Pronouns

Heh, heh! That’s probably the worst title for a post in this blog’s history. Is anyone still reading? Well, I’ll just pretend this is going well and forge ahead. Anyway, we’ve been so heavily into reminiscence lately that I thought I’d better talk about something a little more contemporary. And since I don’t do politics. . . .

In our generation, during these last 20 years or so, we’ve witnessed the arrival and installation of a very ugly solution to an old problem with pronouns. You know what I’m going to say, right? I’m talking about this use of “they” and “their” and “them” as singular 3rd-person pronouns when the gender of the subject isn’t known or made explicit.

I agree that our centuries-long use of “he” and “his” and “him” in this situation was not satisfactory. It went smoothly only because we were used to it. In the modern age, we strive to ferret out terms and usages that discriminate against or unfairly exclude people, and in general such striving is good. So, yes, sentences such as “A writer should always be thankful for anyone who reads his book” ridiculously ignore an entire gender of writers, and we needed a better option.

In Japanese, this is a non-issue. There are terms for “he” and “she” in the language, but they’re used much more rarely than in English, even when you know the gender of the subject. Pronouns just aren’t necessary most of the time in Japanese. Sentences very frequently don’t even have a specified subject — you figure it out from context. (For example, if we say “Is talking about politics” or “Sure read that book fast, huh?” I know we’re talking about you, not me.) [It’s been famously said many times that English is a language designed to make ideas clear, and Japanese is designed to make them vague. To speak Japanese is to engage in a cover-up. Nothing obscures the facts more efficiently than a good Japanese sentence. This isn’t my idea! Japanese friends agree. I once heard a Japanese friend yell “Stop!” (in English) at a Japanese taxi driver when he needed to get his meaning across quickly.]

But back to English, where gender is an issue. . . .

My own ways of dealing with the pronoun problem are: 1.) to structure the sentence, if possible, so as not to need the non-specific pronoun. For instance, instead of saying “Even a resident of a small town should lock his car,” I’ll say, “Even residents of small towns should lock their cars.” Or, if this can’t be done, then 2.) to use “his or her,” “her or his,” “he or she,” “she or he” — or the convenient “s/he.” I acknowledge that this kind of structuring is long and unwieldy, like having to carry your umbrella around all day even between rain showers, but it’s the least among many evils. It’s a burden I’m prepared to bear.

There’s been a big push in certain circles to alternate the use of “he” and “she.” Or, a variation of this concept is advocating the use of “he” by male writers and “she” by female writers. In my opinion, this is by far the worst solution to the problem. This is just plain jarring. I suppose the thinking is that if our society uses this technique long enough, we’ll get used to it, and one day it will be no more jarring than “he” was for so many years.

There may be some validity to the idea of “getting-used-to” — I did make the conscious decision to change from “grey” to “gray,” since I am an American writer, and American editors kept changing my greys to grays. I don’t feel that “gray” is as gray as “grey” is. “Gray” is “grey” with a lot of milk added. But I got used to the change very quickly. Likewise when I discovered about ten years ago that people were no longer typing two spaces after a period, as I’d been taught in high school and had been teaching my students.

My discovery of this was quite a dramatic one. I was actually in class, telling my writing students all about how they should put one space between words and two spaces between sentences (that is, after periods) — the students were all happy and fascinated and nodding and taking notes, because this is stuff they aren’t taught about English in high school — they don’t learn formatting and punctuation much at all, so it’s brand new territory, and they love it. So there I was, wrapping up this great, enlightening lesson, and I finished with the comforting assurance that, if they ever had trouble remembering all the details or {Heaven forbid!} lost my helpful set of notes and guidelines, all they had to do was pick up any book printed in English, see how the formatting was done inside it, and imitate what they saw. To demonstrate the “two spaces after a period” rule, I picked up our textbook . . . which was fairly new . . . and did a double-take. Um . . . well, I thought, I’d try another book, so I picked up something else. Um . . . heh, heh. . . . Everything I could find was showing only one space between sentences! I don’t think the students figured out what was troubling me that day, and mercifully, the class ended.

So I got busy doing some research. I checked the then-current edition of The Chicago Manual of Style, and the point in question didn’t even merit a mention. There was no rule about the matter that I could find, which really struck me as odd, since it was such a major deal in Mrs. Bowman’s Personal Typing class. (The Chicago Manual itself, incidentally, was printed with only one space between the sentences.) So then I started e-mailing friends. What I found was that people even five years younger than me had learned to type the two spaces, but everyone younger than that had learned to type only one. There seemed to be this mysterious cut-off point . . . a Paradigm Shift that came along approximately five years after I graduated from high school.

Had a comet passed close to the Earth? Had a hostile country employed some sort of energy beam that was changing the fundamental concepts of our culture? Was it something in the water? Had some previously enigmatic prophecy of Nostradamus been interpreted at last, and did it say “one space between sentences”?! And why hadn’t I gotten the memo?!

