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Yesterday, I saw a protestor on the street handing out Smart Sex… - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Yesterday, I saw a protestor on the street handing out Smart Sex flyers and saying something about getting out of Cuba. I could make sense of either position, but I've been bending my brain into a pretzel trying to figure out how Smart Sex is going to get us out of Cuba. I hoped he'd be out there again today so I could pick up a tract from him. (I'm seriously thinking about starting my bizarro tract collection again; I got a good starter kit from a Fundamentalist friend when I converted to Judaism and added lots of religious and political ones during my undergrad stint, but ultimately, I threw them out. Now, I just want to pick some of these things up because I just have to know which hell I'm going to rot in, and what will happen to People Like Me when the People's Revolution finally wipes out the bourgeoisie. Wouldn't want to be taken by surprise, you know.)

Apologies on the lateness of Shifts and the challenges. I'm just... blah. You know?

I'm reading another grammar and punctuation book. I swear, if I hear one more person suggest that the singular "they" is decent grammar, my brain will explode.
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dreagoddess From: dreagoddess Date: July 29th, 2004 11:18 am (UTC) (Link)
I swear, if I hear one more person suggest that the singular "they" is decent grammar, my brain will explode.

Poor grammar, no doubt. But still helpful until we come up with a better replacement for "he or she".
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: July 29th, 2004 11:53 am (UTC) (Link)
There's a perfectly good singular form already--he.
rabidsamfan From: rabidsamfan Date: July 29th, 2004 11:29 am (UTC) (Link)
I'll take "they" over "s/he" if the sentence is neutral about gender. Particularly when I'm writing fiction and I want to be either obscure or unspecific for a particular reason. I wrote a drabble which in its first draft had "they" and after consideration changed it to "he" and not one reader took the "he" to be gender-neutral, so I really noticed.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: July 29th, 2004 12:01 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'll use it in dialogue, since people do continue to use it, no matter how many times I slap their wrists. But I do my best to avoid it in narrative. (Of course, it does become awkward if you're trying to keep someone's identity totally secret, because people will think of themselves as "he" or "she"--but the same will be true of "they" if you're in the character's head. No one thinks of himself as "they." I think a first-person interlude--possibly also in a different tense than the rest of the story--is a good solution to that.)
silverhill From: silverhill Date: July 29th, 2004 11:34 am (UTC) (Link)
I swear, if I hear one more person suggest that the singular "they" is decent grammar, my brain will explode.

I'm with you. It drives me insane. I remember criticizing a Mary Sue for using "they" as a singular pronoun, and some deleterius member said, "Actually, 'they' singular is correct" and linked me to a "grammar" entry in Wikipedia (which is written by its readers).

I just about lost it. As it was, I settled for having a mini-fit. I didn't take intensive grammar classes and become a copy editor so that we could create grammar rules by popular vote. Just because a lot of people use it wrongly doesn't mean it's right.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: July 29th, 2004 12:05 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oh, I know. I got into the argument with an academic of one stripe or another and I was just tearing at my hair by the end of it, screaming, "Can't you just hear how wrong it is? All other considerations aside, doesn't it just make your skin crawl, set your teeth on edge, and generally make the inner stickler rage? And logically, isn't it better to make sure that the text indicates a single person, even if there's something cosmetically wrong, than to imply that there's more than one when there isn't?"

It bothers me partly because it sounds awful, but also because it's so blatantly politically based, and assumes women are so thin-skinned that we simply can't live with a linguistic curiosity. What killed me about the first argument I had about it was that the person I was arguing with was a man, who was telling me that women found it uninclusive and were offended by it.

