Category Archives: Usage

Posts that discuss issues of usage

Choosing the Singular They 

In this post, I want to talk about an issue that has been troubling me for as long as I have been writing this blog. Should I be using the singular they? That is, should I be using they as a gender-neutral pronoun for a grammatically singular antecedent? In general, I have not done so, but trying to fix this sentence from a recent post forced me to revisit that policy:

An established Harvard academic writing a book is doing something very different than a new doctoral student attempting their first article.

My usual way to circumvent this issue has been to use the plural. But that solution—‘doctoral students attempting their first articles’—worked dismally here. Making the whole sentence plural sounded daft, and making only the second half plural upset the comparison. So I left it as it was and made a note to make a more systematic decision later (and to make it the topic of a post).

People with much more expertise can give you actual reasons for using the singular they without compunction; I’ll include some helpful links at the end of this post. I’m only going to give my reflections:

1. It’s necessary. We need a gender-neutral pronoun in order to refer to a singular antecedent without specifying gender. The phrase that I often need to use in my blog writing is some variant of ‘When a student shows me their writing …’. Up till now, I have edited such sentences to read ‘When students show me their writing …’. While this is a solution of sorts, I’ve never particularly liked it; I want to be talking about a single generic student, not a bunch of students.

2. It’s correct. Despite what you may have heard, it’s not incorrect to use the singular they. The decision is ultimately a judgment call: Should we use the singular they or might it be disturbing to our readers? Will those readers recognize what we are doing? Might they find it incorrect or excessively informal? My main concern about adopting the singular they in this blog has been one about reception; if enough people believe it to be wrong, I’ve worried that it might be an unnecessary distraction. I’m ready now to let that worry go.

3. It’s beneficial. Using the singular they solves a real problem and gives us important flexibility in the way we reference gender. We should do more than just say that he can’t be a generic pronoun. Even saying he or she—which is obviously stylistically insupportable—makes it seem unduly important that we identify people by gender. Given our understanding of the complex ways that we perform and present gender, it seems entirely desirable to enrich our capacity to leave gender binaries out of places where they are irrelevant. Of course, there are those who argue for an entirely new gender-neutral pronoun, one which could refer to a specific person without identifying gender. Using the singular they doesn’t obviate this perceived need for a gender-neutral pronoun, but it does help. It may be that we will eventually say ‘Sam came to my office and showed me their writing …’ as a way of making Sam’s relationship to traditional gender categories irrelevant. Or it could be that a newly coined gender-neutral pronoun will emerge and take root. In the meantime, it is still beneficial to be able to use the singular they to refer to singular generic nouns and indefinite pronouns.

4. Finally, I can if I want to. If I see this practice as necessary and correct and beneficial, why not do it? In particular, why not do it in this space where I’m answerable only to myself? In the unlikely event that anyone cares enough to judge this decision, it won’t matter. I can continue to make decisions about this issue in other contexts as I wish. And I will certainly continue to teach this issue in such a way that students are aware of a range of opinions and practices. But if I think this usage is desirable and the main impediment is that it may ‘seem wrong’ to some, I think it behooves me to follow my inclinations.

So I’m making it official—this blog will use the singular they, as needed. I totally get that this is immaterial to all of you, but making the decision is a weight off my mind. If you are still troubled by this issue, I suggest having a look at the resources below. And, if you only have time for one, I recommend the first: Tom Freeman does an excellent job explaining the full range of associated issues on his terrific editing blog, Stroppy Editor.

Everything you ever wanted to know about singular “they”, Stroppy Editor

Singular ‘They,’ Again, Lingua Franca (Anne Curzan)

Epicene ‘they’ is gaining greater acceptance, Copyediting (Mark Allen)

There’s (Starting to Be) Some ‘They’ There, Lingua Franca (Ben Yagoda)

Singular they, you, and a ‘senseless way of speaking’, Sentence First

Dogma vs. Evidence: Singular They, Lingua Franca (Geoffrey Pullum)

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Style Conventions and Graduate Student Writing

I recently wrote a post about the tension between expressiveness and adherence to form in academic writing. By adherence to form, I meant following established genre conventions. But there is another level of adherence to form that I didn’t consider in that post: adherence to a particular form of grammatical correctness. As everyone knows, grammatical correctness is much more complex than it might initially seem. There are so many ‘rules’ that are actually apocryphal or at least highly contested by language experts. That awareness, however, can actually complicate my attempts to teach academic writing to graduate students. Graduate students are—in so many ways—standing in an odd space between student and professional. As students-aspiring-to-be-professionals, graduate students must face a unique challenge as they try to develop their academic writing skill while avoiding confrontation with the linguistic bugaboos of their audience.

