Much ink/bandwidth has been expended in discussion of the serial comma, with partisans on either side making their case through outrageous examples. You’ve probably seen the ones about “to my parents, Ayn Rand and God” and “the strippers, JFK and Stalin.” One can easily construct similar examples on the flip side: “my best friend, Oprah, and my mom” and so on.
The problem often isn’t strictly a punctuation problem, though – it’s a sentence-construction problem. Whether your style guide calls for omitting unnecessary serial commas (Associated Press) or always using them (pretty much everyone else), it’s the writer’s or editor’s responsibility to ensure the sentence is clear and unambiguous.
For our fourth sentence, we’ll depart from movie quotes. This sentence is close to one I found myself writing in an email, and I realized that although it was perfectly clear (and grammatical — it IS acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition in English), it would make for a more complex diagram because of understood but omitted words.
Here’s the sentence: “Her research is something I have no clue about the topic of.”
For our third sentence to diagram, we’ll get more complicated with a sentence that uses layers of recursion. In language, recursion basically means that we can embed – and keep embedding – clauses or phrases within a sentence while still maintaining grammaticality and comprehensibility.
At the recent ACES: The Society for Editing conference, I gave a session on diagramming sentences. It was during the last session period of the conference, on a sunny Florida afternoon, and more than 100 people packed the room to learn, or refresh their memories, about sentence diagramming. (We’re talking about the classic “Reed-Kellogg” method here, not the tree diagrams of great utility to linguists.)
Diagramming has fallen out of favor as a pedagogical tool (it was of questionable effectiveness anyway), and it’s not necessarily something that will make you a better editor. However, it can be helpful to visualize a sentence’s structure, and the “puzzle” aspect of it makes it nerdy fun for many of us who love language. Plus, it’s really easy to spot a dangling participle when you’re diagramming.
The enthusiasm at the conference for diagramming was such that I thought it might be fun to continue the practice, with weekly (ish) “diagramming challenges.” This is the first, and we’ll start simple:
Many editors own a T-shirt, sticker or button bearing this slogan, marking them as people who care about language, or at least have a sense of humor about it. However, others think it’s not at all funny and is yet another reason for people to think editors are snooty pedants who gleefully scold the less-educated.
Both have a point, but I’d like to point out that once an editor has spent years developing and honing language skills, it is (at least for some of us) really difficult to “turn it off.” We notice typos, misplaced apostrophes, incorrect usage and grammatical errors everywhere, because it’s what we do.
I’m not going to apologize for that, but I am going to suggest that we all focus on the “silently” part rather than the “correcting” part.
I’ve had plenty of friends and relatives say things to me along the line of “I’d better watch how I talk around you!” It’s meant good-naturedly, but I always tell them I don’t correct unless I’m paid or asked to. I’m not going to think any less of a friend who says “between you and I…” or a relative who was “supposably” in charge of the picnic. While I may notice — I can’t NOT notice — I’m certainly not going to say anything. That’s just called “not being a jerk.”
Numerous writing guides (and, judging from the people I encounter, hundreds of writing teachers) drum it into student’s heads that the passive voice is to be avoided at all costs to avoid the passive voice at all costs. That’s not always bad advice, but, as with most grammar “rules,” it’s a guideline rather than a commandment carved in stone.
There’s a poster in my office that says, “Grammar is not a secret code.” It is a code, sort of, but it’s certainly not a secret. Grammar is for everyone, and everyone deserves to feel confident using it. Plenty of resources exist to help people improve their grammar and language skills if they are so inclined.
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.