Strong, Vigorous Sentences

I’ve been doing some reading in connection with a book I’m writing about Shaw. Last night I read an essay about Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion by Steven Cavell. (It’s included in a book called Cities of Words.) I didn’t like the essay and didn’t find much that would be useful for my book. But the essay did get me thinking about sentences – poorly written sentences and sentences that lack strength and vigor.

Today I’d like to pull a few sentences out of Cavell’s article and talk about what bothered me about them. (If you’re a Shaw enthusiast, be assured that I disagreed – sometimes vehemently – with the points Cavell is making. But my topic today is sentences, not Shaw.)

1. “But Professor Higgins will give Eliza Doolittle a little discourse defending the coldness of a way of life identifiable as one Shaw ratifies.”

“Identifiable as one Shaw ratifies” is…gobbledygook. Here’s what Cavell is apparently trying to say: For both Professor Higgins and Shaw, coldness is a way of life. (Not true of Shaw, by the way!)

2. “This writer, whose individual prefaces to his plays are as notable and interesting as the plays themselves that they preface, declares, in the opening sentence of his preface to Pygmalion, ‘As will be seen later on, Pygmalion needs, not a preface, but a sequel, which I have supplied in its due place.'”

This sentence combines two unrelated pieces of information: 1) Shaw wrote good prefaces and 2) he wrote a sequel to Pygmalion. Weak writing! When you read good writing, you feel that you’re on a horse that knows where it’s going and wants to take you there. Here I feel that I’m just wandering around the scenery. 

(And why did Cavell call Shaw “this writer” instead of using his name? And what’s the difference between a “preface” and an “individual preface”? Nothing. That unnecessary “individual” is another sign that Cavell is a weak writer.)

3. My final example is such a mouthful that I’m not going to quote the whole thing. I want to point out something about the words in green:

“Shaw’s reading of the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, as told in Ovid – where Pygmalion falls in love with his statue Galatea and asks the gods to bring her to life – in terms of a man’s training a woman in the further possession of language, brings the myth within range of the guiding demand for education….”

Here’s what jumped out at me: There are two clauses in a row. The first one is set off in dashes, and the second one is marked by a comma. That’s weak writing. There’s no connection between the clauses – no transitional word like because, so, but, therefore – to help readers figure out what’s going on. This long sentence (and I’ve left out a lot of it!) just drifts from place to place without a definite destination.

I have one more comment about Steven Cavell’s essay (and this will surprise you!). He writes like I do. Many of my sentences are just like his – wordy, weak, and purposeless. But here’s what’s different about my writing: I revise it.

Let me wrap this up with a few pointers I’ve picked up in my own writing career:

  • If  a sentence has more than three commas, I check to see if it’s too complicated. Often it is, and I revise it.
  • Breaking a sentence in two solves a surprising number of problems.
  • You’ll never impress anyone by writing “the fluid supply in my writing implement is exhausted” when what you mean is “my pen is out of ink.”
  • When writing is plain and simple, grateful readers think you’re a brilliant writer.
  • If something I’m writing doesn’t move forcefully across the page, I either revise it or throw it away.

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Short Pencil Point Deviant Art ok

Instant Quiz ANSWER

Disinterested means “impartial.” (Interest here has the sense of owning an interest in a business.) The correct word is uninterested.

Even though I’m uninterested in hockey, I’ve been following the Stanley Cup playoffs this year.   CORRECT

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What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You is available in paperback and Kindle formats from Amazon.com and other online booksellers.
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“A useful resource for both students and professionals” – Jena L. Hawk, Ph.D., Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College

“Personable and readable…Jean knows her subject forwards and backwards.” – Adair Lara, author of Hold Me Close, Let Me Go

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Writing for a Professional Journal

My friend (and fellow Shaw enthusiast!) Gustavo A. Rodríguez Martín just sent me a link to an intriguing article about academic publishing: Most Common Formal Grammatical Errors Committed by Authors. The writer is Dr. Anthony J. Onwuegbuzie, a professor of education with a distinguished background in writing and teaching.