My dilemma is that my own inclination towards descriptivism isn’t necessarily relevant to my teaching. There is a crucial difference between how I wish people thought and how I suggest people write given how people actually think. In other words, as much as I dislike a grammar hammer approach, I do think that graduate students ought to avoid aggravating their readers. For most graduate students, assuming a critical reader is a good idea. Even if our future reader has only one bête noire and is quite liberal about other usage matters, we generally can’t know that in advance. Split infinitives are an easy example. Despite there being no good reason to avoid them, I often suggest that students do so. In the first place, I do think that there is often a genuine benefit to thinking about modifiers placement: there is often a better place for the modifier or even a better way to word the sentence overall. But there are some split infinitives that are absolutely fine and yet I still suggest rewording to avoid aggravating those who believe this to be a real and important rule. My general practice is to make students aware of traditional ‘rules’ and to emphasize that people who care about those rules often care a lot.

Let’s consider a trickier example. How do you feel about using ‘they’ or ‘their’ or ‘them’ with grammatically singular antecedents? Is it acceptable to say, “Everyone should be able to eat their favourite treats over the holidays”? ‘Everyone’ is grammatically singular (so should be replaced by ‘he’ or ‘she’), but actually points to a group of individuals of indeterminate gender. Although many think of the singular ‘they’ as a recent response to our desire for gender neutrality, this usage is actually quite venerable. This post by Geoffrey Pullum does an excellent job arguing for the value of this usage and, more generally, for the value of basing our linguistic decisions on evidence rather than dogma. The Motivated Grammar blog has a comprehensive post explaining all the ways that a singular ‘they’ is acceptable. Despite the manifest good sense of these arguments, I feel that it is my job to point out to graduate students that some will take an ‘everyone/their’ pairing as evidence that they are unable to write correct English.

A closely related issue that frequently affects me in this blog is the need for an appropriate pronoun for a generic singular. I often write a version of the following sentence: “When a student brings me their writing …”. I intuitively write the sentence that way every time, before changing it to “When students bring me their writing …”. I never seem to use the plural form of ‘student’ the first time, presumably because I am thinking of a generic student. Students don’t come to my office en masse, they come one at a time. When I talk about those meetings, I naturally gravitate towards a generic singular: not a particular student, but a singular instance of student. The plural is grammatically correct and solves the gender neutrality problem yet feels inaccurate.

In this instance, I am simultaneously drawn in two directions: on the one hand, I feel that I should be liberal with the singular ‘they’ because I think it is acceptable, useful, and inevitable. Maybe I should be using it to hasten (in a very small way) its widespread acceptance. On the other hand, it isn’t particularly accepted at the moment and I don’t want my stylistic choices here on the blog to mislead. I feel it is my responsibility—despite my interest in descriptivism and my own faith in its wisdom—to remind students that their audience may have a decidedly prescriptivist bent. Those self-styled traditionalists seem to live on a razor’s edge, always ready to be driven around the bend by relatively benign stylistic choices or instances of neglect. Nobody wants a grant application or thesis proposal to antagonize its intended audience. Effective prose is prose that is well received by its audience. Without being able to call ahead and ask our potential readership how they feel about split infinitives, we have to make up our own minds, using all the information available to us and probably erring on the side of caution. (Erin Brenner has a great post on making sure that our ‘careful usage’ is still informed by all the available sources. Being cautious isn’t the same thing as being superstitious—you need to look things up! I also recommend this lovely post from Lucy Ferriss in which she describes how she is relinquishing the role of linguistic gatekeeper as she marks her students’ writing.)

Overall, I want to balance my own distaste for heavy-handed linguistic fundamentalism with a need to provide students with a good sense of current style conventions. But even as I think about that balance, I have to allow how disinclined I am towards the disparagement of other people’s writing. Someone recently sent me to the “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks, and as much as I tried to be amused, I found myself increasingly annoyed. Of course, quotation marks should ‘not’ be used for emphasis: doing so will lead to unintentional hilarity and that is never the effect graduate students should aspire to. (Or it will make people think you are writing for Zagat; if you want to see that tendency manifest in the most amusing fashion, try this old Shouts & Murmurs piece by Noah Baumbach.) But most of these utterances actually make their meaning quite clear. So I’ll end with a tentative conclusion: graduate student writers should be attentive to conservative writing conventions to avoid making stylistic choices that might aggravate their audience. But nobody should make a habit of deriding language that has made its point. “Fresh” meat may sound deeply unappetizing to a discerning reader, but we do know what is meant. “To boldly go” makes its point unambiguously. “If you love somebody, set them free” is perfect. Be cautious in your academic writing, but still strive for joy in language rather than fear of error.

I wish you all a very happy and productive holiday break! Explorations of Style will be back in mid-January.

Impactful Pet Peeves

Everywhere I’ve been over the past week, people have been sharing this list of ‘grammar mistakes’. You don’t need to click on the link to know the sort of thing: a list of errors that are terribly egregious despite the fact that everyone makes them all the time. I am fascinated by the mindset that is unmoved by the prevalence of  such ‘errors’. The pleasure of being right when everyone else is wrong seems to be so great that it obscures any sense that we should view the prevalence of a particular practice as relevant.

