Arrant Pedantry

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They and the Gender-Neutral Pronoun Dilemma

A few weeks ago, as a submission for my topic contest, Bob Scopatz suggested I tackle the issue of gender-neutral pronouns in English. In his comment he said, “I dislike alternating between ‘he’ and ‘she’. I despise all variants of ‘he/she’, ‘s/he’, etc. I know that I should not use ‘they’, but it feels closest to what I really want. Could you maybe give us the latest on this topic and tell me if there is any hope for a consensus usage in my lifetime?” It must be a timely topic, because I’ve read three different articles and watched a video on it in the past week.

The first was Allan Metcalf’s article at Lingua Franca on failed attempts to fill gaps in the language. He says that the need for a gender-neutral pronoun is a gap that has existed for centuries, defying attempts to fill it with neologisms. He notes almost in passing that they is another option but that “filling a singular gap with a plural doesn’t satisfy” every one.

The next was June Casagrande’s article in the Burbank Leader. She gives the subject a little more attention, discussing the awkwardness of using “he or she” or “him or her” every time and the rising acceptance of the so-called singular they. But then, in similar fashion to the it’s-not-wrong-but-you-still-shouldn’t-do-it approach, she says that she won’t judge others who use singular they, but she’s going to hold off on it herself (presumably because she doesn’t want to be judged negatively for it). She also overlooks some historical facts, namely that they has been used this way since Chaucer’s day and that it wasn’t until the end of the eighteenth century that it was declared ungrammatical by Lindley Murray.

That leads to the next article, an interview with Professor Anne Curzan at Visual Thesaurus. She discusses the “almost hypocritical position” of having to grade students’ papers for grammar and usage issues that she doesn’t believe in, like singular they. She tackles the allegation that it’s incorrect because they is plural, saying that in a sentence like “I was talking to a friend of mine, and they said it was a terrible movie”, “they is clearly singular, because it’s referring to a friend.” This probably won’t carry much weight with some people who believe that it’s innately plural and that you can’t just declare it to be singular when it suits you. Ah, but here’s the rub: English speakers did the same thing with plural you in centuries past.

Originally, English had two second-person pronouns, singular thou and plural you. But speakers began to use you as a formal singular pronoun (think French vous, Spanish usted, or German Sie). Then it began to be used in more and more situations, until thou was only used when talking down to someone and then disappeared from the language altogether. Now we have a pronoun that agrees with verbs like a plural but clearly refers to singular entities all the time. If you can do it, why can’t they?

Further, Steven Pinker argues that “everyone and they are not an ‘antecedent’ and a ‘pronoun’ referring to the same person”, but rather that “they are a ‘quantifier’ and a ‘bound variable,’ a different logical relationship.” He says that “Everyone returned to their seats means “For all X, X returned to X’s seat.” In other words, there are logical objections to the logical objections to singular they.

Then there came Emily Brewster’s Ask the Editor video at Merriam-Webster Online. She notes that for the eighteenth-century grammarians who proscribed singular they and prescribed generic he, “inaccuracy of gender was less troublesome than inaccuracy of number.” She then concludes that “all this effort to avoid a usage that’s centuries old strikes some of us as strange” and makes the recommendation, “Perhaps everyone should just do their best in the situations they find themselves in, even if their best involves they as a singular pronoun.”

Rather than join the ranks of grammarians who walk through all the arguments in favor of singular they but then throw their hands up in defeat and tell you to avoid it because it’s not accepted yet, I’m taking a different track and recommending its use. The problem with not using it until it becomes accepted is that it won’t become accepted until enough people—especially people with some authority in the field of usage—use it and say it’s okay to use it. If we sit around waiting for the day when it’s declared to be acceptable, we’ll be waiting a long time. But while there are still people who will decry it as an error, as I’ve said before, you can’t please everyone. And as Bob said in his original comment, they is what many people already use or want to use. I think it’s the best solution for a common problem, and it’s time to stop wringing our hands over it and embrace it.

So, to answer Bob’s question if there will ever be consensus on the issue in our lifetime, I’d say that while there might not be consensus at the moment, I’m hopeful that it will come. I think the tide has already begun to turn as more and more linguists, lexicographers, editors, and writers recommend it as the best solution to a common problem.

