Deuteronomy 17:5 in the original 1611 printing of the King James Version of the Bible is one of several examples of singular “they” in the KJV. (Image from kingjamesbibleonline.org)
One: We need it.
Two: We use it.
Three: We understand it.
We need a gender-nonspecific third-person singular pronoun to ensure inclusive writing that isn’t awkward. Generic “he” just doesn’t cut it anymore; extended use of “he/she” and “his/her” in writing is clunky; random switching between “he” and “she” is distracting at best, confusing at worst. Additionally, having the option of “they” accommodates people who don’t identify as either “he” or “she.”
English speakers and writers don’t just use singular “they” now, we’ve been using it for centuries. We’re talking pillars of English literature here, too: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, and so on. Even the King James Bible uses it (and frankly, if it’s good enough for God, shouldn’t it be good enough for the rest of us?).
That leaves the issue of clarity: If a usage choice introduces ambiguity or confusion, it’s generally not a good choice. But singular “they” is always clear (unlike singular “you,” which has led us to y’all, youse, yinz, you’uns, you lot, etc., to specify singular or plural – and which is also an example of a plural pronoun shifting into the singular, so unless you complain about singular “you” being ungrammatical, the “singular they is ungrammatical” argument holds no water). We understand when “they” refers to a group of people, and we understand when it refers to an unknown or unspecified singular person. Clarity is also the advantage “they” has over pronouns such as “ze,” “hir” and “em” (and dozens of other failed pronouns over the past 150-plus years): People know exactly what it means.
We all use singular “they” without even thinking and read right over it with total comprehension. The time has come for it to be considered standard.
Everything you ever wanted to know about singular “they” (The Stroppy Editor)
Choosing the Singular “They” (Explorations of Style)
There’s (Starting to Be) Some ‘They’ There (Lingua Franca)
Everybody Has Their Own Opinion About the Singular They (by John Lawler)
Singular “they”: everyone has their own opinion (The Economist)
They: A singular pronoun (American Heritage Dictionary)
Reflecting on the reflexive pronoun ‘themself’ (Sentence First)
If someone tells you singular ‘they’ is wrong, please do tell them to get stuffed (The Telegraph)
Singular “their” in Jane Austen (Pemberley.com)
Today is National Punctuation Day, on which we celebrate the useful tools around the edges of our keyboards. Some — such as , and . — we use all the time so they are closest at hand and do not even require using “shift.” Some, such as ; , have enjoyed a renaissance through emoticons. And some, such as ‽ , are so rare that a writer must consciously choose to use them and jump through some typing hoops (or creatively copy-and-paste) to get them.
But all of the marks have their functions, and good writers know how and when to use them. Punctuation guides the reader and provides clarity. It doesn’t do all the work in terms of making writing clear, but it certainly helps.
Which punctuation mark are you? Take this quiz to find out!
On the heels of 5 things every editor should remember, here are a few things for writers to keep in mind. These tips are intended for writers of news and professional communication, so if you are writing creatively, feel free to ignore Nos. 2-5.
1. People will judge your content on the quality of your writing. You may be brilliant, have done superb research or have an innovative new idea, but if you can’t communicate it clearly and cleanly, you’ll lose your readers. If you’re asking for their time and attention, don’t waste it with sloppy, convoluted or error-riddled writing.
2. Readers do not know what’s going on inside your head — all they know is what your words say. Your thought process may be clear to you, but your writing needs to make it clear to the readers.
3. It’s not about you. It’s about the information. If you can render it in a particularly engaging and interesting fashion, all the better. But the line between lively prose and eye-rollingly over-the-top prose is fine, so be careful.
4. Get to the point. Don’t make readers slog through a bunch of background or detail before they find out what you’re actually talking about.
5. For that matter, make sure you have a point.
Not an exhaustive list, of course, but some good things to remember:
1. No one will ever complain if something is too clear.
2. It’s not about you. Just because you don’t like the way something’s written doesn’t mean it’s wrong. As I’ve said before, have a good reason for any change you make. The writer’s voice should be left intact so long as it does not impede clarity or distract from the information.