His article is based on an examination of 116 submissions to a professional journal over a six-year period. Onwuegbuzie classified 35 kinds of mistakes (he called them “formal grammatical errors”). The article lists them in order – from most to least frequent – and offers examples of each one.

Any writer – especially someone who wants to write for professional journals – will find a wealth of useful information here. For example, Dr. Onwuegbuzie counsels writers to avoid using this and these as stand-alone pronouns. That trick is a simple and elegant way to help writers avoid a problem grammarians  call an indefinite pronoun reference. Here’s an example:

Joe gave me the wrong flight number. That caused a delay when we tried to meet his flight.  INDEFINITE PRONOUN REFERENCE

Joe gave me the wrong flight number. That mistake caused a delay when we tried to meet his flight.  CORRECT

All you do is change that to that mistake, and the problem disappears!

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Now we’re going to take a detour. I have always been curious about how people think. What do psychologists think about during a social encounter? Do they analyze people’s behavior? What do professional dancers think about when they’re performing? What details and subtleties do they focus on that completely escape my attention? 

I’m hoping that some of you reading this post are curious about how a professional writer thinks. So I’m going to discuss some of the thoughts that went through my head when I read Dr. Onwuegbuzie’s article. Because his field is education, and mine is English, our thinking processes are (of course) different.

Often where Dr. Onwuegbuzie sees a grammatical error, I see a problem with usage (a topic I’m going to save for another day) or house style (which I’m going to discuss today).

Grammar is the system and structure of a language. (Another term for grammar is syntax.) Grammar issues are solidly embedded in the language. In English, for example, subjects and verbs have to agree (you can’t say “I are”). Pronouns have to agree with their antecedents. Word order is important in English: Joe likes Jane has a very different meaning from Jane likes Joe. (In some other languages, word order doesn’t matter.) Grammar is fixed and slow to change.

House style, on the other hand, deals with arbitrary choices and evolving issues that publishers have to contend with. Every publisher has a house style, and so do many businesses and other types of organizations. They create documents with names like “style guides,” “style sheets,” “guidelines for authors” to lay out their writing preferences. I’ve worked as a consultant for several organizations that wanted to create style guides to ensure that all their publications and correspondence were consistent.

You might be surprised how many writing practices fall into the “arbitrary” or “evolving” category. Here are some examples:

  • The Oxford comma – which do you prefer:  Jane, Joe, and Linda or Jane, Joe and Linda
  • Should you write healthcare, health-care, or health care? Childcare, child-care, or child care?
  • Is data singular or plural?
  • Should you write ok, okay, o.k., or OK? 1860s or 1860’sHallowe’en or Halloween? Catalogue or catalog? Theater or theatre?

Sometimes an organization will create a house rule to meet a particular need. For example, Yale University capitalizes Incomplete in explanations about students’ grades. Newspapers (to save space) don’t usually capitalize titles like president and director, but many colleges and businesses want to honor people in important positions by capitalizing those titles. And I could cite many, many more examples.

Another issue is that the ways we use words inevitably change over time. Manuscript comes from two Latin words that mean “written by hand” – but if you sent a handwritten manuscript to a publisher today, it would be thrown in the trash. You might be surprised how many everyday words were once controversial. Escalate – which wasn’t even allowed in the American Heritage Dictionary in 1960 – has become a perfectly respectable word.

Those changes continue to happen all the time. Only 8% of the experts recently polled by the AHD still treat data as a plural word: 92% accept the singular form (data is or data was). Snuck (for sneaked) isn’t there yet, but it’s moving toward mainstream status. Enthuse – a word I used to warn my students not to use – has crossed the line and now shows up even in formal writing.

How do professionals decide these issues? Google can help. When I do a consulting job, I also like to check the Chicago Manual of Style to see how they handled a particular problem. The Usage Notes in the American Heritage Dictionary are another excellent resource because I can track controversial words and usages as they gradually become acceptable.