It was not long after that, when I visited the offices of Cricket, that one of the editors finally explained to me what was going on. It had to do with the change from typewriters to personal computers, the shift from the fixed, old-style typesetting to the automatic systems of character differentiation. On our old typewriters, the letter “i,” for instance (a very narrow letter) was afforded the same amount of space as the letter “m” (a wide letter). Imagine a “box” of the same size around every individual letter, be the letter large or small. Under such an arrangement, the gaps between sentences needed to be wider for the sake of clarity, so that the eye could perceive where a sentence ended. Now our technology accommodates different letter sizes — “to each according to her/his need.” It gives a smaller plot of ground to the “i,” and it gives a big chunk of real estate to “m,” and all the letters are happy, and the yards between sentences are very narrow.

So I changed my class handouts, and now I teach my students the New Arts, and they take notes and nod eagerly, because they still don’t learn formatting in high school.

So, yes, an old dog can learn new tricks. But it’s not only “getting-used-to” that’s the problem with that alternating “he” and “she.” What it leads to is subtle, perhaps even subconscious mind games. I give you my word that this is not my imagination. . . .

Where I used to see that technique of pronoun alternation a lot was in the writing magazines. (I don’t know if they’re still doing it; I haven’t read an issue in several years.) I think it’s fair to say that well more than half of the magazine industry nowadays is controlled by women. (Does anyone want to dispute that? Fire away if you do — I’m just going on what I observe.) Women are the editors, women are writing the articles. And what I promise you I was noticing was a subtle enacting of “revenge” against males for all those years of “he.” (I’m not saying all the articles did this, but enough did that I noticed the tendency.)

What I mean is this: when a female writer needed an unspecified-gender pronoun that she wanted to cast in a good, positive light, it came out “she.” When she needed a buffoon, it was a “he.” So there were sentences like this: “When a hard-working editor sits down at her desk and digs into her slush pile, she is not at all pleased to see a manuscript written by some writer who hasn’t checked his facts or his spelling.” Has the writer given equal time to “he” and “she”? Oh, yes, absolutely. Has she solved the long-standing problem of gender discrimination? Not at all.

There were some efforts toward coming up with an altogether new word, some singular pronoun that would refer to either a female or a male. I thought “oe” would be a nice possibility, since it doesn’t look like any other existing English word. This solution would be wonderful and complete if we could pull it off. But it hasn’t happened, because introducing a new word into a language generally only works when it describes a new concept or action, such as the Internet or Googling something. For an old concept such as “he or she,” our culture is much more ready to appropriate — even misuse — an existing word.

So we’ve got “they.” “Them.” “Their.” Like it or not, I think the dust has pretty much settled. The change is made. My friend Nick, a college professor, reports that students are almost universally using these plural forms in their papers to refer to singular subjects of unspecified gender. My own students now have electronic dictionaries that provide example sentences using these plurals in this way. I no longer correct these usages on their papers, but I continue to use “s/he” in my own writing. And I ain’t about to stop.  And I’m going to keep putting my apostrophe in “Hallowe’en.”

Fortunately, for me as a fiction writer, it’s not all that big a problem. Where one most often needs to use that structure is in writing non-fiction, so it’s a much bigger issue for friends like Nick.

Tim-in-Germany, I remember discussing this with you back in high school, and you argued then that this use of “they” isn’t a plural being used as a singular: it’s a separate word, a singular that just happens to have the same form as the plural. Well, that’s as good an explanation as any.

So there you have it: “they” and “they” were twins, separated at birth, and one “they” went missing and was presumed dead. Now, at the turn of the tide, that long-lost “they” has come back with a terrible pallor and a dark fire in their eyes, and they is riding on an apocalyptic horse.

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56 Responses to “Pronouns”

  1. Catherine Says:

    So . . . if a writer decides to write an ending paragraph to his blog post about the twins “They” and “They” and a reader looks at it and thinks she’s had the greatest idea since sliced bread (which is: why aren’t there Untowards named “They” and “They”? 🙂 ) and sombrely decides she will use her meagre knowledge of British spelling to comment upon that . . . is that the sort of pronoun usage you don’t like? Did that sentence even make sense? 🙂

  2. Shieldmaiden Says:

    Same thing happened to me with the double space this past year. I have been happily spacing twice between sentences and teaching my kids to do the same until I started reading along on Cricket. One day I noticed that almost all the kids were only single spacing. A few still doubled but not many, and I suspect those kids were probably taught by moms who had typing teachers like Fred and me. I started to pay attention in my e-mails too, and sure enough mostly single spaces there as well. One friend who does double space is six years younger than I am (same cut off point) and everyone else is hip to the new rule (well, now it is a very old rule but it was new to me). How did I miss it?

