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Singular They Part II

Despite curmudgeons’ howls, the singular they has become respectable. Many editors at the recent American Copy Editors Society conference declared themselves open to the once-frowned-upon use of they with a singular antecedent.

English is an often imperfect language that makes the best of its shortcomings. We say “none are,” despite the prominent one in none, because English has no other pronoun meaning “not any.”

And although the relative pronoun who can refer only to humans, its possessive form, whose, is routinely used with animals: a dog whose collar fell off and inanimate objects: a bridge whose view is unsurpassed. Not even the strictest language purist denounces the nonhuman whose because English lacks a corresponding word that refers to creatures and things.

Similarly, as the writer Ben Zimmer notes, “English sorely lacks a gender-neutral singular third-person pronoun, and ‘they’ has for centuries been pressed into service for that purpose.”

Last week we acknowledged the historical validity of they and its variants in sentences like “It’s enough to drive anyone out of their senses.” Then a reader informed us that singular they has become a practical way of addressing or describing those in the LGBT community who prefer they to masculine or feminine pronouns.

So history and contemporary life both make a credible case for singular they. But now, with the taboo lifting, expect unintended consequences. Writers will become increasingly sloppy with pronoun-antecedent agreement. Here is a sentence from a recent article by a professional journalist: “Neither Indiana nor any other state has described their religious-rights laws as discriminatory.” Change “their” to “its.” No gender issues there; the writer simply botched it.

When an antecedent includes or implies both sexes, old-school types sometimes must resort to the clumsy phrase he or she, himself or herself, etc.: Every student has done his or her homework. Writers despise he or she, which may be barely tolerable once but becomes preposterous beyond that: Every student has done his or her homework, and he or she will be expected to discuss his or her work in class. That hopeless sentence requires a complete rewrite.

An obstinate cadre of traditionalists will always resist singular they. “The solution here,” says Theodore M. Bernstein in The Careful Writer, “is to recognize the imperfection of the language and modify the wording.” Bryan A. Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage concurs. Noting that singular they “sets many literate Americans’ teeth on edge,” Garner says “the only course that does not risk damaging one’s credibility is to write around the problem.”

Even with the recent acceptance of singular they, we suggest using it sparingly, if at all. When confronted with a sentence like Every student has done their homework, you only need a moment to come up with The students have each done their homework.

 

Pop Quiz

If you have misgivings about the singular they, try rewriting these sentences culled from the print media. Our suggestions are below.

1. Everyone involved was doing what they thought was right.

2. Any parent who has enrolled their child knows what to expect.

3. Sometimes in this business, when you come across a comedy legend, they come off as jaded.

4. Even if a hacker has your password, they won’t have the code.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. All those involved were doing what they thought was right.

2. Any parent who has enrolled a child knows what to expect.

3. Sometimes in this business you come across a comedy legend who comes off as jaded.

4. Even a hacker who has your password won’t have the code.

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Posted on Tuesday, June 9, 2015, at 4:12 pm


What Kind of Rule Is Usually?

A thought-provoking inquiry showed up recently in our inbox:

I can’t decide which verb is correct in sentences like the following. Would I write There are three kilograms of flour in the kitchen or There is three kilograms of flour in the kitchen? Two meters of fabric is here or Two meters of fabric are here?

A staff member submitted this response:

A quantity of weight or measure is singular when considered as a unit. Therefore, write There is three kilograms of flour and Two meters of fabric is here.

That solution did not sit well with everybody. Both “correct” sentences sounded too bizarre to recommend.

True, amounts and measurements often take singular verbs. We say, “Here is that five dollars I owe you,” not “Here are those five dollars I owe you.” A Dickensian excerpt we found online gets to the crux of the matter: “Seven bright pennies were exposed on the grubby palm, but seven pennies was not enough for a candy bar.”