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What does all of this mean to an ambitious writer? I’d suggest reading Dr. Onwuegbuzie’s article to make sure you’re familiar with some fine points of grammar and usage. If you’re thinking about submitting an article to a magazine or journal, go to the publisher’s website and learn about their house style.

You should familiarize yourself with the words that are in flux right now, and you should have resources at hand to help you stay in touch with what’s happening in professional publishing. What’s most important is to develop a healthy respect for both the big and small issues associated with writing.

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Short Pencil Point Deviant Art ok

Instant Quiz ANSWER

Never try to join two sentences with a comma. The correct punctuation mark is a semicolon. Lower-case the next word (unless it’s a proper noun).

Pamela is leaving early; her boss is working late.  CORRECT

Pamela is leaving early; Ken is working late.  CORRECT

Many writers are needlessly afraid of semicolons! Here’s any easy way to get them right every time. Write two sentences. Then change the period to a semicolon. Check to see if you need to change a capital letter to lower case. You’re done!

The door creaked. A dog bounded in.  CORRECT

The door creaked; a dog bounded in.  CORRECT


What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You is available in paperback and Kindle formats from Amazon.com and other online booksellers.
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“A useful resource for both students and professionals” – Jena L. Hawk, Ph.D., Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College

“Personable and readable…Jean knows her subject forwards and backwards.” – Adair Lara, author of Hold Me Close, Let Me Go

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Jean and I or Jean and Me? (Pronoun Case!)

My friend Jane McGinnis just requested a post about the difference between “Jean and I” and “Jean and me.” Consider it done, Jane!

Here’s how you figure it out: Shorten the problem sentence, and you’ll instantly hear the right word.

First, write any sentence – any sentence at all – with “Jean and I” or “Jean and me.” It’s ok to guess! (I know, I know. An English teacher just fell to the floor. Don’t worry – we’ll revive her in a minute.)

Jean and I went to the store.

Me and Jean went to the store.

Let Jean and I know when you need a ride.

Let Jean and me know when you need a ride.

Obviously some of those sentences are wrong – but which ones? Here’s how you figure it out: just delete Jean and. (This “make the sentence shorter” trick can solve many grammar and usage problems.)

 I went to the store.

Me went to the store.

Let I know when you need a ride.

Let me know when you need a ride.

Once you get your short sentence right, you’ll instantly know the answer. After that it doesn’t matter how many names you add (Jean, Carol, Lucy, and Dave). If I is the right word for your short sentence, use I in the long one. If me is the right for for your short sentence, use me in the long one.

You’ll be right 100% of the time. (How many things are you familiar with that work 100% of the time? Isn’t this trick wonderful? I used to call this the “thumb rule” – you use your thumb to make the sentence shorter – and it was fun to watch my students carefully covering the words with their thumbs)

I went to the store.

Jean and I went to the store.

Jean, Carol, Lucy, Dave and I went to the store.

Let me know when you need a ride

Let Jean and me know when you need a ride.

Let Jean, Carol, Lucy, Dave and me know when you need a ride.

Now we can pick up that English teacher off the floor, and I can add a few comments:

  1. Many people mistakenly think that “I” is always right and “me” is always wrong. I’ve had people correct me when I was using “me” properly in a sentence! “I” sounds more elegant, so some people overuse it. Don’t get tricked that way.
  2. English teachers love to do these pronouns the hard way. Ask them whether “I” or “me” is correct, and you’ll get a long lecture about pronoun case, transitive verbs, and subjective and objective pronouns. If I had to work through those concepts every time I started to speak or write, I’d never get anything done. Forget about formal grammar – you don’t need it.
  3. I am waging a lonely but valiant battle about a new mistake that’s making its way into the language. Here’s an example:

I bought a housewarming present for he and Marilyn.  WRONG, WRONG, WRONG, WRONG

Let’s try our “shorten the sentence” trick:

I bought a housewarming present for him.  CORRECT

I bought a housewarming present for him and Marilyn.  CORRECT

When I hear this mistake, I sharply set the person straight, right on the spot. If it’s on TV or in print, I foam at the mouth for a while and then write a stern letter. (Colin Powell got one of my letters. I received a lovely apology from him.)