3. Don’t be a slave to the rules. Think of them as guidelines, and remember that clarity is always more important.
4. Trust, but verify. Always check names, dates, places, times, superlatives — anything you can check, check it. Anything that seems strange or off, check it. For that matter, even if something doesn’t seem strange or off, check it.
5. Math is your friend. Numbers are facts too, and should be treated with the same amount of care and scrutiny.
Next up, because what’s good for the goose, etc.: 5 things every writer should remember.
The headline of this post is an example of a misplaced modifier (more specifically, this one is a dangling participle). Misplaced modifiers pop up every day, and even though it’s often clear what the writer meant, they cause a little stumble — and occasionally major confusion — for the reader.
Why it’s wrong: When you “back into” a sentence with a phrase, the information in that phrase goes with the subject of the sentence. So here, the “having started this post” goes with “an idea,” which is not right — it belongs with “me.” Sometimes sentences start with a phrase that doesn’t belong with anything in the sentence, which can really confuse readers.
How to spot one: Anytime you have a sentence that begins with a phrase — an adjective phrase, a prepositional phrase, a participial phrase — make sure that phrase goes with the subject.
How to fix it: You may be able to simply move the modifying phrase closer to what it modifies, or you may need to rewrite the sentence. With a dangling participle, it’s often better to change the participial phrase to a subordinate clause, which is what works for the title of this post: “As I started this post, an idea struck me.”
Here are a couple more examples:
This is not a post about immigration — grammarians have no power over politics. It is a post about some of the more complicated aspects of subject-verb agreement, and it’s something I hope everyone can agree on.
The basics: Subjects and verbs must agree, that is, singular subjects get singular verbs, and plural subjects get plural verbs. With straight subject-verb-object constructions, this is easy and everyone gets it right.
A wrinkle: When more elements — such as a prepositional phrase or subordinate clause — are added to a sentence, it can end up that a plural noun is right before the verb, but is not the subject of the verb. Only the subject gets to “govern” the verb, that is, determine its number.
Example: The headline pictured above, “Flood of unaccompanied minors rush to cross Southwest border.”
To check agreement, take out the phrase or clause temporarily and look at the sentence. With no intervening words, it will be obvious what the verb needs to be.
of unaccompanied minors rush to cross Southwest border.” “Flood” is singular, so the verb should be “rushes.”
And the really tricky type: “She is one of those annoying people who publicly correct/corrects other people’s grammar.”
Should the verb be singular or plural? Let’s examine this sentence closely to find out.
- “She” is not the subject of the verb “correct” – “she” is the subject of the verb “is.”
- The subject of the verb “correct” is the relative pronoun “who,” which is referring to “people,” which is plural.
- So “correct” is correct.
Think of it this way: There are annoying people who publicly correct other people’s grammar. She is one of them.
Thus, “She is one of those annoying people who publicly correct other people’s grammar.” But if someone says “corrects,” don’t correct them — it’s a common mistake and not one that sticks out.
One peeve I’ve seen pop up a couple of times recently is the prohibition on using “that” when referring to people, as in “The scientists that worked on the project toiled in anonymity” instead of “The scientists who worked on the project toiled in anonymity.” Some people think — and are quick to point out — that “who” is the only proper pronoun for human antecedents; centuries of written English say otherwise, as do most reputable usage guides.
In this kind of construction, “who” and “that” are relative pronouns introducing an essential, or restrictive, clause. Essential clauses are just that — essential to the meaning of the sentence. In other words, if you take them out, the meaning of the sentence changes.
“That” can refer to any sort of antecedent, whether it’s a person or a thing. It did for Chaucer, it did for Shakespeare, it did even in the King James Bible (the first instance is in Genesis: “And the sons of Noah, that went forth of the ark, were Shem, and Ham, and Japheth: and Ham is the father of Canaan.”). “Who” has arisen as a more specific form for people — and pets and zoo animals — and its use is apparently broadening, as it is occasionally seen referring to businesses.
Is there a preference for “who” when the antecedent is human? Absolutely. It’s even part of some style guides. But is “that” grammatically wrong? Absolutely not.