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.

Explanation:

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 Comings and goings, bringings and takings

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 Who gets to decide how language is used?

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.

Corrections with a smile

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on July 26, 2011.

I ran across an interesting post over the weekend that asks: “Why do people hate on those of us who know grammar? Why is it insulting to have your language skills corrected?”

The author, Claiborne L., a professional writer and editor, makes some excellent points in the post, and also links to a howlingly funny collection of obnoxious responses to language mistakes on Facebook. But she sums it up by saying that people knowledgeable about language should approach corrections as advice from a peer, not as diktats from on high. “Check the attitude,” she says, “and offer only the instruction.”

As an editor, I realize that I fall closer to “fussbudget” than “freewheeler.” That’s the job of an editor: to clarify, streamline — and correct.

But her post made me think, why DO people hate having their language corrected, and hate the people who do it? Aside from the fact that most people dislike being told they’re wrong about anything, there are a few other reasons that seem specific to corrections of grammar.
Continue reading Corrections with a smile

Nutty non-rules of grammar

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on April 18, 2011.

20110402MAIN1ARecently I got a voice mail message from a reader saying that the verb “rise” could be used only with animate subjects, and thus our headline “Speed limit may rise to 75 mph” was incorrect, and it should have said “Speed limit may be raised to 75 mph.” Turning aside the issue of changing a perfectly good active-voice sentence to a wordier passive, I was intrigued, because I’d never run across this “rule” before. After all, bread rises. The sun rises. No one seems to complain about those. So I turned to the bookshelf.

None of our dictionaries said anything about “rise” being restricted to animate subjects.

Our usage manuals cite “rise” in distinction to “raise,” the former intransitive and the latter transitive. But I saw no rules limiting “rise” to certain classes of subjects.

The “raise” entry in one book reminded me of another “rule” I’d run across: “Raise” is for crops or livestock, “rear” is for children. That one merited a mention in Garner’s, which said that “raise” is standard for children as well as farm commodities, and the phrase “born and reared” is “likely to sound affected” in American English.

After I posted the rise/animate issue on Twitter, grammar-book author June Casagrande replied, “That’s one of the nuttiest non-rules I’ve heard, and I’ve heard a lot.”

I’ve heard a lot, too, and it can be really tough to disabuse some folks of the notion that a particular grammatical point is “wrong” when they’ve labored under that pretense for years — or decades. But let’s try.

For the record, these are NOT legitimate rules of English usage:

Don’t split infinitives or compound verbs. Split away — there’s no basis in English grammar not to, and it often sounds stilted or unnatural to work around this false prohibition. As Tom F. put it on Twitter, “Nuttiest are the people who still haven’t realised that the infinitive, like the atom, can be split with productive effects.”

Don’t end a sentence with a preposition. The companion to the split-infinitive “rule,” this one is also not a real rule. Prepositions in English are notoriously flexible, hiring themselves out as adverbs or encrusting themselves onto verbs like barnacles. True prepositions are best followed by objects, but for the rest, they’re fine to end sentences with. Continue reading Nutty non-rules of grammar

Our favorite books: Garner’s

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on June 11, 2009.

People have asked where we find answers to all the grammar and usage conundrums we run across. Every Eagle editor has a row of books spanning his or her desk, and they aren’t just for decoration. We use them to explore questions we have and arrive at a conclusion (often there is not a consensus on usage; grammar is usually more straightforward). Some we use daily; others less often. Some books everyone has a copy of; others are personal favorites. Some are serious, no-nonsense guides; others are whimsical and fun. We’d like to share our references, so we’re introducing Our Favorite Books, a feature that will appear occasionally on Grammar Monkeys.

Garner’s Modern American Usage by Bryan A. Garner (Oxford University Press, second edition, 879 pages, $39.95)
Of the myriad dictionaries, grammar books and usage guides out there, one stands out as the argument-ender on The Eagle’s copy desk: Garner’s.
Why is this book so special? Several reasons:

First, it’s comprehensive. Pretty much any question you can think of concerning usage is covered in the nearly 1,000 pages of this book, with detailed explanations, the usage’s history and examples from print. It doesn’t just tell what’s correct or acceptable, it tells you why.

Second, the man knows of which he speaks. His concise, thoughtful entries are based on copious research and meticulous attention. Plus, they are clearly expressed with a minimum of jargon.

Third, Garner is firmly in the middle of the strict prescriptivists and the strict descriptivists. What this means is that he’s not an old fusspot clinging to outdated rules of grammar; neither is he an anything-goes endorser of unclear or ambiguous expression. He knows when it’s hopeless to rail against usages formerly labeled “substandard,” and he knows when to preserve useful distinctions.

Fourth, while many reference guides for English are more British in their points of view, Garner specifically addresses American usage. He does note differences between U.S. and British English, as well as American regionalisms and dialect expressions.

“What does Garner say?” is the question that suspends the discussion and starts the turning of pages.

Update (April 2011): The third edition of Garner’s (Garner’s Modern American Usage, by Bryan A. Garner, Oxford University Press, 1008 pages, $45) has come out since this was first posted. The new book is revised and expanded, and contains a handy new feature called the “language-change index.”

The index is a number from 1 to 5 assigned to usages in transition: 1 = rejected, 2 = widely shunned, 3 = widespread but …, 4 = ubiquitous but …, 5 = fully accepted. This number lets readers know where something is on the level of acceptedness and make a usage decision accordingly (for some contexts, “ubiquitous but …” is fine).

Full disclosure: I was a member of the Panel of Critical Readers for the third edition, but did not receive any compensation for this and do not receive any from book sales.