alphabet26 From: alphabet26 Date: July 29th, 2004 11:52 am (UTC) (Link)
I don't know...since using "he" is repressive and ohsosexist (and I, personally, won't use "she," either, if that's the case), sometimes singular "they" is the only option I feel comfortable using. Usually, though, I try to rearrange the sentence so I can use the plural.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: July 29th, 2004 12:08 pm (UTC) (Link)
Using the plural works well. But I don't accept the "ohsosexist" notion of using the correct form. It's a shame we don't have a neutral third personal singular, but there you have it.
akilika From: akilika Date: July 29th, 2004 12:17 pm (UTC) (Link)
Heh. Now I'm kind of reminded the text in my D&D books--to dodge the sexist thing *AND* keep from using "they", they just switch off between he and she. (Like, they'd say "The paladin can choose to apply her bonus to X or Y", and then later they'd say, "A sorcerer and his familiar are so closely bound that . . ." Or something. I don't feel like finding the books, but it always kind of amused me. ^^)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: July 29th, 2004 12:23 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, I know. I remember in one of the Howe and Strauss generational history books (probably 13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail?), they'd been switching back and forth. One of their commentors said, "Nice on the politically correct he/she/it usage. May I suggest an acronym--s*h*it?"
sophonax From: sophonax Date: July 29th, 2004 01:04 pm (UTC) (Link)
The prevailing argument I've heard seems to be "Well, Jane Austen [or whatever dead and accepted as classic writer] did it, so it's OK."

NONONO! Jane Austen (or whoever) MADE a MISTAKE that was probably just as common then as now, and yeah, OK, it made it into some books that are otherwise of very high literary quality! (As if no grammatical error has ever made it into print.) I am an unrepentant prescriptivist; yes, usage characterizes language (what else would?) but we can at least see that some usage is determine by some kind of internal logic (why would I love English as I do if not for its considerable logical consistency?), and logic dictates that a SINGULAR subject just does not take a PLURAL pronoun. It's not freakin' rocket science.

I have to disagree with you, however, that "he" is not sexist. It's a masculine pronoun, and the danger of using the masculine for the generic all the time is that there is confusion between when it's used specifically for the masculine and when it's used as a generic. When you can't tell which it's supposed to be, the default assumption is to assume exclusive masculinity (think of the phrase "four-man crew"). "The scientist gives careful thought to his calculation" is hardly thought to be generic in a world where most scientists are in fact male--people are just going to call up their default assumption of a male scientist and the thought of the generic never enters their heads. And, confusingly, most people who ardently defend the use of "he" as the only possible generic seemingly have no problem with things like "The efficient secretary must keep her desk well-organized."

Many supposed "solutions" to the problem are unsatisfactory, of course, most prevalently with the horrible wrongness of "they" as singular (STOP IT! STOP IT!), but also with the icky bureaucratic "he/she" and some rather twisted syntax shifts, but to say that continuing to use "he" as the generic is the ONLY possible solution seems shortsighted to me. I think the important thing to remember is that no one solution is going to work in all circumstances--depending on the syntax and context of a particular sentence, there are multitudes of ways to rework it, and not all are going to be the best fit. But you can usually find one that works, and to declare that nothing else but "he" will ever work just seems like digging in one's heels for its own sake. When I run across (modern) writing in which "he" is used as the generic, my first thought isn't "SEXIST!" so much as "Didn't try hard enough."

I don't think this is actually as much an issue of political correctness as you make it, though--the vast majority of the singular "they" I see isn't due to fear of sexism so much as it sheer laziness, lack of knowledge of how language works, and total apathy. I think these are all much bigger problems than people who are, after all, trying not to be offensive.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: July 29th, 2004 02:28 pm (UTC) (Link)
"The scientist gives careful thought to his calculation" is hardly thought to be generic in a world where most scientists are in fact male--people are just going to call up their default assumption of a male scientist and the thought of the generic never enters their heads.

In my opinion, that's the hypothetical readers' problem, not the poor pronoun's. :)

In the specific sentence you use as an example, "The scientist" would imply a specific scientist that has one gender or the other. If it's trying to explain what scientists do, then it's properly stated in the plural anyway, since there's more than one scientist in the world, and the point would be to highlight a commonality among them. But if it absolutely couldn't be avoided, I'd use "he." Better a cosmetic confusion--I mean, does it really matter if the reader's imaginary scientis is male?--than a verb/noun disagreement.

When I run across (modern) writing in which "he" is used as the generic, my first thought isn't "SEXIST!" so much as "Didn't try hard enough."