Any questions? You can download a free handout that explains every pronoun rule you’ll ever need (there are only three of them!) at this link: http://bit.ly/PronounsMadeSimple.

 

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What’s Different about Writing?

Here’s something that has happened to me over and over. I meet someone for the first time. We start talking about our careers. I mention that I’m an English instructor. Immediate response: “Writing is in such a terrible state nowadays” or “Nobody knows anything about grammar anymore” or a similar comment about how frustrating my job must be.

My take on my career is very different, of course. (If teaching English was so awful, I would have chosen to major in a different subject!)

Yes, many students have difficulty with writing tasks, and yes, they don’t know much about grammar. But those two facts not constitute a reason for despair. To clarify what I mean, I’m going to use an analogy from ballroom dancing.

I want you to stand up, step away from your computer and take two steps forward and two steps back. After you’ve done that, you can come back to your computer and read on.

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Now I’m going to evaluate your four steps from the standpoint of a judge in a ballroom competition. Everything you just did was wrong. Your posture was off, you didn’t shape your feet correctly, your top line wasn’t strong enough…I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

How can I make those judgments without even having seen you take those four steps? Because everyday walking has almost no connection to ballroom dancing.

That doesn’t mean that ballroom instructors sob and wring their hands when a beginner comes in for a lesson. There’s no reason to expect someone to walk in the door the first time knowing how to move like a dancer who’s had years of training.

Obviously it helps if you have a background in ballet, but even then there’s a lot to learn. Flying around the stage on pointe shoes is very different from trying to move gracefully when you’re plastered up against a partner whom you might have met only seconds before and who might not know the patterns you’ve been taught.

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The same principle applies to beginning writers: Academic writing is very different from ordinary speech, even though they both involve the same language.

Students who walk into a high school or college English course have been using language since they were toddlers. They’ve mastered a wide variety of sentence patterns and a large number of vocabulary words. They know English, right? Wrong. When they submit their first couple of papers, they make the horrifying discovery that their work is full of mistakes. Much hand-wringing follows, and blame is assigned all around.

It doesn’t seem to occur to anyone that of course there’s going to be a transition period for these writers. If we could all just calm down and stop making students feel stupid and guilty, we could skip the recriminations and start helping them become better writers.

Students (and adults who yearn to write) need an attitude adjustment too. They’re stepping into a new venture with its own rules and customs. There’s going to be a transitional period when it’s going to seem that nothing is going right. Students need to resolve to a) hang in there and b) absorb everything they’re taught.

Here’s a memory from my doctoral program. One night I ran into a fellow student who was finishing up his dissertation. I was just getting ready to start writing mine, and I asked him what the process had been like for him. I’d heard a string of horror stories about pitched battles between students and their advisors.

To my astonishment, he said it had been a terrific experience. “Really?” I gasped. Nobody has a terrific experience writing that blasted dissertation.

“I did some thinking about it right at the beginning,” he told me. “I figured this was my only chance to work closely with a group of world-class scholars on an important project, and I was going to take advantage of everything they could teach me.”

Wise words, wise student! And it also helps if you’re lucky enough – as both he and I were – to be working with advisors who realize that nobody starts out knowing how to write a doctoral dissertation. Bottom line: patience, persistence, and encouragement will win the day.

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Test Yourself on Some Tricky Words

Here’s a chance to test your knowledge of some tricky words. Which sentences do you think contain errors? When you’re finished, scroll down for the answers.