    I have been busy making childhood memories with my kids, but have been reading along with all the posts and comments. It has been great fun: the Moon, The 4th, home movies, and the places they played. I loved all the stories and nostalgic reminiscing. Thanks to all!

    I love grey too! Spellchecking hates it though! This title works fine, the other option might be “They and They” or that quickly becoming a word “S/he”. No, “Pronouns” it is. I agree with Catherine on the Untowards, great names.

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      Thank you! I’m glad you’re enjoying the posts and comments! And I’m really glad someone other than me remembers (and actively practiced) two spaces between sentences! Isn’t it weird that there was never an announcement about the change? How did people know to start only leaving one space? Is ANYONE out there the precise age at which the change began?! If so, how did you know to start doing it that way?

  3. fsdthreshold Says:

    By the way, does anyone have any comments about grammar points that perplex or bother you? This would be the perfect time to bring them up.

    While we’re on the gender issue, here’s another one I wonder about. I’m all for terms such as “flight attendant,” “police officer,” “server,” “fire fighter,” etc. In those professions, it’s meaningless to discriminate between genders, and to do so would most likely lead to trouble and unfairness. But I truly do not understand why we should call Nicole Kidman an “actor.” In the acting profession, it’s not as if men and women compete for the same roles. In fact, people of different genders are required by the script. Unless we’re going to deny gender differences altogether and eliminate the terms “man” and “woman,” why should we do away with “actresses”? Marquee Movies, I’m sure you’ll set me straight on this, but what gives? If Hollywood really wants to make this change, it seems to me that they need first to change the Academy Awards. They’re still giving an award for “Best Actress” and “Best Supporting Actress,” aren’t they? Shouldn’t that be “Best Actor in a Female Role” and “Best Supporting Actor in a Female Role”?

  4. I fight the p.c. crowd daily Says:

    As the token conservative (politcally, theologically, socially, etc) on this blog, allow me to say that I will NEVER switch from the he/she as Fred would prefer and I am always going to call ships, cars, trains, etc. “her.”
    I do find it amazing, considering my Franco-phobe outlook, that I agree with “grey” over “gray”.
    As a sports editor writing approximately 7,000 words per week I am often called to task by grammar, largely because in sportswriting many of the Associated Press Handbook rules can be — even are encouraged to be — thrown out. Sportswriting is about metaphor, adverb, adjective and occasional hyperbole. We get away with grammar stuffy English professors would howl out, but that is the beauty of the language itself — you know what I mean?

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      Well, I used “grey” from the time I was born until my early thirties. (Really! From birth! As a baby I’d look at my oatmeal and say, “Mom, what’s this grey stuff?”)

      For all practical purposes, I’m more of a British writer than an American one, although I’ve never been to merry old England. I grew up reading Tolkien, Richard Adams, Lord Dunsany, etc. — all Brits. And “you are what you read,” as the saying goes. (Doesn’t it?)

      Funny story: when the LOTR movies started coming out, my college friend Julie F. read Tolkien’s books for the first time, and she said to me, “He writes like you do!” Heh, heh, heh! I love that comment. Yes, I was a tremendous influence on Tolkien. He was always going around writing like me.

      Yes — rules are simply conventions. What matters is clarity (unless you’re speaking Japanese). So if people understand what you say and write, there’s no reason to get too bent out of shape about whether you’re doing it “right.”

      About sportscasters: my mom and I used to laugh at how sportscasters religiously avoid the simple past tense. They don’t tell us what happened; they tell us what would happen. They say things like: “Jackson would make THIS catch, and the White Sox would come from behind to. . . .” Why is that?!

  5. mileposter Says:

    Actually, where the number of spaces after a period is concerned, the explanation I was given is that word processing software was supposed to insert the extra space, so the person pounding the keys didn’t have to do it, but apparently the people who write word processing software decided that the extra space was not needed.

    How about using a hyphen where there is supposed to be a dash (which I usually type as two hyphens)? My word processing software raps me on the knuckles and changes two hyphens to one hyphen if I am using Courier New. Otherwise it turns the two hyphens into a dash.

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      I’ve never heard that explanation about the extra space. It’s interesting, but how would that work? If the user typed a period, was the software supposed to register that as “period-space-space”? If so, wouldn’t that create problems for things such as decimals — “The human body temperature is 98.[space-space]6 degrees Fahrenheit” — or “Mr.[space-space]Smith”? If, on the other hand, the software was supposed to register a space as two spaces, then you’d end up with two spaces between every word. . . . Or are you saying that the software was supposed to look at the finished page and decide where to add extra spaces? Hmm. I’m still inclined to think the “character differentiation” explanation is the more likely one. In the old days, when words themselves were internally diffuse, sentences had to be more diffuse on the page.

      I agree, of course, that hyphens and dashes (or “em-dashes,” as printers & proofreaders apparently call them) are two different entities and have different functions. My understanding is that typing two hyphens in a row is how we represent the dash, since we don’t have a “dash key.” On typewriters, two hyphens represented a dash; on my computer now, when I type two hyphens, the software converts them to a dash.

