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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

Spell Check

You may recall that our inaugural spelling challenge last winter included all right, which has managed to ward off alright for decades now. As we noted at the time, the usage of alright “remains unacceptable across the board in serious writing.”

Since then we’ve discovered yet another adversary gunning for all right: films with subtitles. For whatever reason, subtitled films invariably insist on alright. We don’t know where films go to be subtitled, but apparently Subtitle Central has decided that alright’s time has arrived. We’ll see about that.

Meanwhile, here is the next in our occasional series of spelling tests. You’ll find the answers below—after you take the quiz, if you don’t mind.

1. The differences between them are ___, so take your pick.

A) minuscule
B) miniscule
C) minascule
D) minniscule

2. Many nutritionists claim honey mixed with ___ can help with weight loss.

A) cinnaman
B) cinammon
C) cinnammon
D) cinnamon

3. Living in that place was like being in a ___.

A) straitjacket
B) straightjacket
C) strait jacket
D) straight-jacket

4. A backyard ___ is what summer is all about.

A) barbeque
B) bar-B-Q
C) barbecue
D) A, B, and C are all correct.

5. The fire ___ is investigating a suspicious blaze.

A) marshall
B) marshal
C) marchal
D) marshill

6. The ___ choir sang like a band of angels.

A) a capella
B) a cappella
C) a capela
D) a cappela

7. These chemicals will help ___ the solution to the required purity.

A) rarify
B) rarrify
C) rariffy
D) rarefy

8. He handed me a metal ___ with a loose lid.

A) canaster
B) cannister
C) canister
D) cannaster

9. Bobby strummed his ___ as if his hand were on fire.

A) ukulele
B) ukalele
C) ukulale
D) ukalale

10. There’s a lot more to do in ___ than many New Yorkers suspect.

A) Cinncinatti
B) Cincinnati
C) Cinncinati
D) Cincinatti



1: A) minuscule. Note that first u. A lot of people think the word is “miniscule.” And it makes sense that a word for tiny would have a mini in it. In this case, don’t think mini, think minus.

2: D) cinnamon

3: A) straitjacket. It’s commonly spelled with a straight, which is understandable. Wouldn’t a “straightjacket” be just the thing to straighten you up and straighten you out?

4: C) barbecue. People want to put a q where the c should be. The popular abbreviation, BBQ, doesn’t help matters.

5: B) marshal

6: B) a cappella. Most have no problem with the two l’s, but the double p’s are another matter.

7: D) rarefy

8: C) canister

9: A) ukulele. This word creates a lot of bother for such an elfin instrument.

10: B) Cincinnati

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Posted on Tuesday, May 26, 2015, at 6:09 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 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