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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


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 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