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Grammar quiz

From time to time, websites such as MSN and Yahoo challenge their readers to quizzes on grammar, spelling, and punctuation. These quizzes are often written more to stump than to educate, so the questions are worded in confusing ways, and the answers are masked in vagueness to the point where even those who know the answer get the question wrong.

A recent grammar quiz was so chock full of errors that I, being on the nitpicky side of things myself, felt a need to address. Let’s look at the directions first, followed by each question individually.

Directions

Judge the quality of the writing in the questions below. Look for wordiness, misplaced modifiers, passive constructions, incorrect word choice, and problems with parallelism and punctuation. Potential errors are underlined.

Considering this is a grammar quiz, I take issue with the first sentence. Grammar comprises morphology and syntax, neither of which has much to do with the quality of a person’s writing. I’ve known plenty of people who have good syntax whose writing leaves much to be desired.

The second sentence of the directions gives a laundry list of potential errors: “wordiness, misplaced modifiers, passive constructions, incorrect word choice, and problems with parallelism and punctuation.” Some of these issues are related to grammar, namely misplaced modifiers, passive constructions, and problems with parallelism. Wordiness, incorrect word choice, and punctuation have nothing to do with grammar and should have been left out of this quiz. But perhaps I shouldn’t be so picky; after all, grammar has come to be used as an umbrella term for everything an editor or red-pen-happy teacher might change or judge about our use of language.

Question 1

As the gamekeeper at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry (a), enjoying the great outdoors (b) was easy for Hagrid (c) and his magical creatures.
a) The error is here.
b) The error is here.
c) The error is here.
d) The sentence is correct.

The answer to this one is easy. Since the subject of the main clause is enjoying, it should be the noun that the first phrase modifies. But enjoying is not the gamekeeper of Hogwarts; Hagrid is. Therefore, we have a misplaced modifier. Easy enough.

But what’s up with the sentence in the first place? “Enjoying the great outdoors was easy for Hagrid and his magical creatures?” Have you heard anyone talk like that before? I mean, really. Enjoying reading is easy for me. Talk about wordiness (which, as I recall, is one of the things we’re supposed to be looking for). It’s obvious the awkward sentence was concocted just so it could have a misplaced modifier.

Question 2

The reason she’s (a) sleeping is because (b) she’s tired (c).

Note: In the future, I won’t include the options with the question since they are identical to the ones in question 1.

The answer to this question is b. The reasoning, according to grammar police, is that it’s redundant to use “the reason is” with “because,” since they define because as “for the reason that.” The correct wording would be, “The reason is . . . that. . . . ” (There are convoluted, ultimately groundless grammatical arguments against the phrase as well, which I’ll spare you for the sake of keeping this post as brief as possible.)

I, on the other hand, firmly believe that there is nothing wrong with the construction. It’s only redundant insomuch as you define because in precisely that way. But if you look at Merriam Webster’s second definition of because, you’ll see that it can also mean “the fact that.” Also note that this exact construction is used as an example.

One good way to tell whether a usage rule is worth anything is to see whether the alternative is more awkward than the “bad” usage. For instance, the admonition against ending sentences with prepositions often results in horrid workarounds that are harder to understand than the original, preposition-ending version would have been. In this case, I’d wager that if you tried to change “because” to “that” in your speech whenever you use “the reason is,” you’d find it surprisingly awkward and difficult to do. This is another example of pedants frowning on a natural, comfortable way of wording a sentence just because it makes them feel smart to have “noticed” the “error.”

Question 3

The three-piece suit (a) was taken to the dry cleaner (b) by the maid, (c) but picked up by the butler.

This question has several problems. The error in section b is “was taken,” which is a passive construction. Never mind that passive voice isn’t necessarily wrong or that it’s nearly impossible to tell whether it’s appropriate or not out of context. Brockenbrough warned us in her directions that we should look for passive voice, so it’s fair game in this question. But the bigger problem is that “[was] picked up by the butler” is also passive, so c is an equally acceptable answer. Too bad the quiz only allows you to pick one.