We went to several websites, and noticed some hedging: “Words expressing periods of time, weights, measurements, and amounts of money usually take a singular verb,” said one site. Another said “there does not appear to be universal agreement about this topic.” In other words, this is a rule, but only “usually.” (We also saw a lot of “generally” and “sometimes.”)

The National Geographic Style Manual recommended ten gallons is enough, but also ten dishfuls were slowly doled out. The manual preferred ten gallons is because ten gallons is “considered as a mass”—but many would see the ten dishfuls as a unit also.

Other sites were similarly murky. One recommended six months is needed to complete the assignment but also endorsed six months have passed since the assignment. Why not has passed, as in [a period ofsix months has passed? Another approved both ten dollars is the entry fee and ten dollars were tucked in the mattress.

When a “rule” is this subjective, maybe it should be downgraded to “guideline.”

Back to the original problem—There is three kilograms of flour and Two meters of fabric is here may be technically correct, but they sound terrible. The sensible solution is to recast the sentences: Three kilograms of flour can be found in the kitchen. I have two meters of fabric here.

There’s everything to gain and nothing to lose by rewriting ghastly sentences, even if they happen to be grammatical.

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Posted on Wednesday, May 20, 2015, at 2:38 pm


A Twenty-first Century Usage Guide

Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words by best-selling writer-editor Bill Bryson offers serious scholarship with a smooth, light touch. It’s a hard book to stop reading once you’ve opened it.

We have a lot of other reference books in our offices, but the most recent of those came out in 1983. That was way back in the dawn of the personal-computer age. Much has changed since then, including the language. Bryson’s book is addressed and attuned to the twenty-first century.

Our 1966 edition of Wilson Follett’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage spends 22 pages on the proper uses of shall and will, including the difference between sentences like I shall see him and I will see him, a difference that would be news to most everyone walking around in 2015. How refreshing, then, to find Bryson’s shall, will entry is less than a page long, concluding with “the distinctions are no longer all that important anyway.”

The book has 222 pages devoted to problematic words and phrases, plus a breezy introduction, an appendix on punctuation, a glossary to explain or review the basic parts of speech, and a list of suggested reading. The appendix, though a bit sketchy, includes an especially good discussion of commas. The glossary is handy, but also sketchy. For instance, verbs are “words that have tense,” but tense is not defined.

Among the spelling snags (dormouse, not doormousestratagem, not strategem), fine distinctions (liablelikely, apt, and prone are not interchangeable), and debunked superstitions (split infinitives are not wrong), several entries contain brief science, geography, and history lessons—things you never knew or knew you wanted to know: London’s Big Ben is not the clock, just the hour bell. Victorian sticklers wanted laughable changed to laugh-at-able.

Bryson’s first priority is the reader: “Readers should never be required to retrace their steps, however short the journey.” That could be the book’s mission statement. Writers will appreciate the author’s comprehensive collation of hazards and snares. How is blatant different from flagrant? Did you know that equally as is always wrong? Why say “the vast majority of” when you mean most?

One of Bryson’s many strengths is his sensitivity to ungainly wording (the fact that is best avoided; precautionary measure can usually be shortened to precaution). And he has amassed an astonishing array of redundancies. Bryson keeps them coming every couple of pages. Most look perfectly respectable until you think about them: admit to, brief respitecompletely surrounded, future plans, join togetherminute detail, old adage, personal friend, self-confessed, think to oneself, visit personally, weather conditions, and so on.

Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words respects traditional teachings yet acknowledges the inevitability of change. Check it out.

 

Pop Quiz

Correct any of the following sentences that need fixing. These sentences illustrate principles discussed in Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words. Answers are below.

  1. No sooner had he thought about her when she appeared before him.
  2. He did not feel he had received the kudos that were his due.
  3. I was one of over three hundred people that attended the sold-out event.
  4. Joe got his arm broken in the altercation.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

  1. No sooner had he thought about her than she appeared before him.
  2. He did not feel he had received the kudos that was his due. (Bryson: “Kudos, a Greek word meaning fame or glory, is singular.”)
  3. I was one of over three hundred people that attended the sold-out event. CORRECT
  4. Joe got his arm broken in the fight. (Bryson: “No one suffers physical injury in an altercation.”)