I generally try to avoid linking to things that I find as unhelpful as this list; you surely don’t need my help finding shoddy advice on the Internet. But I went ahead and did so because I want to point to two key issues with this list. First, very little on this list is grammar (and the bits that are grammar are either wrong or dismally explained). This observation is more than just a quibble. The perception among students that their writing problems primarily involve grammar means that they often view their path to improvement as both narrow and fundamentally uninteresting. Not to say that grammar is actually uninteresting (obviously!) but rather that students might engage more readily with the task of improving their writing if they conceived of the task as having a broader intellectual basis. Improving your writing isn’t just fiddling with technicalities and arcane rules; it is a matter of thinking deeply about your ideas and your communicative intent. Calling it all grammar can be both dismissive and uninspiring.

The second—and more important—issue is the reasoning that underlies this list. A list like this says ‘all educated people should know these things, so avoid these errors lest you seem uneducated’. This edict misses an opportunity to talk about better reasons for avoiding certain usage patterns. For example, should you say ‘impactful’? It is meaningless to say that it isn’t a word: it is so obviously a word (if you aren’t sure, contrast it with ‘xsxsjwcrt’ and you’ll see the difference). But that doesn’t mean the world needs more instances of ‘impactful’. Use it at your own risk: most people find it icky and its presence in your writing may make them think unkind thoughts about you. Moreover, if something is having an impact on something else, you can likely convey that more effectively with a clear subject and a strong verb. Your writing will improve much more decisively if you disregard unnecessary discussions of legitimacy and instead think more about why certain usage patterns are so widely disliked.

After I had written this, I found a great roundup on this topic from Stan Carey. He discusses a range of these sorts of lists and provides his usual insightful response. He concludes with an excellent warning about grammar pet peeve lists: “Read them, if you must, with extreme caution, a policy of fact-checking, an awareness of what grammar isn’t, and a healthy disrespect for the authority they assume.”

Lastly, I really enjoyed the inaugural episode of the new language podcast from Slate, Lexicon Valley. The highly entertaining and wide-ranging conversation about dangling prepositions ends with an amusing discussion of Paul McCartney’s famous double preposition. A preposition at the end of a sentence is generally permissible, but it is probably best not to split the difference in this fashion: “But if this ever-changing world in which we live in/Makes you give in and cry/Say live and let die”.

Fear of Error

Before the holidays, I wrote a brief post commenting on something Stan Carey had written in the Macmillan Dictionary blog about adopting a forgiving attitude towards mistakes. I concluded that post by saying that “Better writing will come not from the fear of error but from the appreciation of the power of great prose.” Although I now wish I had been a bit less pompous, that is an accurate reflection of how I feel. At least it is what I tell others they should feel. But I had an interesting moment of further reflection recently that made me wonder how well I practice what I preach. I was reading the Facebook comments on a Huffington Post article. Early on in the comments, someone pointed out two ‘errors’ in Lisa Belkin’s article (a misused hyphen and case of improper capitalization). Belkin graciously acknowledged both errors, thanked the person who had caught them, and tried to shift the conversation back to the topic at hand. But the allure of discussing editorial fallibility was too great. People began piling on and soon someone asked whether HuffPo was without editors (you can imagine the tone in which that question was asked). To her great credit, Belkin pointed out that they do indeed have editors and that they also have hundreds of extra editors, a system that worked pretty effectively in this case. Mistakes were made, mistakes were identified (by those elusive fresh eyes that editing demands and that are in such short supply), mistakes were eliminated. A happy ending, unless you believe that someone somewhere dies a little bit every time a mistake is seen by the public.

I was so impressed by the sanity of this response. Rather than wishing nobody had ever seen her mistakes, she was glad that someone caught them. I wish I could adopt such a sanguine attitude about the possibility of error in my own writing. I have to keep reminding myself that errors aren’t ultimately what matters; reception and engagement are what matters. If we are read by lots of people, there is more chance that our words will have an impact and more chance that those people will come back to us with interesting and challenging reactions. And there is more chance that at least one smarty pants will come along and happily point out our mistakes. In this vein, I love reading the New York Times’ After Deadline blog in which an editor discusses all the stuff that got past their editorial staff. I’m always amazed by how much their editorial staff care about all this and by the fact that this impressive commitment in no way prevents them from missing all sorts of problems. I think devoting a blog to the acknowledgement, correction, and dissection of those errors is a great way to handle them. This sort of treatment shows that mistakes are inevitable, fixable, and often very interesting.

I was hoping that this post was going to be about the use of commas in restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses, but that just didn’t happen. Maybe next week will be more conducive to thinking deeply about commas!