On that, I agree. It's an ugly construction even when it's done properly, and there's almost always a way around it.
sreya From: sreya Date: July 29th, 2004 02:02 pm (UTC) (Link)
Fern, have you seen anything about the use of "one" as a pronoun? I know that it's not common, because it sounds ever-so-stuffy-and-snobbish, but, unless I've just been using it wrong all along, whatever happened to the use of "one" as a gender neutral pronoun? ("One might want to go to the park when it's sunny out" as an example)

And if it helps, I know in my writing class in law school we've been told to use "he" if we must have a singular pronoun because the use of "she" is jarring in a LOOK HOW POLITICALLY CORRECT AND GENDER SENSITIVE I AM!!! way that you don't want in briefs. But if you can, it's better to construct your sentence using a plural pronoun and refer to a status group, not a single individual representing the group.

Of course, legal writing is inherently old-fashioned. We haven't even switched from underlining to italicizing book titles yet in the Blue Book. :~P
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: July 29th, 2004 02:24 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think that "one" has essentially the same problem as "it"--it's impersonal, and when you're talking about a person, it doesn't work quite right.

I had a lawyer (during the first big blow up) say that she was always taught to use he or she or s/he, in order to avoid any confusion whatsoever about the referrent, but that was strictly contract-related, I think.
alkari From: alkari Date: July 29th, 2004 02:19 pm (UTC) (Link)
I have to disagree with your fernwithy. The trouble is that the English language moves on slowly but surely. That is one of the beauties of English, as against French where there is some sort of committee to preserve its 'purity'. That is so much rot - you cannot fossilise a language if you want it to live.

This is not to say that we should adopt every single slothful netspeak convention or change it structure according to the latest whim. But the use of "they" reflects a more profound and subtle change in our community, and like it or not, our language WILL adapt to it. If you have been reading "Eats, Shoots, and Leaves" then you willhave seen many instances where punctuation conventions have changed slightly between US and UK use. There are even differences in some usages in Australia. For example, I had never heard of the use of a semi-colon in the "Dear Sir" opening of a formal letter! - that is purely American usage, which has never found any place out here in ANY sort of correspondence. WE use a comma.

That is exactly what is happening to singular "they".

Certainly some grammatical purists will insist for the moment that it is OK in colloquial, casual language and not in formal writing. But I think you are fighting a losing battle, and I agree with the change. The English language NEEDS the singular "they" for all sorts of reasons, and just as English has done for centuries, a word has been "invented" to fill the need. Now, the language "could" have invented a new singular indefinite pronoun, but it didn't - it re-used an existing one and simply expanded its usage. A time-honoured technique.

This is exactly what the language does all the time. There is another one I could suggest which is slowly but sutely being modified - use of the subjunctive.

In colloquial speech, people generally say "If I WAS king" or "If I was President" ... the grammatical usage is If I WERE President". I have a beta who is constantly picking me up on this, but I point out that people have been using the "was" form for many years now, in day to day speech, so my characters will insist on using it when they are being casual, though one or more people may use the 'correct' form in various circumstances. In everyday life, it is increasingly coming in for more formal writing. Mind you, these days you are lucky to find someone who has even HEARD of the subjunctive!!

These changes are not mere fashion and fads, they are part of a language's natural evolution over a much longer term, and as King Canute pointed out to his adoring courtiers, you cannot hold back the tide.

fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: July 29th, 2004 02:32 pm (UTC) (Link)
If it was a change that made any logical sense, I wouldn't fight it. But this one, I will fight tooth and nail until I die with a bloody pronoun in my hand. It's an abomination of word-use, and it's not about evolution of the language--the use has been around for a very long time, and it will undoubtedly be around for a long time in the future. It's still incorrect and illogical.

I will accept a word as a singular only if it takes a singular verb, so if the "they" supporters want me to agree with them that it's ever a legitimate singular, then the usage will have to be, "Anyone can have whatever they wants."
alkari From: alkari Date: July 29th, 2004 02:33 pm (UTC) (Link)
Just an additional thought, Fernwithy - plus an apology for the odd typo in my previous post (not at my best at 6am!).

What particular gender do you give a corporation? In legal terms out here, a "person" is a 'natural' person (male/female or whatever sex you like!) or a 'body corporate'. So instead of 'he or she', do you say 'he, she or it'?? Gets a bit complex you know, at least in everyday speech ...

fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: July 29th, 2004 02:34 pm (UTC) (Link)
A corporation is an "it." I'm not worried about offending its sensibilities. I'll also call a group of people "it"--as in "The group wanted its picture taken."
rabidsamfan From: rabidsamfan Date: July 29th, 2004 03:29 pm (UTC) (Link)
A good deal of the problem of course, is that "proper" English grammar is a construct. The only reason you shouldn't split an infinitive is because it isn't possible to do so in Latin. Ditto the rule about a preposition being a bad thing to end a sentence with.