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Posted on Monday, May 11, 2015, at 9:57 pm


Media Watch

Here is another bundle of woeful lapses by the print and broadcast media.

• Triple trouble from an international news organization: “Garcia graduated law school in California and passed the state’s bar exam, but has been forbidden from practicing law.”

Using graduate as a transitive verb here is still frowned on by traditionalists. Make it “Garcia graduated from law school.”

The sentence would be tidier with a he before “has”: “but he has been forbidden …” And the final four words should be “forbidden to practice law.” The New York Times stylebook says: “Use to with forbid and from with prohibit: forbid them to attend; prohibit them from attending.”

• “Growing up near West Palm Beach, he and his mother lived in six different apartments.” The phrase “growing up” should describe the sentence’s subject, but note that there are two subjects, “he and his mother,” and his mother had already grown up. This is an unusual example of a dangler (the nemesis of callow or distracted writers). The sentence must be rewritten so that “growing up” applies only to “he”: “Growing up near West Palm Beach, he lived with his mother …” But that’s not all—why “six different apartments”? Aren’t all apartments different? “Six different apartments” seems to be an imprecise way of saying “six apartments at different times.” It would be better to write something like Growing up near West Palm Beach, he lived with his mother in six apartments over the years.

• “Neither the name of the victim nor the suspect was immediately released.” This sentence is ambiguous because of faulty parallelism. The sentence says the suspect was not released, but it wants to say that the suspect’s name was not released. We can make it right without changing a word: The name of neither the victim nor the suspect was immediately released.

• “The gift by Ronald Linde and his wife Maxine will go to support promising initiatives and research.” Why by? A book or a painting is by someone; a gift is from someone. And commas are needed around “Maxine”—since Mr. Linde can have but one wife at a time, we need not know her name to understand the sentence. In grammatical terms “Maxine” is nonessential (or nonrestrictive) information and therefore requires commas. So make it The gift from Ronald Linde and his wife, Maxine, will go to support promising initiatives and research.

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NOTE: For more on faulty parallelism, see our February 2014 post “Simple Words, Fancy Label.” For more on essential vs. nonessential phrases and clauses, see our three-part series on the subject, which ran August 19, 26, and September 2, 2014.

You’ll find these posts on the GrammarBook.com website. On the home page, click on the Grammar Blog tab, scroll down to Monthly Blog Archives in the right column, and select the desired month and year.

 

Pop Quiz

The following are sentences recently heard over the airwaves. See if you can spot the errors. Answers are at the bottom of the newsletter.

  1. “The proof, they say, are in three text messages.”
  2. “She is in unchartered territory.”
  3. “Bacteria thrives in a warm environment.”
  4. “I’m neither a comedian or an aspiring comedian.”
  5. “He realized he had spoke too soon.”

 

Pop Quiz Answers

  1. “The proof, they say, is in three text messages.”
  2. “She is in uncharted territory.”
  3. “Bacteria thrive in a warm environment.”
  4. “I’m neither a comedian nor an aspiring comedian.”
  5. “He realized he had spoken too soon.”

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Posted on Tuesday, May 5, 2015, at 6:29 pm


Rewriting Great Poetry

The twentieth century produced no greater poet than Dylan Thomas (1914-1953). And Thomas produced no poem more powerful or impassioned than “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.” You read that right: Thomas said “gentle,” not “gently.”

In the poem Thomas exhorts his dying father not to be meek when facing the end, but rather to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

The poem’s title is also its opening line, a line which since its first appearance in 1951 has been “improved” by a host of armchair grammarians who prefer gently.

It happened again last week, in a sentence written by a damn good journalist: “You know what Dylan Thomas wrote about going gently into that good night.”

