Tag Archives: usage

3 reasons to use the singular “they”

Deuteronomy 17:5 in the original printing of the 1611 King James Version includes one of several instances of singular "they" in the KJV. (Image from kingjamesbibleonline.org)

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.

Further reading:

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)


Don’t sweat it: “Who” and “That”

One peeve I’ve seen pop up a couple of times recently is the prohibition on using That and who“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.

Usage: Doing it right

One sense of the word "right" as found in the Oxford English Dictionary.

One sense of the word “right” as found in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Recently — and this is not the first time this has happened — I wrote something along the lines of “do it right” and  someone “corrected” the word “right” to the word “correctly.”

Apparently some people somewhere are laboring under the idea that “right” in the sense of “correct” can only be an an adjective. But “apparently” isn’t good enough for me, so I dug into the reference books.

According to the OED, the foremost authority on the history of the English lexicon, “right” has had an adverbial sense meaning “correctly” since the year 950. That’s not 1950, that’s 950. As in more than a thousand years ago. So right there we know this “rule” is bogus. But where did it come from?

The 1944 “A Dictionary of Modern English Usage,” by H.W. Fowler, probably the epitome of fusspot-itude in usage manuals, says that “The adverb right, in the senses ‘properly,’ ‘correctly,’ is being squeezed out by the tendency to unidiomatic -ly.” The examples that follow of correct usage include “If I remember right” and “Teach him to hold his pen right.” So, no proscription here. (Perhaps I need to rethink my characterization of Fowler.)

Maybe a little further back? My 1935 “English in Action” coursebook states: “slow, loud, quick, fast, cheap, right, wrong, clear, ill, well, hard, high, long, and deep are used as adjectives or as adverbs.” No proscription here, either.

Some of the language books I consulted for this post.

Some of the language books I consulted for this post.

So I kept looking. I have literally dozens of grammar and usage books in my office whose publication dates span more than a century (this is my job, after all). Not one — not Bremner or Bernstein, not Garner, not Strunk and White — even mention this rule to debunk it, much less perpetuate it.

That still doesn’t answer the question of where this bogus rule came from, though, so I headed off to the Interwebs. “Right” in the adverbial sense of “correctly” is acceptable in all the online dictionaries. There’s even a grammar book called “Grammar Done Right” out there. But I can’t find anyone stating that “correctly” is preferred over “right.”

However, I did run across a couple of queries in online forums about whether it’s acceptable to say “done right” instead of “done correctly,” leading me to think that someone out there is telling people that the “right” one is wrong.

Does anyone have any insights into where this came from? If so, I’d be glad to know.

Comings and goings, bringings and takings

Speaking of bring / brought / brought, people often get confused about when to TakeBringClouduse “bring” and when to use “take.” Some people use the two words interchangeably, but they aren’t interchangeable, or they aren’t if you are trying to communicate clearly.

“Bring” vs. “take” is easier to understand if it’s compared with “come” and “go,” because both pairs are distinguished by viewpoint.

“Come” and “bring” are both used when movement is “toward”:

Harry is coming at 8 tonight. He is bringing Hermione and Ron to meet us.
(The speaker is, or will be, where Harry is arriving.)

“Go” and “take” are both used when movement is “away” or elsewhere:

Harry is going to Hogsmeade. He is taking Hermione and Ron.
(The speaker is not, or will not be, where Harry is arriving.)

Continue reading

Who gets to decide how language is used?

Few people use "forsooth" anymore.

Few people use “forsooth” anymore. It’s marked “Obs.” in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Recently during a discussion about standard English, usage manuals and stylebooks, I was asked, “Who gets to decide?” My answer was, “We all do.” As users of the language, we are the ones who ultimately determine the direction of our language: the fate of words old and new, changes in meanings, and addition or subtraction of grammatical constructions.

Of course, it’s not as simple as a few people saying, “Now X will mean B instead of A.” Change rarely happens from the top down; it’s an organic process that takes time. In the past, given enough time, one language would gradually split into new ones that were no longer mutually intelligible. It’ll be interesting for linguists of the future to study the effects of standardized usage, high literacy rates and mass media on language change.

As it is now, words that most people no longer use eventually get labeled “archaic” or “obsolete” and fade from the language. New words appear to describe new concepts or technologies (or newly discovered old things, like “Nasutoceratops”). Continue reading

Like physicians, editors should do no harm

Sometimes, you need to leave the cap on the red pen.

Sometimes, you need to leave the cap on the red pen.

When students first learn to edit, they’re looking for mistakes everywhere. And they find a lot. But one of the things I try to teach from the first day is that not everything has something wrong with it, so they need to know when to leave copy the heck alone. A principle that guides physicians should guide editors as well: First, do no harm. (Interestingly, this exact phrase does not appear in the Hippocratic Oath.)

In other words, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. (Or, as an overzealous editor might say, if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.) This is one of the cardinal rules of editing: Have a good reason for any change you make.

Don’t edit to your peeves. Don’t change something simply because “it sounds bad.” Don’t alter perfectly fine writing because that’s not the way you would have written it.

Do fix the mistakes. Do fill in missing information. Do smooth out rough patches. Do trim words that add nothing. Do explain the complicated. That’s plenty of work to keep an editor busy without messing around in things that don’t need messing.

What editors hate more than letting a big mistake slip through is inserting a mistake themselves. One way that can happen is by mucking about unnecessarily in copy — that’s a typo, a dropped word or a repeated sentence waiting to happen.

It’s often said that good editing is invisible. (Great editing can chop 200 words and no content whatsoever from a piece, but let’s save that for another day.) That’s as it should be. The whole point of editing is for the reader to smoothly understand everything without being distracted by anything. And sometimes good editing means doing nothing at all.

Gradations of graduation

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on Nov. 28, 2011.

We had a question about graduation and the correct way to express it: Should you use “from” or is it correct to leave that out?

The correct usage is “graduate from” a school: “Mayim Bialik graduated from UCLA with a Ph.D. in neuroscience.”

The usage “was graduated from” — as in, “Herbert West was graduated from Miskatonic University” — is the original construction, but is now considered archaic (and a bit pretentious).

It’s also correct to use “graduate” by itself as an intransitive: “Though he studied at Harvard, Bill Gates did not graduate.”

But the form “she graduated college” is labeled in various usage guides as “poor wording” (Garner’s), “patently incorrect” (Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins), “wrong” (Woe Is I), “best avoided” (The New Fowler’s) and “Jethro-esque” (Lapsing Into a Comma). Use it at your peril.

And once a person has graduated, he is an alumnus, she is an alumna, either one is an alum, and both together are alumni — “alumni” is plural and should not be used to refer to one person. The diploma may not be in Latin anymore, but that term is.