1.  The new agency is comprised of five departments.

2.  Because Jack was disinterested in college, he dropped all four of his courses.

3.  I try to use the same PIN number for all my accounts.

4.  Babette’s writing skills are excellent, but she needs to improve her verbal presentation skills.

5.  The continual stream of soothing music helped Faye fall asleep quickly.

6.  I set aside time for a long walk everyday.

7.  The criterion for hiring a new manager need to be stated more clearly.

8.  You should wear that shade of blue more often; it compliments your eyes.

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Here are the answers:

All eight sentences contain misused words!

1.  The new agency is composed of five departments.  (Comprised means “includes”) You could also write the sentence this way: The new agency comprises five departments.

2.  Because Jack was uninterested in college, he dropped all four of his courses.  (Disinterested means “impartial” or “unbiased”)

3.  I try to use the same PIN for all my accounts. (PIN number is redundant. A PIN is defined as a Personal Identification Number.)

4.  Babette’s writing skills are excellent, but she needs to improve her oral presentation skills. (Verbal means “referring to words.” A written document is considered “verbal.”)

5.  The continuous stream of soothing music helped Faye fall asleep quickly. (Continual means “continuing with occasional interruptions.” Continuous means “continuing steadily.”)

6.  I set aside time for a long walk every day. (Everyday is an adjective and has to be followed by a person, place or thing: My everyday routine was interrupted by a power outage.)

7.  The criteria for hiring a new manager need to be stated more clearly. (Criterion is singular.)

8.  You should wear that shade of blue more often; it complements your eyes.  (Complements means “enhances” or “completes.” Compliments – spelled with an “i” – means “praises.”)

 

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Untangling a Problem with Commas

Last week a friend and I had some fun trying to untangle the punctuation in a complicated sentence. Here it is – see what you think:

We are happy to welcome two new members, John’s friend, Tony, and Linda’s cousin, Martha, to our group.  CONFUSING

Whew. Five commas! Too complicated. And there’s a hidden problem: Anyone reading the beginning of the sentence can’t be sure how many people are being welcomed. Are we talking about just two new members – or other people as well?

We are happy to welcome two new members, John’s friend, Tony, and Linda’s cousin…

We could be talking about:

  • two new members
  • John’s friend
  • Tony
  • Linda’s cousin

That’s five people instead of two.

So we have a confusing sentence. Is the confusion our fault, because we didn’t read the sentence carefully? The writer’s fault, because the sentence is clumsily written? Maybe.

Or…is it the fault of our language, which uses the same punctuation mark for appositives and lists?

(I need to explain that constructions that involve a voice drop – like “John’s friend, Tony” and “Linda’s cousin, Martha” – are called appositives. Read those phrases aloud and you’ll hear the voice change. I never used the term appositive with my students – we used the label Superman, and you can find out why if you click the link.)

Both appositives and lists work very differently – but they both use commas. Geez Louise. How are you supposed to tell what a sentence like today’s example means? You have to read it twice to figure it out.

And there’s still another knot to untangle. If you write “John’s friend, Tony,” you’re saying that poor John has only one friend. The same applies to “Linda’s cousin, Martha.” Linda has only one cousin. What if she has several cousins?

So – how to fix it?

We could diagram the sentence and drive ourselves crazy. Or (my preference) we could use common sense to simplify the sentence.

My rule of thumb is “no more than three commas per sentence.” The truth is that often I use more commas than that. But my rule-of-three helps me spot sentences that are too complicated and fix them.

Here are some possibilities:

We are happy to welcome two new members to our group: John’s friend Tony and Linda’s cousin Martha.  CORRECT

This is my favorite solution. A potentially confusing sentence like today’s example really shouldn’t be split in half:  “We’re happy to welcome two new members, blah blah blah blah blah blah blah, to our group.”

If you want to be more informal, how about this? I love dashes – they solve many sentence problems.

