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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


How Can They Be Singular?

Which of the following sentences is incorrect: A) It’s enough to drive anyone out of his senses. B) It’s enough to drive anyone out of his or her senses. C) It’s enough to drive anyone out of their senses.

Those who consider themselves “old school” would likely consider C incorrect: their is plural but its antecedent, anyone, is singular. Most traditionalists would consider B the best sentence (despite the clunky his or her), although they would reluctantly accept A also.

We consider ourselves traditionalists too. But after looking long and hard at the overwhelming evidence, we cannot in good conscience say that C is incorrect.

“It’s enough to drive anyone out of their senses” was written by the celebrated playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw. But Shaw was no outlier when it came to the so-called “singular they.”

Oscar Wilde: “Experience is the name everybody gives to their mistakes.” Henry Fielding: “Every Body fell a laughing, as how could they help it?” Shakespeare: “God send everyone their heart’s desire.” The King James Bible: “In lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than themselves.”

Even despite these eminent writers’ words, we know that many of you are adamant that the plural pronoun they and its variants should never be used with singular antecedents. Perhaps you will reconsider after hearing from the language scholars.

• From A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (1957) by Bergen Evans and Cornelia Evans: “The use of they in speaking of a single individual is not a modern deviation from classical English. It is found in the works of many great writers.”

• British editor Tom Freeman: “Singular ‘they’ is over 600 years old, going back into Middle English. Great writers have used it, including Chaucer, Shakespeare, Swift, Fielding, Austen, Defoe, Byron, Thackeray and Shaw.”

The American Heritage Dictionary: “Writers who choose to use they with a singular antecedent should rest assured that they are in good company—even if a fair number of traditionalists still wince at the usage.”

• The irascible Tom Chivers, writing in London’s daily Telegraph: “If someone tells you that singular ‘they’ is wrong, you can firmly tell them to go to hell.”

So do we recommend the singular they? In fact we loathe it. You will never see the singular they in our blog posts. We stand with the English scholar Paul Brians, who says in Common Errors in English Usage: “It is wise to shun this popular pattern in formal writing.” And we admire the passion of the writer Jen Doll: “Every time I see a singular they, my inner grammatical spirit aches … The singular they is ear-hurting, eye-burning, soul-ravaging, mind-numbing syntactic folly.”

Yes. The singular they might not be incorrect, but “not incorrect” is no one’s idea of an impressive credential.

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Posted on Tuesday, June 2, 2015, at 1:04 pm


Capitalizing Composition Titles: The Lowdown

Which words should be capitalized in titles of books, plays, films, songs, poems, essays, chapters, and the like? This is a vexing matter, and policies vary. The time-honored advice—capitalize only the “important” words—doesn’t help much. Aren’t all words in a title important?

The following rules for capitalizing composition titles are virtually universal.

• Capitalize the title’s first and last word.

• Capitalize all adjectives, adverbs, and nouns.

• Capitalize all pronouns (including it).

• Capitalize all verbs, including the verb to be in all forms (isarewashas been, etc.).

• Capitalize no, not, and the interjection (e.g., How Long Must I Wait, O Lord?).

• Do not capitalize an article (aanthe) unless it is first or last in the title.

• Do not capitalize a coordinating conjunction (and, or, nor, but, for, yet, so) unless it is first or last in the title.

• Do not capitalize the word to, with or without an infinitive, unless it is first or last in the title.

Otherwise, styles, methods, and opinions vary; for instance, certain short conjunctions (e.g., asifhowthat) are capped by some, lowercased by others. 

A major bone of contention is prepositions. The Associated Press Stylebook recommends capitalizing all prepositions of more than three letters (e.g., withaboutacross). Other authorities advise lowercase until a preposition reaches five or more letters. Still others say not to capitalize any preposition, even big words like regarding or underneath.

Hyphenated words in a title also present problems. There are no set rules, except to always capitalize the first element, even if it would not otherwise be capitalized, such as to in My To-go Order (some would write My To-Go Order). Some writers, editors, and publishers choose not to capitalize words following hyphens unless they are proper nouns or proper adjectives (Ex-Marine but Ex-husband). Others capitalize any word that would otherwise be capped in titles (Prize-WinningUp-to-Date).

Many books have subtitles. When including these, put a colon after the work’s title and follow the same rules of composition-title capitalization for the subtitle: The King’s English: A Guide to Modern Usage. Note that is capitalized because it is the first word of the subtitle.

Capitalizing composition titles is fraught with gray areas. Pick a policy and be consistent. Next time we’ll discuss more of the pitfalls of this tricky business.

 

Pop Quiz

Capitalize the following titles. Answers are below.

1. how to be decisive yet careful

2. the secrets of the woman who is free

3. where, o where, is my in-the-flesh soulmate?

4. happiness: the proof that it is possible

5. the man who did not dance with wolves

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. How to Be Decisive yet Careful

2. The Secrets of the Woman Who Is Free

3. Where, O Where, Is My In-the-Flesh Soulmate? (OR In-the-flesh)

4. Happiness: The Proof That It Is Possible (OR that It Is Possible)

5. The Man Who Did Not Dance with Wolves (OR With Wolves)

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Posted on Wednesday, March 4, 2015, at 7:55 pm


Media Watch

Here is another batch of fizzles and fumbles from dailies and periodicals.

• Headline for an editorial: “Let he who is without spin.” It’s clever, it’s glib, it’s … a disaster.