      In my posts on this blog, I’ve found that to get a dash, I have to leave a space on either side of my two hyphens; otherwise, the system changes them to a single hyphen — ick! (That’s in the posts; I don’t think it works that way in the comments.)

      • mileposter Says:

        The user typed “period-space.” Then the software was supposed to add a second space, or maybe half a space, to “look right” with narrower and wider letters, or whatnot. The computer was not expected to put two spaces after each and every period–just turn one space after a period into two. That’s what the particular software user manual said. Whether all software was supposed to do that, or whether it accounts for the phenomenon as a whole, I don’t know.

      • fsdthreshold Says:

        Hmm. Okay, I hadn’t considered that option — thanks! But what about the problem of “Mr. Smith”? To type that, you need to type a period and a space, and you don’t want the software to add another space or half-space in there. It would also play havoc with points of ellipsis. Maybe these are some of the reasons the idea was abandoned?

  6. Elizabeth Says:

    Hmmm…. My ears are burning. I use “they” and “their” as a singular pronoun all the time. You can find me under my rock. 😛

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      No need to retreat under the rock! I’m not saying I’m that terribly ancient, but our ages are just different enough that you grew up in the post-they world — after the missing twin They had ridden back on their apocalyptic horse.

  7. fsdthreshold Says:

    Why am I thinking of Levine’s poem “They Feed They Lion” again? 🙂

    Our sports-writing friend brought up the interesting issue of how we knowingly use some expressions that we know wouldn’t pass an inspection by the border guards. We use them because they work. My own example is “way” as in “I saw the anomalous creature way over there by the railroad tracks.” Tandemcat always faithfully puts an apostrophe before “way” in this usage, and I suspect he’s right–it’s probably really an abbreviation of “away.” But I’m going to play the Tim-in-Germany card and declare this “way” to be a separate word meaning–in this phrase–something like “far” or “all the way.” 🙂

    Okay, all you users of English: how do you feel about sentences such as this?:

    Snatching her purse off the table, Jenny stormed out of the room.

    Do you allow it? Does it bother you when you read it? Do you write sentences like that? We all know what it means, and thus it ought to be okay . . . but when I catch myself doing it, I usually restructure it as “Having snatched her purse off the table, Jenny stormed out of the room.” Or: “Jenny snatched her purse off the table and stormed out of the room.”

    [And no, I’m not being sexist, okay? Women are allowed to own purses and be emotional sometimes, okay?} 😉

  8. Tim in Germany Says:

    Well doesn’t it feel great to find my little “this they isn’t that they” dodge still working after all these years. I heartily approve of adding Fred’s new ‘way’ to our growing dictionary. We’ll make a spot for Fred’s ‘way’ just under the one wherein ‘Way!’ is an affirmative response to a colloquial expression of doubt…

    Finarfin: Then I killed the Ogre with a single thrust.
    Chiquita: No way!
    Bill & Ted (who just happened to be present): Way!

    But aren’t we forgetting an easy and obvious method for avoiding gender bias in pronouns. We simply need to add the NEUTER gender to English. German has neuter (das Madchen, for example). Russian and many other Slavic languages have a neuter gender as well. So, we just need a neuter pronoun in English.

    I know, I know some of you are thinking we already have ‘it,’ and I’ll admit that ‘it’ might seem like the obvious neuter choice. But ‘it’ also has profoundly dehumanizing connotations that I, as a vasectomy survivor, am not willing to contemplate. So stow that ‘it,’ and let’s look elsewhere for the neuter neologism, eh?

    As Fred pointed out, however, putting an entirely new word into common usage can be difficult. So maybe we’ll be better off if we add a new usage (neuter) to an existing word. ‘He’ and ‘she’ are clearly off the table, since they are causing this ruckus. ‘You,’ which can already be singular or plural, nominative or objective has a pretty full plate.

    So I’d like to nominate our good friend ‘they.’ Everybody knows they. Most everybody already loves they. Heck, some folks even hang out with they’s cousins them, their, y’all, and you’ins.

    All of which is a ridiculous but hopefully amusing way of asserting that language is eternally (and unpredictably) malleable. Every time I hear about some obscure language whose last native speaker has died, I wonder how many ugly-but-fully-functional pidgins (or creoles, perhaps) have sprung up on that same day. Surely, a small percentage of those pidgins will fledge into fully formed languages and spread their crazy worldview from here to way over there. Anglo-Saxon anyone?

    Oh, and please note that this reply, as a courtesy to the old farts who took a “Typing” class before the upgrade to “Keyboarding,” has been written with double-spaces after each sentence.