If Jane Austen used "they" as the singular pronoun (and I have no idea if she did or not) then the usage has been around for a very very long time in English. So of course, the question becomes, on whose authority is "they" incorrect, and how long ago?

I shouldn't take days off, they leave me far too much time to think.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: July 29th, 2004 03:40 pm (UTC) (Link)
If Jane Austen used "they" as the singular pronoun (and I have no idea if she did or not) then the usage has been around for a very very long time in English. So of course, the question becomes, on whose authority is "they" incorrect, and how long ago?

If it were an abitrary thing, like a split infinitive, I'd agree, but it's not--it's a question of grammatical logic. It has none; it's objectively wrong no matter how often it's been used. I mean, people can make a mathematical mistake over and over for years, but it's still a mistake.
hughroe From: hughroe Date: July 29th, 2004 04:29 pm (UTC) (Link)
I was thinking on this for a while.

I might have once, but I cannot recall in 47 years using "They" as a singular.

The language may one day evolve so that there is a word to signify a specific, gender neutral person in a statement. But I have a feeling that I'll be long gone back to the clay before then.

But like you, to me it seems that one of the driving forces is to eradicate the patriarichal aspects of the language because someone, somewhere, got found using He/His/Man/etc. as insulting.
alkari From: alkari Date: July 29th, 2004 08:17 pm (UTC) (Link)
It is not just a case of 'someone, somewhere' got sick of the use of the masculine terminology. The move in our language quite correctly reflects a deeper cultural recognition that language is an important factor in the way we perceive people or things, and it can, ever so surreptitiously, affect our attitudes and out prejudices.

*I* am not a man. I do not want to be referred to by the masculine pronoun. Full stop. End of story.

I am perfectly happy to accept that "man" in a broad sense can stand for "mankind" or "human", and is thus a convenient generic term. But constant use of the masculine terms "he" and "his" can influence attitudes.

Perhaps you should go and dig out a very interesting book, called "Uncommon Law" by A.P. Herbert, an English barrister. I thinit is still in print: if not, a good llibrary ought to be able to get it. These imaginary cases pointed up the absurdities of English law at the time, and also included digs at the English language.

There you will find, in impeccable and very witty language, the imaginary case of "Potts vs Fardell". It was a negligence case, and the law of negligence relied at the time on the "reasonable man" test. (It has since been - correctly! - modified to "reasonable person".) In Potts vs Fardell, the plaintiff Mr Potts complained that he had been injured by the negligence of Mrs Fardell. But the law spoke only of a reasonable MAN - and the judge was forced to conclude that because of this unfortunate use of the masculine noun and corresponding pronouns in laws and legal cases, the law had no such concept as a "reasonable woman". Therefore, as the law didn't recognise women as being 'reasonable', they didn't exist - and therefore could not be negligent.

I think you will find that the language willl gradually evolve to accommodate these community needs. Dinosaurs died out because they couldn't evolve quickly enough to cope with the environmental changes: mammals lived and prospered because they were adaptable. Long term, I think you will find that singular "they" is a mammal and not a dinosaur.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: July 29th, 2004 08:45 pm (UTC) (Link)
*I* am not a man. I do not want to be referred to by the masculine pronoun. Full stop. End of story.

And you won't be, since indefinite references will never refer specifically to you. ;)

I am perfectly happy to accept that "man" in a broad sense can stand for "mankind" or "human", and is thus a convenient generic term.

I think that modern writers might do well to use the serviceable "humanity" as opposed to "mankind," unless it throws off the meter of a poem, but never the ugly "humankind."

But constant use of the masculine terms "he" and "his" can influence attitudes.

It's hardly constant--it's a fairly rare use: indefinite references.

Long term, I think you will find that singular "they" is a mammal and not a dinosaur.

