’s largest Christian bookstore. Everything is there, the good, the bad, and the outrageous (like the balloon art crucifix or the painting of a junkie shooting heroin into the arm of Jesus). The spirit is electric. It can be overwhelming, but ultimately it is a picture of God at work. As a writer you can meet key people, network with fellow writers, collect catalogs (those that aren’t digital), and simply increase knowledge of what the industry is all about.

CON: Unrealized expectations. Too many writers think the convention should be all about them. It isn’t. Disappointment is palatable with some folks at the end of the experience. Their publisher didn’t pay enough attention to them; not enough people came to their signing; no editor was available for an appointment…etc. Go to the convention with modest expectations and the chance of disappointment with be minimized.

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Christy Awards

Tonight was the tenth annual Christy Awards which honors the best in Christian fiction. We were very proud to have six clients as finalists!

To my eternal delight two clients won!

Marlo Schalesky won in the contemporary romance category for her book Beyond the Night (Waterbrook Multnomah Publishing Group).

Tracey Bateman won in the contemporary series category for her book You Had Me at Goodbye (Faithwords).

Since neither Marlo or Tracey could attend, I had the privilege of accepting their awards and reading their speech. A thrill and an honor.

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