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      So not only is “they” singular; now it’s also neuter. The things you never know about the words in your own neighborhood until something like this happens! All the people who lived close to they said they [that’s the pronoun “they,” not the neighbors] was kind of quiet and kept to themself but always took good care of their lawn.

  9. Chris Says:

    Well, I used to write more science stuff for publication than I have now that I’m a corporate drone, and I can tell you the hardest thing for me is to _not_ write in passive voice. But that being said, if you want obfuscatory writing that is ostensibly written for near perfect “clarity” (at least in their own minds), try reading a patent some time. It is beyond hard.

    As for spaces after periods, I still firmly believe in adding them. I don’t care if the software thinks I should or shouldn’t. I just do.

    And finally as to the changing of the language I think that _has_ to be done by the next generation, not by us who grew up with the language still intact. We inherited a great language and it is up to us to man the fort defending it whenever possible against the onslaughts of the ritalin-addlled, ADHD generation of millenials who think “text-speech” is as good as grammar gets. Of course ultimately no one is attacking the fort because they’ve moved on, as has the language and we old fuddy-duddies are left with our wonderful language all to ourselves.

    II still sing along with the radio correcting what grammar I notice for the singer. And I still always say “an historical” as opposed to “a historical”.

    (CAVEAT: I am by no means a great grammarian, my wife is a grammar cop. But there are simply some things so horrible that even I notice them in terms of grammar violation.)

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      I’m a firm believer that there’s nothing wrong with the passive voice. I don’t know who ever decided it was bad and that we shouldn’t use it. I agree that we don’t want to overuse it. We don’t want to overuse anything. But these three things are not sins:
      1. It’s not a sin to use the passive voice.
      2. It’s not a sin to split an infinitive. (“To boldly go where. . . .”)
      3. It’s not a sin to begin a sentence with “And,” “But,” or “Or.”

      And I’ve always wondered why anyone says or writes “an historical.” Seriously! Can anyone explain that? The only rationale I can see for it would be if you pronounced “historical” like Liza Doolittle before. “Blimey! This is an ‘istorical moment!”

      This is really a shpadoinkle discussion!

      • Tim in Germany Says:

        Many of the great grammar rules, including the three that Fred vetoes above, come from Strunk & White ‘Elements of Style.’ On the fiftieth anniversary of its first publication (this past April, I believe) there were many articles taking Mssrs. Strunk & White to task for their near complete lack of English grammar. Apparently, they were well within bounds to declare their many ‘rules’ as good stylistic guidelines, but they were dead wrong on most issues of grammar.

        I shudder to think how many of my students were marked down for beginning their sentences with “However.” Strunk & White said it was agrammatical. I was only doing what I’d been told by wiser men. Oh, the Humanities (heh, heh, heh).

      • fsdthreshold Says:

        I used to have a copy of Strunk & White, but it got lost on one of my trips across the sea. (Some dock hand probably found it, took it home, and stopped beginning sentences with “However.”) I know how controversial they are nowadays, but I still found having the book to be strangely comforting. (It didn’t, however, address some of the things I most wondered about.)

        I’ve heard that about not starting sentences with “however,” and some of my students seem to have been taught that in their high schools. When those students ask me if it’s true, I say that it probably is, but that it’s changing, and that it’s no longer such a hard-and-fast rule. If students begin their sentences with “However,” I allow it. I do it myself.

        Fortunately, I don’t have to coordinate what I teach with any universally-approved grammar doctrine, and students have already passed their college entrance exams when they get to me, so I’m not going to destroy anyone’s future by teaching the wrong grammar. I’m like an Unfettered One. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! I’m like Mr. Kurtz: I paint my face stark white and have my students carry me around on a chair.

      • Chris Says:

        In Defense of “An Historical”.

        For some reason I picked that one up and I cling to it. I always think about it when I do it and I often ponder the “pronounciantion” of “h” versus none, but for me it sticks in my head that if it starts with “h” it should use “an”.

        An historical moment
        An honorary degree
        An horrific event
        An hysterical outburst

        (I am sure it is an outgrowth of some romance languages non-prounciation of “h”, as in spanish.)

      • Shieldmaiden Says:

        An historical works fine for me, it’s the other h’s that are hard to “an” but I do try.

        I love s/he by the way, and pronounce it sh-he, but also use “they” as a singular pronoun because it is much nicer that “it” when s/he just won’t do.

      • Shieldmaiden Says:

        P.S. not the h’s mentioned by Chris, these are all fine to “an”

  10. Chris Says:

    I just noted that in my last comment I failed to put a double space after the one sentence in which I claimed I always put a double space! Irony of ironies! Yay me!

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      Is that one of those Amish things in which you deliberately put one tiny mistake into the quilt to maintain your humility before God?

      • Chris Says:

        Yes. That’s it. I am maintaining my humility before God. Or at least that’s what I tell my boss when I screw up an experiment. Oh, sorry, Eric, I was maintaining my humility before God when I failed to run the appropriate control on that rheology experiment. Please, mea culpa.

