Tag s | Grammar

Grammar and the Singular “They”

Yesterday 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,” “offensive,” “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.

There are some who wish to change all pronouns to be gender neutral, going from he/she to zie; from him/her to zim; from his/her to zir; from his/hers to zis; and himself/herself to zieself instead. But rather than debate that issue, let’s look at the use of the singular “they.”

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 they.” 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 usage. There is an entire website devoted to the issue as found in the writing of Jane Austen and other classic writers!

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 it is a point of grammar and certainly not intended to offend anyone. That it 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.

In 2015 the Singular They was named “Word of the Year” by American Dialect Society (a group of 200 linguists). Even the venerable Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed. (2017) now allows for its use.

Richard Lederer and Richard Downs, in their great book The Write Way wrote, “Let the word go out that anyone . . . their is destined to become good, idiomatic English. It already pervades the speech of educated Americans, and daily it grows more common in writing.” (page 161)

Members 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.

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 NOT a 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.

Adapted and abridged from an article called “Opening a Can of Worms” in The Advanced Christian Writer, June 1998. Previous blog version posted September 21, 2009.

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Tools to Tackle Grammar Gaffes

Oh my. We all have our peccadillos when it comes to English, don’t we? If I addressed them all, we’d be here til next year. So I’ll just give you the cheats…uh, tips I use most often. —Don’t be afraid of me. Poor ol’ me has been sorely maligned, as …

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Misused Words and Phrases

 

The English language is full of persnickety quirks, the most despicable of which are buzz words. Words and phrases we’ve decided work better than plain speech. Why say what you mean when you can just toss out a phrase that says what you want, but in such a vague and convoluted manner than people spend so much energy figuring it out that they can’t challenge you? Genius! Or how about those words we overuse, or misuse? Oy, da pain!

So here, for your reading pleasure, are some of the words and phrases that drive this logophile right up the wall. Literally!

Can you unpack that for me?

Nope. I can’t. Literally. What’s more, I don’t want to. I don’t like packing or unpacking. And what does packing have to do with anything? Whatever happened to the plain and simple, “Would you explain that, please?”

Repurposed

Folks, we all know what this means. Fired. Laid off. Out of a job. You can’t take away the devastation by giving it some innocuous name and hoping nobody challenges you on it.

Baby bump

Seriously? It’s not a bump. It’s a baby. Way better than a bump.

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What’s On Your Desk? (Part Two)

Last week I told you about my writing books, those valued, printed friends who’ve gone through this writing/editing/agenting journey with me. This week, I want to introduce you to some buddies that are too often ignored. Or avoided. Or cursed.

Yes, my friends, I’m talking about grammar books.

I, too, am less than delighted with grammar. However, I’m delighted by the following books that are a wonderful—and fun!—resource for those of us who work with words. So, without further ado…

Of course, The Elements of Style by Strunk and White is front and center. I have the little book with a white and red cover, but in ’05 I received a wonderful gift from writer/editor Erin Healy: The Elements of Style, Illustrated. It’s a beautiful clothbound version of EoS, with lovely, four-color illustrations that bring the examples to life. I love it!

Then there are the style and grammar books by

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It’s National Punctuation Day

Today is National Punctuation Day! In celebration, take out a comma.

Or at least visit the official site: www.nationalpunctuationday.com.

Recently I walked into a church classroom to find a list of the 10 Commandments on the board. The first line read “No other God’s.”
Sigh.

If you want to read a fun book on grammar and punctuation I can recommend Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

So while you take a moment to appreciate the need for precise punctuation enjoy this delightful five minute repartee between Dean Martin and Victor Borge singing with Phonetic Punctuation.

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Spell Checking

Shortly after I became a book editor, I was working on a nonfiction manuscript that focused on Mormonism. When I finished editing, I ran the spell check. Imagine my reaction when the dear spell check wanted to replace every Mormon with moron and Mormonism with Moronism!

Since those long ago days, spell check has invaded countless emails, files, and text messages. As much as we appreciate it catching our errors, we curse it for “fixing” words that didn’t need fixing. So when I came across recently, I knew I wanted to share it with you.

So here, for your reading pleasure:

ODE TO MY SPELL CHECKER

Eye halve a spelling chequer

It cam with my pea sea

It plainly marques four my revue

Miss steaks eye kin knot sea.

Eye strike a key and type a word

And weight four it two say

Weather eye am wrong oar write

It shows me strait a weigh.

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