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Grammar Geek

Out of all of the decisions I’ve made during my time at the University of Michigan, by far the smart one was choosing to be an English Language and Literature major. I’ll be the first to admit that my disdain for certain kinds of celebrated literature won’t put me in the running for the “BEST ENGLISH MAJOR OF ALL TIME” award, but I like to think that I’m good at what I do.

There are times, however, that I think that I would be a much better editor than writer. Often I find that my so-called editor IQ dropps ay rite, and I make very simple misteaks. To make matters worse, it doesn’t improve during the drafting process when I make the mental switch from writer to editor. This is, more than anything, why editors exist; as T.S. Elliot said:

Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers.

So you can imagine, I suppose, that I find it absolutely infuriating that my editor IQ reaches a Hawkingesque level when I critique the writing of others.

One of the biggest issues I encounter while editing is the fact that English doesn’t have a singular gender-neutral pronoun. Many people suggest the use of the words “they” and “their” as singular pronouns, and there have been examples for quite a long time on the semantic changes of those two words. Language is a constantly changing construct, and I don’t think that any language change is inherently bad. Indeed, if “they” and “their” became acceptable singular pronouns, I would welcome it.

However, there are still issues. Take, for example, the following sentence: “The student did his homework.” The pronoun in this sentence is “his,” referring back to the subject, “the student.” “His” is a personal possessive pronoun, which means that it acts as a marker of possession. In this case, the homework belongs to the student.

Now, imagine using “their” as a singular gender-neutral pronoun for this case: “The student did their homework.” This doesn’t make much sense to me. If I was to come across this sentence during an editing process, I’d have to find evidence in the context of the work to figure out if “student” was meant to be singular, or if it was a typo. I suppose a writer or speaker could use “its,” but this would also be incorrect because this is a word that isn’t applied to humans. For instance, you could say, “The dog ate its food,” but you couldn’t say, “The person ate its food.” There are several reasons for this, but I think the most simple answer is that English works to avoid dehumanizing constructs like that.

So, we’re still stuck with “The student did his homework.” When I see this sentence, I know this is normal usage. The word “he” (and its various forms) has been accepted as a general pronoun. My sensibilities, and I suppose most modern sensibilities, have difficulty with the use of “he” as a general pronoun. For one, it reinforces the idea of a patriarchal society (I mean, only men can be students, right?), but grammatically it seems to be much too specific based on the scant descriptive detail we have about the student. In other words, how do we know the student is a man?

I think that the use of “they” and “their” and other related forms is a good start toward creating a gender-neutral pronoun for the English language, but I don’t think it should be the ultimate goal. I believe that singular and plural pronouns are separated for a reason, and I’m not convinced that using the plural pronouns for the singular work without considerable confusion (though once it becomes widely accepted I’m sure that won’t be the case).

English is a remarkably flexible language. Some of my favorite words are relatively new, which include such portmanteaus as “scientifiction,” “glibertarian,” and “mupload.” From the Balloon-Juice Lexicon, a new favorite of mine is “Hoocoodanode.”

I ask, then, why can’t the users of the language (you, me, them, everybody!) just invent new words for it?

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  1. January 28, 2011 at 6:16 PM

    Abuse of “they” is one of my own pet peeves. Notably, it is only very rarely a linguistically informed decision, but either an error out of ignorance or a use based in some politically correct agenda. You may be interested in a text on “gender-neutral” language that I wrote last year—including a section on “he” vs. “they”.

    As for our critical abilities where others are concerned, this is a very wide-spread phenomenon in my impression. Possible explanations include (but are likely not limited to) that it is easier to (consciously and unconsciously) look through the fingers with own errors, that the knowledge of what the text says leads to short-cuts when reading, and that the same oversight that lead to the original error could affect the check as well.

  2. January 28, 2011 at 9:27 PM

    Thank you for your input! I did find your text interesting.

    My own opinion is that, since language is constantly changing, the use of “they” a gender-neutral singular pronoun will most likely be accepted as both logical and correct in the long run. There will be endless debating about this, to be sure, but trying to fight against such semantic changes is like trying to fight against metathesis. A former pet-peeve of mine used to be how people would say “aks” instead of “ask.” The original form of this word was, indeed, “aks”; the consonants just shifted place over time, and are, perhaps, switching to their original places.

    Honestly, I like taking a descriptive view of grammar (as opposed to a prescriptive view). In my experience (which I know isn’t really a wide representation of the users of English) a lot of my peers have been trying to find ways around using “he” as the default singular pronoun. I like some of the things they have come up with, frankly because they’re extremely creative (I won’t share any of them because they aren’t mine to share).

    I’ve studied Old English, Middle English, and Modern English (and all of the changes in between and throughout) and I can safely say that the introduction of a singular gender-neutral pronoun, for whatever reason (be it political or lexical or just because people are tired of saying “he” as the default), it won’t really be a very big deal in the end. Just forty years ago it was seen as low-brow to use contractions like “shouldn’t,” “couldn’t,” or “wouldn’t,” and now they’re as ubiquitous as L33T speak and other various “information-age” English dialects.

    The fascinating thing about language is that it always changes. Some people consider these changes to be a “dumbing-down” or something more sinister, but if you look at the history of any given language, they don’t get more simplistic. Old English, for instance, has 3,000,000 surviving words. Modern English has a corpus of 400,000,000 words. I don’t believe that English, as it has changed, has gotten dumber.

    That said, I do understand that there are conventions that a person should adhere to for the facilitation of communication.

    Overall, I actually enjoy observing how people use language, and if a particular change will impact an entire language. Most people are starting to drop the /m/ in “whom,” and it’s very likely that “whom” will become an archaic word. I can imagine that in a decade or so, people won’t have reason to say “whom” because we’ll just use sentences which end with propositions, i.e., “Who are you sending that letter to?” instead of “To whom is that letter addressed?”

    It’s possible that in another 200 years, this will change again in a way we can’t predict or, quite possibly, understand. I mean, 1,000 years ago, English was ordered often ordered in an Object-Subject-Verb pattern. For example, “Truth I have told.” The grammar and syntax of a language change just as much as the lexicon. Modern English is usually arranged Subject-Verb-Object, or “I have told the truth.” While Old English employed both of these (OSV and SVO–and sometimes other patterns like OVS or VSO (“Ne sleh þū, Abraham, þīn āgen bearn”–“Not slay you, Abraham, your own son”) when it came to interrogative or imperative clauses), Modern English typically only uses SVO.

    • January 28, 2011 at 11:05 PM

      Ditto. I have written half a reply, but am likely better off converting it to a post of my own in the next few days. The gist (from current appearances): Language change is necessary, but should be slow. The dichotomy between prescriptive and descriptive grammar is false. It matters how and why a certain change takes place. I will expand on my reasoning in the post.

      As an aside, the example of Old English you provide is actually easier to understand based on my native Swedish than on Modern English (presumably the French influence)—at least after reading out loud: Slå inte du, Abraham, ditt eget barn.

      (Noting that a relative of “ne” lives on in “nej”–“no”, but could, as in English, be mistaken as “nu”–“now”; that “slå” has a reduced modern meaning of “hit”, but is reasonable well-known as the Bible’s “smite”; and that “ditt eget” is closer than it seems: “barn” is a neutrum—had it been an utrum, we would have had “din egen barn”. Of course, a confusion with “din egen björn”–“your own bear [beorn?]” could not be ruled out with less context.)

  3. January 29, 2011 at 3:03 AM

    keep pressing on Josh. without U(you) there is no sUccess. sUccess needs you(U) to be successful.

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