A 2007 documentary called “Do Not Go Gently” received the Gold World Medal in Humanities at the New York Festivals Film and Video Awards. I am sure the film is a fine piece of work, despite its bungled title.

An Internet search turned up this article: “Poem Analysis of ‘Do Not Go Gently into That Good Night’ by Dylan Thomas.” One can only hope that the heedless chowderhead who wrote that heading did not also write the essay. But just to be on the safe side, I didn’t read a word of it.

Another online expert proclaims: “OK, Dylan Thomas gets a pass, but if he were still in school and that were an assignment, his teacher would probably take off points. It should read, ‘Do not go gently.’ ” Well, no, actually it shouldn’t. This mastermind is the one who needs a remedial English class.

In Thomas’s poem, go is an action verb (see short essay below), which is why these clueless critics insist on the adverb gently. True, we modify action verbs with adverbs, but certain sentences complicate the issue. We could say Don’t go into that meeting angrily, but we could just as properly say Don’t go into that meeting angry.

Action verbs and adjectives combine forces all the time. In Joe sanded the table smooth, the adjective smooth describes table, not sanded. Same with The book is lying open: no one would argue for the adverb openly, even though is lying is an action verb.

There is a subtle but pronounced difference between go gentle and go gently. And great poetry raises subtlety to an art form.

Thomas would never have chosen gently because it trivializes and vitiates his message. As an adverb, gently lasts only as long as the action it describes. Thomas is concerned with much more than one finite action. By choosing gentle ((Do not go gentle = “This is no time for you to be gentle”), Thomas puts the focus on you, all of you; all of us. He implores us to be tenacious and unwavering as we brace for the battle no mortal will ever win.

Tom Stern

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Action Verbs and Linking Verbs

Main verbs fall into two broad categories: action verbs and linking verbs. In a sentence with an action verb, A does B. In a sentence with a linking verb, A is or is like B.

An action verb describes something being done (He left home) or taking place (The building collapsed). A linking verb is a kind of equal sign. It connects a noun with an adjective (They appeared restless) or with another noun (Bill was being a jerk), or it fleshes out the subject (I remain your friend always).

Where action verbs take adverbs, linking verbs require adjectives. This is why it is incorrect to say I feel badly about what I said. When feel is a linking verb, we feel bad (adjective), not badly (adverb); we only feel badly when our hands are numb. And when we feel with our hands, feel is an action verb.

Many verbs we think of as action verbs can sometimes be linking verbs. In They were getting breakfast, it’s clear that were getting is an action verb. But They were getting sleepy makes were getting a linking verb.



Pop Quiz
Can you tell linking verbs from action verbs? Answers are below.

1. She looked fond of her husband.
A) In this sentence looked is a linking verb.
B) In this sentence looked is an action verb.

2. She looked fondly at her husband.
A) In this sentence looked is a linking verb.
B) In this sentence looked is an action verb.

3. Katie says that when she and Ana grow older, they will grow the best tomatoes in the county.
A) The first grow is a linking verb; the second grow is an action verb.
B) The first grow is an action verb; the second grow is a linking verb.
C) Both the first and second grow are linking verbs.
D) Both the first and second grow are action verbs.

4. When I turned to reply, her face turned red.
A) The first turned is a linking verb; the second turned is an action verb.
B) The first turned is an action verb; the second turned is a linking verb.
C) Both the first and second turned are linking verbs.
D) Both the first and second turned are action verbs.



Pop Quiz Answers

1. She looked fond of her husband.
A) In this sentence, looked is a linking verb. (She = fond)

2. She looked fondly at her husband.
B) In this sentence, looked is an action verb.

3. Katie says that when she and Ana grow older, they will grow the best tomatoes in the county.
A) The first grow is a linking verb; the second grow is an action verb.

4. When I turned to reply, her face turned red.
B) The first turned is an action verb; the second turned is a linking verb.

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Posted on Tuesday, April 28, 2015, at 3:30 pm