The Billings Outpost

Editors Note Book - David Crisp

Everyone needs to get their pronouns straight

We appear to be stumbling into another war in the Middle East. Pro football is buckling under the weight of its own violence. In Montana politics, the only issue appears to be whether Steve Daines wants to destroy the country overnight by gutting environmental laws or whether he is willing to wait a few decades for global warming to do the job.

So let’s talk about grammar.

In Darrell Ehrlick’s column in the Sunday Billings Gazette, he wrote this paragraph: “That’s because everyone has an opinion. And everyone thinks theirs is correct.”

I’m not sure whether Mr. Ehrlick was following a trend or merely being sloppy, but he violated a grammar rule that has been around for a couple of hundred years. The rule is both logical and pedantically appealing: If a noun takes a singular verb, it must also take a singular pronoun. Writers can’t refer to the singular “everyone” with the plural pronoun “their.”

My freshmen composition students wrestle with such problems every semester. When one of my colleagues came into my classroom last week during a harangue on apostrophes, he warned my students that journalists can’t resist grammatical nagging.

Guilty as charged. Newspaper editors and English teachers may be the last line of defense against slovenly language. When the language goes, civilization goes with it.

That lesson hit home when Kevin Drum, a respected, if liberal, blogger for Mother Jones, announced last week that he was giving up the pronoun fight.

“I have gone over to the dark side,” Mr. Drum wrote. “I’ve been on the edge for a while, playing passive-aggressive games with my copy editor, but I guess I might as well just fess up. I now routinely use ‘they’ and ‘them’ as gender-neutral singular pronouns.”

Mr. Drum’s post immediately drew a huffy response from Sonny Bunch at The Washington Free Beacon, who wrote, “This is foolishness born of ideology. There’s a perfectly acceptable option: Just use ‘he’ as the generic pronoun, as is grammatically correct.”

That point is more debatable than he may realize. The use of “he” as a generic pronoun goes back at least to the 18th century, but the use of “they” and “their” as singular pronouns goes back even further. Scholars have found it as early as the 15th century, and it shows up in Chaucer, Shakespeare and Thackeray.

The issue came to a head in the 1970s, or thereabouts, when feminists determined that the generic “he” was sexist. English professors struggled for alternatives such as “he or she,” “s/he” and even “ze.”

When I was in college in the 1970s, I had one textbook that alternated “he” and “she” as the gender-neutral pronoun in each chapter.

An informal and often violated truce broke out with the tacit agreement that “Everyone thinks theirs is correct” is OK in casual conversation and informal writing but should be avoided in formal work. Stylebooks still often recommend this path. The much-respected usage expert Bryan Garner warns that reckless use of pronouns could cause some people to doubt your literacy.

The truce broke down with the invention of the internet, when copy editors began losing their jobs by the thousands, and the distinction between formal and informal writing was stretched beyond recognition.

So I tell my students that when they are confronted with a sentence like “Everybody has ______ book,” they have three options: Use “their” and risk getting dinged by traditionalists (like me), use “his” and risk getting labeled as sexist and old-fashioned, or use “his or her” and risk getting nailed as pedantic and wordy.

So much confusion results that we wind up with badly baked sentences like this one, which appeared opposite Mr. Ehrlick’s column in Sunday’s “Voice of the Reader”: “If a candidate ‘approves this message’ and it’s a slam on his/her opponent, consider why they didn’t use that air time and money to offer an idea of their own.”

Or you get headlines like this from last week’s Huffington Post: “This is the Second Week in a Row that an American Teacher Accidentally Shot Themselves at School.”

Still, is this a fight worth having? When even the language pros on public radio’s “A Way with Words” argue that “they” is a perfectly acceptable singular pronoun, I draw a deep breath and wonder whether I should devote my energies to more pressing issues, such as comma splices.

“Comma splice” is a grammatical term for what happens when a writer uses a lonely comma to join two sentences that could easily stand on their own. It’s like trying to splice two lengths of lead pipe with a stick of chewing gum: A comma just isn’t strong enough to do the job.

The result is sentences like this: “He also won’t be able to give specific legal advice, that’s a job for another attorney.”

I regret to report that this sentence also came from Mr. Ehrlick’s Sunday column.

We are doomed.


Last Updated on Thursday, 18 September 2014 15:09

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