We are happy to welcome two new members to our group – John’s friend Tony and Linda’s cousin Martha.  CORRECT

Dashes can also come to the rescue if you really, really want to split the sentence:

We are happy to welcome two new members – John’s friend Tony and Linda’s cousin Martha – to our group.  CORRECT

Not difficult, is it? And we didn’t have to call upon any grammatical terminology! You and I have been using the English language all our lives. All the sentence patterns we need are embedded in our heads. We just need to practice using them!

 

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Challenge Them!

Last week, while I was waiting to meet a friend at a coffee shop, I picked up a flier for a couples workshop. The title was ‘C’ Your Way to a Better Marriage, and it promised to cover the “3 C’s of Relationships: Courtesy, Communication, and Commitment.”

I am quite happy with my marriage (43 years and counting!). But even if I were looking for ways to improve our relationship, I wouldn’t have signed up for that workshop. The reason? It violates one of my most important rules for living (and, incidentally, writing): Never tell people what they already know.

Now I’ll readily admit that my communication skills could use some work, and I could be more courteous when I’m talking to Charlie, and there are moments when we both question our commitment to each other (like when he talks too much about hockey and I forget to put gas in the car).

But both of us – and just about everyone who’s serious about marriage – already pays lip service, at the very least, to Courtesy, Communication, and Commitment. As Gertrude Stein said about Oakland: “There’s no there there.”

I once heard a minister – I’ll call her “Julie” – talk about her experiences with counseling troubled couples. She said she avoids offering conventional advice (“be more loving,” “practice listening”) because couples immediately tune her out.

Instead she always begins by imposing a rule: The spouse who brings up a complaint is allowed to talk only about their own behavior. So if I complained about Charlie’s endless talk about Sidney Crosby and Mike Babcock, “Julie” might ask me what  strategies I – myself – have tried to make our conversations more lively.

This isn’t a column about marital advice (well, it is, sort of), and I want to add that “Julie” was well aware that her rule could open the door to victim-bashing and other evils. She had many tools in her counseling toolbox.

But here’s the thing. Her counseling strategies were designed to catch couples off guard. She aimed to shake up the people she was working with and challenge them to think in new ways.

Folks, those are the very things that writers are supposed to do.

Some years ago someone hired me to copyedit a novel. I read the first chapter and immediately returned it (reluctantly – I could have used the money).

The novel was about a man who’d lost his job. With no money for rent and groceries, the family temporarily moved in with Grandma and Grandpa. At the end of Chapter 1, the unemployed man and his wife were sitting alone at the kitchen table, talking about what lay ahead. In spite of their worries, they were confident about the future. “We’ll make it somehow,” the wife said, squeezing her husband’s hand.

It was warm and wonderful – and dull. Why on earth would you turn the page to start reading Chapter 2? You’ve already learned that everything is going to be ok. There’s nothing to drive the rest of the book forward.

Everything you write should have an edge – something unexpected that keeps readers interested. (To experience what I’m talking about, read Chapter 1 of any novel by John Grisham.)

If you’re writing about a familiar topic (like marriage!), find an unusual angle. Dig below the surface to find a contradiction or conundrum. Here’s an example: Everyone agrees that communication is vital for a healthy relationship. (Ho-hum.) But should a husband tell his wife that he’s attracted to, say, a hot-looking woman he’s just seen on TV? In other words, are there things that are better left uncommunicated – and if so, what are they?

What about courtesy – is it 100% necessary? Am I allowed to be in a bad mood because my favorite dancer just got booted off Dancing with the Stars, and is Charlie allowed to be annoyed because I’m not my usual charming self (hah!)? And are there any limits to commitment? What if she habitually abuses one of the kids, or he refuses to quit gambling?

Writing is – first and foremost – about thinking. If you don’t have something fresh to say, find another topic or another approach. Here are some suggestions:

  1.  Stories are solid gold. Every writer should have a large repertoire of provocative stories stored somewhere in your brain.
  2. Watch your own reactions as you interact with other people. What surprises or puzzles you? Life’s little mysteries can open the door to terrific writing.
  3. Read, read, read. How long does it take for you to realize that a particular writer has (or doesn’t have!) something worthwhile to say?