It’s supposed to be a twist on a well-known biblical verse, but that verse is routinely misquoted. Many people believe it goes like this: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Here is the actual quotation from the Gospel of John: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” Note the wording: “let him.” That’s because “let he” is almost grammatically impossible. (No one would claim that Marie Antoinette said, “Let they eat cake.”)

• “Fear, borne of national security hysteria, can threaten Americans’ rights.” Either replace “borne” with “born” or, depending on how you interpret the sentence, replace “of” with “by.”

To be born is to be given birth to, as babies are born. Or it can mean “to be created”: ideas are born the moment we think of them.

To be borne is to be carried, transmitted, or tolerated: a mosquito-borne diseasecharges borne equally by the payer and the receiver. When you see borne of, the writer almost certainly meant born of. You are far more likely to see born of or borne by than borne of in a correct sentence.

Our staff prefers born of in the instance cited. Fear is born of—springs from or is created by—hysteria.

• “The criteria for a permit is whether the business is compatible with the impacted neighborhood.”

“The criteria is” is ungrammatical; there is no such thing as one criteria. Criteria is the plural of criteriona standard used for judging, deciding, or acting. So make it “One of the criteria for a permit is …”

But we aren’t done yet. Do not say “impacted neighborhood” when you mean “affected neighborhood.” As a verb, impact is constantly misused, and affect is almost always the remedy. To impact means “to pack tightly together,” as in an impacted tooth. That is not what the sentence is saying about this particular neighborhood.

• “She did not specify his exit date or what lead to his decision.” Make it “what led to his decision.”

Budding writers are increasingly using lead instead of led as the past tense of the verb to lead. There are three reasons for this confusion. First, lead reminds us of read, and everyone knows that the past tense of the verb to read is read. Second, the word lead, when it refers to a metal, is pronounced led, just like the past tense of the verb to lead. And third, they don’t drill spelling in schools the way they used to.

 

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. “One thing they didn’t find were bullet casings.”
2. “Were either of you kids exposed to the virus?”
3. “His family is at their wits’ end.”
4. “Last year, less than a hundred thousand Americans visited Cuba.”
5. “They want to talk to everyone with whom he may have came into contact.”

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. “One thing they didn’t find was bullet casings.”
2. “Was either of you kids exposed to the virus?”
3. “His family is at its wits’ end.” OR “His family are at their wits’ end.”
4. “Last year, fewer than a hundred thousand Americans visited Cuba.”
5. “They want to talk to everyone with whom he may have come into contact.”


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Posted on Tuesday, February 17, 2015, at 3:23 pm


Resolutions for Word Nerds

Below you’ll find ten New Year’s resolutions for self-appointed guardians of the English language. We are a group that needs its own code of ethics to protect us from ourselves and shield others from our self-righteousness. So let’s get right to …

The Stickler’s Ten Commandments

1) No using big words to intimidate. You can’t beat a polysyllabic onslaught for sounding authoritative. But laying big words on someone who may not be as educated as you are is just shabby.

2) No correcting someone’s English in an argument. It’s the wrong time to do it. When someone makes a valid point, picking on that person’s language is a cop-out, and a contemptible way of gaining the upper hand.

3) Do it in private. If a person you care about says “irregardless,” it can be a thoughtful gesture to gently advise that there is no such word—but don’t do this when others are within earshot.

4) No condescending preambles. If you have some wisdom to impart, don’t start with “Didn’t you know,” or “I can’t believe you just said,” or “How can someone from your background …” Such statements sound uncomfortably close to “I’m smart and you’re not.”

5) Casual conversation gets a lot of leeway. Public figures are rightly under scrutiny when they’re speaking or writing on the record. Even private citizens may be held accountable, not just for what they say but for how they say it, in a meeting or serious discussion. However, the language police ought to back way off in settings where people are just relaxing and making small talk. At such times, perfect grammar is probably the last thing anyone should worry about. No one ever mistook a Super Bowl party for a summit conference.

6)  And no correcting playful correspondence, either. If you get an email that says, “I didn’t mean nuttin’ by it,” your correspondent is kidding around. What is friendship without informality and levity? And what kind of a sourpuss would point out that “nothing”was misspelled and that double negatives are bad grammar?

7) Know what you’re talking about. Before you correct someone, how do you know you’re right? There are many myths about “proper” English floating around. Here are three discredited rules that a lot of people think are true: Never end a sentence with a preposition. (Yes you can.) It’s wrong to split an infinitive. (No it’s not.) The relative pronoun that cannot refer to a human, so always say “the person who called,” never “the person that called.” (Utter nonsense.) If you believe even one of these superstitions, you see the problem.

8) Look it up. Good writers choose their words with utmost care. So you can’t go wrong with a dictionary nearby. Many people believe they needn’t look up a strange word. They are deluding themselves. Suppose a critic you respect refers to a book’s “meretricious manifestation of sophism.” The word meretricious sounds a lot like meritorious; and sophism brings to mind sophisticated. Having seen the review, you are eager to purchase and read this admirable, stylish work—not realizing that the critic has denounced the book as lurid and devious rubbish.

9) No excuses when you slip. Two can play this game, professor. We all make mistakes. If someone busts you, don’t try to wiggle out of it.

10) No correcting strangers. Keep it to yourself; it’s the Wild West out there.

Tom Stern

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Posted on Tuesday, January 6, 2015, at 4:01 pm