The apostrophe may be a dinosaur as well, but you know what? I'm going to keep fighting for it. The proper forms of address are almost certainly dinosaurs, but you'd better believe that any business person who addresses me by my first name on a business occasion, rather than as Miss Realname (I will grudgingly accept Ms. Realname if I absolutely must) will lose my business, because I think the change to over-familiarity is a hideous one, which I will fight to my dying breath because it's bad for society. (For one thing, it mixes business and social lives, which, imho, is a primary cause of unhappiness in the world.) And I will fight the singular "they" because it doesn't make sense unless the noun that the pronoun is replacing is also pluralized... and it's difficult to pluralize something that includes the word "one"! (Someone, anyone, etc. The same is true of -body words, of course.) That's linguistic logic, not an arbitrary choice.

I would much, much rather be mistaken for a man than for a plural entity. The male/female thing is pretty much cosmetic, as far as grammar goes, and if someone addresses me as Mr. Fernwithy (I've gotten that on a couple of e-mailed reviews), I just grin and roll my eyes, wondering where that came from. But if I suddenly become FernWithies, Inc... that would just feel strange. How can there be many of me? I don't think the world could take it. (Though perhaps I could persuade all of me to vote against the singular "they." ;))
mylla From: mylla Date: July 30th, 2004 12:07 am (UTC) (Link)
You know, you're extremely inspiring. I never studied English grammar (someone took it off the Australian primary school syllabus some time before I started school) and have always got by on instincts and basic teaching - which serve me very well, as far as most every-day grammar goes.

But it's much harder to be sure you're getting things right when you don't always know why things are right or wrong. And I really like to get things right. You're making me think I should find some good grammar books and educate myself - like I say, it's very inspiring. :)

(Our language teachers in high school had a terrible time trying to teach us German or French grammar, when we didn't have previous English grammar knowledge to start from. I hope they're teaching English grammar again now, because it's really hard without it.)
From: brigitanastasia Date: July 30th, 2004 12:31 am (UTC) (Link)

Me too...

I'm Australian and I finished High School a few years ago. They stopped teaching us grammer when we got to High School and I've always felt that it was a big mistake. In year 11 and 12 English we focused on all this Post-Modernistic garbage about analysing the relationship between audience, culture and text, and the teachers didn't really care about our spelling and grammer. As a result I'm culturaly aware but my grammer and spelling sucks. It really pisses me off. I'd rather be able to write English properly then care about how people react to books.
alkari From: alkari Date: July 30th, 2004 01:27 am (UTC) (Link)
I'm Australian and I consider myself lucky - I learnt in the old school. About 10 years ago, my dear Mum took herself off to German classes, and found that the poor teacher there was tearing his hair out because the younger students hadn't a clue about grammar. If he spoke of the perfect tense, or a past participle, they just looked at him. Mum was the only one who could cope with German, and ended up helping him teach the rest of the class some basic English grammar.

Seriously though, the Government has now decided that grammar IS necessary, and reintroduced it to Government schools (many of the private ones continued to teach it). But of course there is a whole generation out there that doesn't know anything about it. And when part of your job is to deal with / oversee Government correspondence, you almost tear your hair out at the mangled language that comes forth from staff who haven't a clue about matching verb tenses, let alone where to put an apostrophe.
matril From: matril Date: July 30th, 2004 07:08 am (UTC) (Link)
The real problem here, as far as I can see, is that words like everyone or anyone are singular grammatically, but plural in meaning. Think of it in the form of a question: Everyone had a good time, didn't _____? Without thinking, I insert they. On the other hand, he, she or the absurd he or she just sounds ridiculous. That's how I think of it. I don't have a problem with using it in my speech, or anyone else doing the same. I do try to avoid it in writing because language changes tend to seep into written conventions much more slowly than spoken, and there it usually reads awkward to me. But language change is the sign of a living, breathing culture, and even if it takes some changes that grate against my sensibilites, at least it's not dead. Of course, you have every right to protest the changes that irritate you.

This is from a former confirmed militant grammarian prescriptionist who converted during college to a ardently descriptionist linguist. ;) It's okay that English is different; othewise we'd all still be speaking Anglo-Saxon and we wouldn't have any words for computers or cars. (Of course semantic and lexical changes are quite another matter from syntactic and morphological...)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: July 30th, 2004 08:00 am (UTC) (Link)
I converted the other direction--went from being pretty free and easy with the language to being madly in love with it.

But yes, "everyone" is a weird, weird case. For that particular usage, I'd totally cheat and say, "Did you all have a good time?" :p
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