  11. SwordLily Says:

    This poor grammar challenged young writer just wants to ramble about her grammar woes.
    My dear mother taught me that it was wrong to use “they” and “their” and I have gotten more than one migraine trying to make paragraphs about unidentified people. But then when I tried to think up a good argument to the fact that “they” and “them” should be used I got an even bigger headache. After giving up on “they” I worked really hard, trying to get used to using he and she instead of. Now, in this post, I have found out it is accepted in society to use “they” and “them”!! I think I should feel relieved, but I just want to go lie down *sigh* !
    I agree that we should find a new pronoun for the unidentified singular. I think s/he looks kinda dumb (no offense anyone) and will continue to use the evil of the “they” until I find a better unidentified singular to use. I like “oe,” well I know I would if I knew how to pronounce it. . . he he.
    Grey and Gray are a brother and a sister that are so alike almost nobody can tell the difference. In my opinion Gray is more soft and rosie while Grey has more tones of charcoal. I don’t care what people say, they are two different colors.
    And now I just have to say grammar is something I will mostly leave to my editor or my sister. The clan of commas have bested me far too many times and I am sick of it. I try my best but all those little marks have taken years off my life trying to learn where they all go –__–. Even just reading this post has left my head spinning (even though I loved it, it cleared up that whole “they” mess for me! ^_^)

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      I agree: “s/he” does look kind of dumb. It looks like an accident of some kind. But I’ll still keep using it, when I have to. . . .

      I really like your idea of Grey and Gray, the brother and sister! Yes, you’ve got their difference nailed. And I totally agree that they are two different colors!

  12. Shieldmaiden Says:

    While on the topic, does anyone know of a good grammar dictionary or manual, aside from the mentioned The Chicago Manual of Style and Strunk & White Elements of Style? I am looking for one if anyone has found one they are happy with. Thanks.

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      Hear, hear! I’m looking for one, too! Those two are style books. Does anyone know of a grammar dictionary or manual?

  13. Elizabeth Says:

    Grey is more daring than Gray. Grey has been around, seen things, done things. He’s a hard edge soldier who drinks his whiskey and watches the bar door with narrowed eyes. Gray’s the hip girl in school; her mother thought the name was cute, like a character from a soap. Gray’s sleek as a cat and hangs with the cool crowd.

  14. Scott Says:

    I hate s/he. How do you pronounce it? Sh-he or s-he? She-He and He-She has disturbing connotations that we shouldn’t discuss with young minds here. Sometimes I use he or she and sometimes I use they. It depends on the circumstances and what mood I am in that day.

    I still use 2 spaces after all punctuation at the end of sentences. I attributed the single spacing to lazy typists and the odd spacing that word processors use.

    This discussion reminds me of a time about 15 years ago that I found out that common usage changed for the punctuation of multiple objects. When we were in school, the rule was to put a comma between every object (lions, tigers, and bears). At some point, the usage changed and we weren’t supposed to use the last comma (lions, tigers and bears). I never liked the new rule and I only used it occasionally. I didn’t like the way that it looked. A few years later, I found out that everyone must have agreed with me because the common usage changed back to the way we learned it.

    By the way, since we are discussing grammar and language, shouldn’t it be an apostophrical horse instead of an apocalyptic horse? Sorry, 25 cents to the Pun Fund .

    • Chris Says:

      I kind of concur on the s/he thing! When I read I tend to mentally pronounce everything I’m reading so s/he is always a stumbling block for me.

      It is all made much worse by the fact that my wife is an Equal Rights Amendment proponent who has worked for various grass-roots initiatives on behalf of women’s rights, so I can’t really feel comfortable just using the “he” default (not that Rita is _that_ hardcore a feminist, but still I feel quite aware when I do stuff like that.)

      I am liking the “oe” option! But is it pronounced “we”? Or “Oooeee”? I really need to know if I’m going to read it, even to myself!

    • Nick Says:

      I agree that s/he looks terribly odd on the page.

      As to the issue Scott raises about putting a comma before “and” in a list, this is one that breaks down into American/British camps. The commonly held American version of the rule is the one you were taught: “lions, tigers, and bears.” In Britain they drop the final comma, presumably on the reasoning that a comma in these cases substitutes for the word “and”: “lions and tigers and bears (oh my!).” Therefore (according to that reasoning), the comma is superfluous, like saying “lions and tigers and and bears (oh oh my!).”

      • fsdthreshold Says:

        But Nick, they also drop the final comma in American magazines and newspapers! I don’t LIKE it or agree with it, but they do!

      • Nicholas Says:

        Yes, that is probably where the influence comes from, and it gives American teachers conniptions! Not to denigrate journalists, but newspaper writing is in some sense “disposable,” and not held to the same standards as a book. (Journalistic writing must quickly and clearly get the content across with a minimum of style. I know–I wrote for college papers, and some of my best “writerly flourishes” were always cut. Reporting was not the proper place for that.) I have caught much more egregious errors in the daily paper than the lack of a series comma. There are dangling modifiers all over the place!

