Grammatical Hell in a Handbasket


Maw of HellThe Washington Post has started the apocalypse. Yes, they have. And the whole world is about to go to hell in the proverbial handbasket because of it. The maw of Hell has opened…

The Post has decided after decades – centuries? – of editors, writers and grammarians arguing about the lack of gender-neutral singular pronouns in English, to accept “they” as the stand-in. Can you see the dominoes starting to topple?

I shudder with that. It’s a diagnosis of grammatical ebola. There is no vaccine.

The story popped up on Mental Floss today:

Post copy editor Bill Walsh explains that he personally accepted singular they many years ago, but had stopped short of allowing it in the paper. He finally decided to endorse it in house style after coming to the conclusion that it is “the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun.”

Gadzooks! Until now, I had Walsh pegged as one of my main style-guide heroes, a no-nonsense, but literate man to whose works I frequently resorted when trying to unravel the spaghetti-like nature of our language. I even ordered his latest book from Amazon only last week. Now I’m afraid I might be burying them in the backyard compost pile with the other unwanted detritus.

Mental Floss added:

The news of the acceptance of singular they may cause a little stir, but nobody will notice the change in action, as Walsh says, “I suspect that the singular they will go largely unnoticed even by those who oppose it on principle. We’ve used it before, if inadvertently, and I’ve never heard a complaint.”

A “little” stir? Sir, the floodgates of Hell have opened! In its own pages, the Post notes even more changes to be wrought upon us. A tsunami of change! The pillars of linguistic stability shudder!

Well, okay, two of which changes I approve and have pursued through other style guides long before the WashPo’s glacial acceptance: the abbreviation of microphone to “mic” (not “mike”) and the hyphen-less “email” versus “e-mail.” In his own column, Walsh quotes the Guardian’s David Shariatmadari:

Error is the engine of language change, and today’s mistake could be tomorrow’s vigorously defended norm.

That doesn’t mean we have to propel those changes – and certainly not those errors – rocket-like upon the language. Usage evolves, we agree, but this feels more like creationism. And as we know, creationism is bunkum.

Walsh then states in his own column the problem finding a suitable gender-neutral pronoun:

He once filled that role, but a male default hasn’t been palatable for decades. Using she in a sort of linguistic affirmative action strikes me as patronizing. Alternating he and she is silly, as are he/she, (s)he and attempts at made-up pronouns. The only thing standing in the way of they has been the appearance of incorrectness — the lack of acceptance among educated readers.

I wonder how Stephen Pinker might think of his approach of alternating masculine and feminine pronouns as silly (he does it in his latest book, The Sense of Style). Walsh’s dismissal of “made-up pronouns” refers to the attempts to get acceptance on non-traditional words like hir as a replacement for his and her. I tend to think these are well-intended but clumsy and ineffectual – you cannot dictate a linguistic change in that manner with any hope of it becoming commonplace, but I would not cavalierly dismiss them as silly.

Walsh doesn’t I notice, debate the use of “one” as a replacement. It’s a better option, and has historical precedent, but hasn’t had the wider acceptance of ‘they’.

But how does one determine whether “they” refers to one or more people? Context doesn’t always make it work. Here’s an example from the comments in Daily Writing Tips:

…let’s say we’re talking about a situation where we have a space capsule, which seats one astronaut. Can we have, “The astronaut should put on their helmet before launch”?
Well, sure you can. But it’s confusing because there aren’t two or a dozen astronauts. Here, there is one. The plural pronoun looks intrusive and bespeaks the worst sort of political correctness run amok.

And another comment that points out how a sentence may be rewritten to avoid the confusion (and I like the conclusion):

Consider the following (incorrect) sentence. “Everyone who has a puppy knows they need a carpet cleaner.” This sentence is both wrong (“everyone” vs. “they”) and confusing (does “they” refer to “everyone” or “a puppy”?). This sentence has a singular subject, a singular verb, and a plural pronoun. Whoops!

Let’s apply the first strategy to the sentence: make the antecedent plural.
1. “People who have a puppy know they need a carpet cleaner.” This resolves both the agreement problem (“people” is “they”) and the antecedent confusion (“they” can only be “people” because “people” is the only plural noun to which “they” can apply).

Now let’s apply the second strategy: remove the pronoun and revise.
2. “Everyone who has a puppy knows the need for a carpet cleaner.” This revision has no pronoun, thus avoiding the issue.

Here’s the point: A careful writer does not need to use “they” as a singular.

Walsh isn’t the first (and certainly won’t be the last) editor to wrestle with the annoyances of English and its lack of neutral pronouns. Nor is he the first to give in to the pressures of idiomatic use and accept incorrect usage as the norm.

The Wall Street Journal had a piece on “they” as a singular pronoun back in April.

…there is no question that “they” is more idiomatic than clunky alternatives that include both genders, as in “he or she,” “he/she” or “(s)he.” All of those seek to replace “he” as a generic pronoun, which has been fading ever since the move toward nonsexist language in the 1970s… “They” has the virtue of actually being in common use, and even grammatical sticklers may be coming around to it.

In September, Harvard University chose to allow “they” and “ze” on registration forms. But so what? Those forms do not represent the language in the way a newspaper does (well, papers like the WashPo, London Times, New York Times, Globe and Mail…not our local papers where getting simple verb-subject agreement right is often random, and their columnists submit copy in crayon…).

The Grammarist wrote that we have long since solved the problem through common use:

…the singular their, them, etc. are already widely used, and they have been widely used for centuries. Many English speakers use them unconsciously without ever questioning the practice until someone calls attention to it. In fact, the supposed problem of English’s lack of singular gender-neutral pronouns has already been solved.

Last week, the BBC did a piece on “non-binary pronouns” – and while it may seem politically correct, the charts they offer as substitutes look a whole lot more convoluted that saying he or she. It makes “they” look like a reasonable solution. The Beeb noted the change was already at work, viral-like, across the pond:

This use of “they” annoys some grammarians. While it does feel natural for most English speakers to say something like “Someone lost their wallet,” critics argue that “they” should really only be used to refer to plural nouns. And even those comfortable with “Someone lost their wallet” may have doubts when “Someone” is replaced by a person’s name… English has a precedent for a plural pronoun coming to be used in the singular – the pronoun “you”. Until the 17th Century a single person was addressed with “thou” and “thee”. Later “you” became perfectly acceptable in both plural and singular. Neither McConnell-Ginet nor Baron sees any reason why the same could not happen with “they”.

All of which suggests the apocalypse has already begun and it’s only a matter of time before we all get sucked into its maw. Sigh. I had better put my affairs in order, then, knowing it’s only a matter of time before I get swallowed into the depths.

I know we already use ‘they’ and ‘their’ in popular language, spoken and idiomatic. And I’m guilty of it myself. But I’d rather not see the bastions of language crumble quite so easily before it.

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