Finally, the comma before “but picked up” is unnecessary. Commas are needed before conjunctions only when the conjunctions link two complete sentences. “Picked up by the butler” is a verb phrase, not a sentence, so the comma should have been left out.

Question 4

I’m a (a) cowboy (b), on a steel horse I ride (c).

Are you stumped by this one? So was I. The obvious error is the comma, which should be a semicolon. But it’s not underlined. That makes “cowboy” and “on a steel horse I ride” equal contenstants, since they surround the error. I picked the latter, since, I figured, if it had a conjunction of some kind in it, the comma would be all right. I should have picked the former, I guess because it’s closer to the comma. Maybe it was just a typo, and the comma should have been included in the underlining for “cowboy.” It’s a pretty sloppy typo for a quiz that compares itself to the SAT, though.

Question 5

They’re (a) dream house burned (b) to the ground last week (c).

This is a good question. I’ve seen some pretty intelligent people mix up there, they’re, and their. (The answer is a, by the way.)

Question 6

Rarely is (a) the question asked, (b) “Is our children (c) learning?”

Did anyone actually miss this one? If you’re like most people, “Is our children” sounds positively alien to your ears, as well it should. Many actual grammatical errors sound like this one. Believe it or not, you know English grammar pretty well. You know that children are, not is, for instance, without looking it up or second-guessing yourself. You’d probably know just as well that “Our is children learning?” is bad grammar. My biggest beef with this question is that it seems too easy to belong on this test.

Beyond that, “Rarely is the question asked” is a passive construction. If you’re supposed to correct the passive in question 3, why not in this question as well?

Question 7

The general consensus (a) is that elephants mourn (b) their dead (c).

If you want to be really picky, you’ll notice that a consensus is already general, so the word general is redundant. It’s like talking about a big elephant. At the same time, I don’t personally mind if people say “general consensus” (or “big elephant,” for that matter) for many of the same reasons I don’t have a problem with “the reason is because.” There’s a shade of difference, at least for me, between consensus and general consensus. After all, a consensus among experts isn’t the same as a general consensus. Sometimes it’s important to distinguish that a particular elephant is the big one; sometimes it isn’t. It’s impossible to say out of context whether something that appears redundant actually is.

Question 8

Look besides (a) the television; (b) the phone book is there (c).

I have the same problem with this that I had with question 6. No native English speaker would ever make this mistake. As such, it’s a pointless, unchallenging question.

Question 9

The professor taught John and I (a) the difference between (b) right and wrong (c).

This is the best question in the whole quiz, in my opinion. It’s tricky because everyone’s been taught that you’re supposed to say “John and I,” not “John and me.” Right? But take John out of the sentence. Suddenly it becomes clear that “The professor taught I” is wrong. Sometimes it’s right to say “John and me,” and this is one of those times.

I’m so thrilled that she included this question that I won’t nitpick the fact that I hope most people learn the difference between right and wrong before they get to college.

Question 10

Known by some as “terrible lizards,” carnivorous dinosaurs ate meat, laid eggs, and tore the flesh of their prey with sharp claws and teeth.

Did you catch that pesky passive again? “Known by some” is apparently less appalling to Brockenbrough than “was taken by the maid” because the answer to this question is that there’s nothing wrong with it. Not that I have a problem with the passive, of course, but let’s be consistent at least.

And if you’re going to frown on apparent redundancies like “the reason is because” and “general consensus,” then surely you’ll take issue with “carnivorous dinosaurs ate meat.” Also, the sentence seems to imply that only carnivorous dinosaurs laid eggs and were known as terrible lizards, when both of these facts apply to all dinosaurs. Finally, tearing the flesh of prey is something that all carnivores do, so it is doubly redundant. Here’s a perfect example of a sentence with decent grammar yet much to be desired in the quality of the writing.

The moral of the story, dear readers, is that you shouldn’t trust everything you read on the internet. We’re all pretty self-conscious that our use of English will make us sound dumb to some grammarian who might be listening in, but here’s a secret: sometimes it’s the grammarians who make mistakes. There, doesn’t that make you feel better about the time your third-grade teacher wrote all over your report with red pen?

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