  15. fsdthreshold Says:

    It’s been eye-opening to me that some of you still do type two spaces between sentences. I’d thought I was the last person in the world still doing that, although when I discovered that, I trained myself not to do it anymore, so I’ve abandoned you and joined the herd of the world. Really! I am surprised! I don’t think anyone younger than about 35 does two spaces anymore.

    About those “an”‘s before h’s: I think you’re right, Chris, that it must be a carryover from either another language that contributed to English or a time in the history of English when the h’s weren’t voiced. But using English as it sounds to us today, I can’t bring myself to say “an historical.” It’s all about the beginning sound of the word after “an.” If the word begins with a vowel sound, then we need “an”; if it begins with a consonant sound, then we need “a.” Thus, we say and write “a university” (not “an university”); we say and write “a unicorn,” “a historical moment,” “a horrific event,” “a huge creature,” “a humorous story,” “a hysterical outburst” — but “an honorary degree,” “an hors d’oeuvre,” and “an hour.”

    Scott, about the commas in a series: my understanding is that in the book-publishing world, the standard has always been to add that final comma: “lions, tigers, and bears” — but in the world of newspapers and magazines, where space is at a premium, the standard is to not use the final comma: “lions, tigers and bears.” I do not like the latter at all. I always add the final comma. But my students all learn not to add it in their high schools.

    As for the pronunciation of “oe” — well, I was thinking of it as if it were Elvish, with each letter voiced: “oh-ey” (rather close in sound to “away”). Pronouncing it “wee” would be confusing, wouldn’t it? It would sound too much like the pronoun “we.” A cool, artsy way to pronounce it would be as a German o with an umlaut, like the “oe” in “schoen.” (I don’t believe I answered that last point so seriously! Somebody unplug me already!)

    Here’s another can of worms: in school, I learned to pronounce “the” with a short “u” or almost a schwa sound before a consonant sound, but with a long “e” before a vowel sound. Thus:
    “thuh boy,” “thuh pencil,” but “thee eraser,” “thee apple,” etc. I don’t think young Americans are using the long “e” in this case at all anymore, are they? Everything is “thuh.” At least, I think that’s what I’m hearing.

    Also, I was taught that the article “a” is pronounced “uh,” but many Americans, when they’re trying to enunciate or sound “proper,” will say it like the name of the letter: “eigh.” Worf on Star Trek did that all the time, and it drove me crazy! (That’s what happened to me. It was Worf.)

    • Chris Says:

      See, it’s that “uh” as “a” that trips me up with “historical”. I cannot bear to say “uh historic moment” (as opposed to A historical moment, long a). An is so much better there.

      As for thee and thuh, well, I bounce as well. Reasonable thing to do I think.

      Modern young-erns are probably more likely to just smear it out in an almost indecipherable “Thhhhppplllll” or some such. At least that is what young people sound like to me the older I get. We call it “speed mumbling” and it appears to be the way modern kids talk.

      That is when they _can_ talk, as opposed to semi-autistically drooling on themselves as they stare at you in their version of “human interaction”.

      Geez, I am becoming an old fogey. Those *&^% kids better get off my lawn or I’m keepin’ that soccer ball!

    • Cris Trautner Says:

      It’s true that, generally, book publishers follow Chicago editorial style (per the University of Chicago Style Manual), which requires a series comma–the comma before the final “and” in a series of items. But you will find some books that follow Associated Press (AP) style, which abhors the series comma, perhaps because the book is written by a reporter, who has requested that AP style be used, or for some other reason.

      My editing clients often do not use the series comma in their book manuscripts, and I always add it in; my theory is that either they are basing their writing style on what they read regularly (newspapers; magazines; Web-based writing, which also tends to follow AP style) or this is the new teaching of English punctuation in the junior high and high schools.

      I was taught to include the series comma and, except when I need to use AP style, include it in all my writing. Perhaps I’m old-fashioned and pedantic, but I find it somewhat disturbing that our children are being taught to write without it. And I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one who agrees the series comma is a good thing.

      • fsdthreshold Says:

        Cris, I am TOTALLY with you, and thanks for the comment! I think I can comfortably live out my natural life using the final comma in the series, no matter what the rest of the world does.

  16. I fight the p.c. crowd daily Says:

    I have personally witnessed high school student sections at ballgames where the kids are texting their friends who are only four or five rows away … When I ask them “why not just turn around and hollah?” they say “that would not be private” or some such nonsense.