                 August 4, 1973

 

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Hello, Singular “They”!

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!

I’m celebrating a recent story from the Associated Press. Last week the AP announced that it has started allowing journalists to use “they” as a singular pronoun. (You can read more about their decision here.)

You might be surprised that I – one of the crankiest grammar curmudgeons on this planet – am happy about the change. If so, I have another surprise for you: I switched over to the singular “they” several months ago.

Before I go any further, I probably need to explain what all the fuss is about. English teachers (including me) have long railed against sentences like this one:

Does each member know that they’re supposed to bring a covered dish to the meeting?  SINGULAR “THEY”

Here’s the corrected version:

Does each member know that he or she is supposed to bring a covered dish to the meeting?  BETTER

The reasoning is that “each member” is singular, so you need a singular pronoun: he or she. I used to be a believer, and some years ago I published not one but two English textbooks that came out sternly against the singular “they.”

Like many writers, I found that “he or she” clumsy and annoying, and I’ve always refused to use it. But there are workarounds, and I included them in my textbooks. My personal favorite has always been to make a problematic sentence plural:

Do members know that they’re supposed to bring a covered dish to the meeting?  BETTER

Last year, though, I finally started to rebel. I was writing an article for a police blog about strategies to help keep cops safe when they’re working alone during a traffic stop. One popular trick is for an officer to open and close a door on the police car twice to make it seem that there are two cops at the scene, not just one.

Another trick is for an  officer working alone to use “we” instead of “I.” So the officer might walk over to a waiting car and ask, “Do you know why we pulled you over today?”

So there I was, tapping away on my keyboard, writing “cops” and “officers” so that I could avoid that @#$%! “he or she”: But wait a minute! I wanted to emphasize that the cop was alone on the highway and dealing with a potentially dangerous driver. So I didn’t want to write “cops” or “officers.”

On the other hand, if I wrote “a cop,” I was obliged to write “he or she” and “him or her” throughout my article. The final piece would be wordy and clumsy.

And so – with trembling fingers – I used the singular “they” and “their” throughout my article. Here’s a sample:

An officer who’s working alone should always be aware of their surroundings.  SINGULAR THEY

When I finished writing my article, I nervously submitted it to the website. Guess what – the editor accepted my post and paid my fee!

Yes, I felt a few tremors under my feet. But I also thought regretfully about all the time I’ve wasted over the years revising sentences to avoid that damned “he or she” construction.

There’s another reason – and this one might surprise you – why I’ve decided to go with the singular “they”: It’s actually more correct than our clumsy “he or she” practice, at least from a historical perspective.

Grammatically speaking, our modern English language is a stripped-down and diminished version of what it once was. We’ve lost most of our verb conjugations and noun declensions. Many of the word endings that once denoted case, tense, and number are gone, and instead we rely heavily on word order.

Somewhere along the way, English also lost its gender-neutral singular pronoun. Our English-speaking forefathers and foremothers never noticed its disappearance. They happily used “they” – until Lindley Murray (an 18th-century attorney who’s the villain of this piece) declared that “they” was wrong.

Everyone caved in. Well, not everyone. Writers and teachers went along with Murray under the mistaken belief that he knew what he was talking about. (He didn’t). Meanwhile everybody else kept using “they” as they always had.

And so it is that centuries later, students walk into English classrooms and are surprised to learn that a language pattern they’ve always used in conversation – and heard their parents and grandparents and, well, almost everyone else using – is wrong.

That abuse of the English language is coming to an end, and I’m doing my bit to help the movement along. Last week I deleted the “no-singular-they” rule from a pronoun handout I’d been using for years.

It’s a new era! And guess what – life still seems pretty normal, despite the change. We will survive this…and so will the English language.

By the way – did you notice that I slipped a singular “they” into today’s post?

Meanwhile everybody else kept using “they” as they always had.

 

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