    And don’t even get me going on soccer …

  17. Marquee Movies Says:

    Fred said I might have something to say about actor/actress – I have found that I like using “actor” for both male and female performers, justifying this by thinking, we don’t say male doctor and female doctress. I know this is a poor reason, but it’s mine, so…..but it certainly doesn’t irk me to see actor or actress. I usually go by crossword puzzle rules – if they expect a female actor, they’ll say actress – if they expect an abbreviation, they’ll abbreviate in the clue. In other words, I usually allow the circumstances to guide what works in communicating. As long as my meaning gets across, I’m happy. Now, with the panoply of interesting grammar and language irks I’ve been enjoying reading, I’d like to add this one. I do not understand why it suddenly became commonplace to, when using the name of God, to use the lower case “g.” I mean, I certainly understand that not everyone believes in a higher power, or that not everyone believes that He/She even has a name. I get that – but it’s STILL a name. “Thank God it’s Friday” should have “God” capitalized, because it’s saying a proper noun as the subject. Whether you believe in God or not, surely the name that is attributed to Him should be capitalized. I mean, imagine if the expression were, “Thank Zeus it’s Friday.” Even if most people agreed that Zeus was not a living entity, but merely a name attributed to an imaginary being, it’s STILL a name, and in English, we capitalize names! And I don’t follow with the idea that the usage now refers to any vague god – for example, Thor is the god of thunder. Because that would be, “Thank a god it’s Friday.” So that’s my irritant. Boy, Fred, your blog with your least favorite title has turned out to have one of the greatest number of responses! Well done!

    • Nick Says:

      Haven’t spent some time in the world of regional theater (or, if you prefer, theatre), I can chime in here: most stage actors of both male and female persuasion prefer to be called actors (although most female actors will not freak out if you call them actresses).

      • Nick Says:

        The first word of my previous post should be “Having.” I don’t know what sort of Freudian slip it was to type “Haven’t.” It could be that I’m posting at nearly 4 in the morning. 😉

  18. I fight the p.c. crowd daily Says:

    Credit for the following goes to the brilliant minds behind Schoolhouse Rock:

    Now I could tell you “Rafaella Gabriela
    and Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla and
    Albert Andreas Armadillo found
    An aardvark, a kangaroo and a rhinoceros.
    And now that aardvark and that kangaroo
    And that rhinoceros belong respectively to:
    Rafaella Gabriela Sarsaparilla
    And Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla
    And Albert Andreas Armadillo.”
    Whew! Because of pronouns I can say, in this way,
    “We found them and they found us,
    And now they are ours and we’re so happy!”
    {Thank you pronoun!!}
    You see, a pronoun was made to take the place of a noun.
    ‘Cause saying all those nouns over and over
    Can really wear you down.

  19. Marquee Movies Says:

    My absolute favorite is “Interjections!”

  20. Scott Says:

    YAY SCHOOL HOUSE ROCK!!! My favorites were “Conjunction Junction” and “I’m Just a Bill”. Ever since Bill Clinton was elected president, I started singing “I’m Just a Bill” in his voice.

    I loved the Saturday morning cartoons. The kids today don’t know what they’re missing.

    PS: Excellent post Fred. One of your best so far.

  21. Nick Says:

    Sorry to come in so belatedly on a blog post in which I was twice referenced!

    Having done some further research into the “they” issue a couple years back, I can also add that prior to the late-eighteenth century (when a lot of the most controversial and confining grammar rules were laid down, to be strictly enforced in the nineteenth c. by Victorian grammarians–go figure) “they” was commonly used as the gender-neutral singular pronoun, and by such personages as Shakespeare and Jane Austen! Apparently aforesaid grammarians were trying to bring English grammar more in line with Latin grammar–a fool’s errand if there ever was one.

    Here’s one that has caused no end of headaches, and is changing in the popular vernacular: “lay/lie.” We strict grammarians know that it is proper to say in present tense “I lie on my bed,” and totally unacceptable to say “I lay on my bed.” But not so fast! Imagine this well-known song following that rule: “Lie lady lie / Lie upon my big brass bed.” In popular usage, lay is almost always chosen over lie. I think the reason is the homonym with lie as in to tell an untruth. If Dylan sang “Lie lady lie,” we might wonder if he’s asking her to tell him a falsehood.

    • Scott Says:

      What about the children’s prayer?

      Now I lay me down to sleep
      I pray the Lord my soul to keep
      If I die before I wake
      I pray the Lord my soul to take

      • fsdthreshold Says:

        Well, that’s quite grammatical, because “me” is the object. “I lay me” is the same, grammatically, as “I lay my book.” “I lie” would be grammatical, but since there’s a “me” here, “I lay me” is fine.

  22. Nick Says:

    Fred, looking back at my previous post here, I can see what you mean about the dashes being shortened in this font. I think, though, it’s a trick of the eye. The processor is still turning our two hyphens into a dash, only in this particular font it is so short it is easily mistaken for a hyphen. If you look at a hyphen nearby a dash in the post, you will see that it is even shorter than the truncated dash.

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