January 17, 2011

What’s a writer to do about his or her grammar?

I believe that I am at my most inarticulate when it comes to counseling writers about grammar. I could quote the rules, and sometimes I do, but what I think is more important than the rules is the reason for them. How does doing this or not doing that affect the meaning or the impact of the writing?
That’s why I like the relatively new book, The Glamour of Grammar, by Roy Peter Clark. Clark is a vice president and senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a prestigious school for journalists, which may be one reason I relate to him, since I’ve worked as a journalist for most of my life. Fundamentally, he’s a writer and a teacher of writers, and in this book he’s managed to find ways to explain grammar in terms of how it affects the writing. He’s also managed to keep it light and entertaining.
The chapter I’d like to cite as a wisdom nugget, however, is one in which Clark spends most of his time raising questions rather than answering them. In it, he takes on one of the thorniest problems I encounter in my own writing, as well as that of my clients—gender equality in grammar. As we all know, English does not provide a gender-neutral singular pronoun (except for it, which doesn’t generally refer to a person). Therefore, if you want to talk about a single person—a writer, a minister, a reader, etc., what pronoun do you use? You’re stuck with saying “he or she,” “him or her,” which is okay if done once but becomes tiring if done multiple times.
The old rule was to use the masculine pronoun when no particular person was referred to, but that rule went out the window when we became more sensitive to making language gender-neutral—a position that I heartily support. Clark quotes a language guidebook, Writers Inc.:
“To change our centuries-old habits of sexist thinking, we must try to change our language, for our traditional ways of speaking and writing have sexist patterns deeply imprinted in them.”
As one who is old enough to have been part of the second wave feminist movement, I say a resounding yes to that thought. But when I run into the gender problem in my clients’ writing, it often comes not in using the universal masculine, but in consistently using “they” to refer to a singular noun. I’m brought up short at this, and I usually suggest that the client escape by using a plural noun or reword the sentence.
Clark takes a rather controversial stand, suggesting that in some contexts, the use of “they” as a singular may be acceptable:
“Imagine this scene in a story in which a teacher says to the students: ‘Someone here has left the key to their locker where anyone can get at it. If this person comes forward now to claim this key, their punishment will be mild. But if this person refuses to take responsibility for their carelessness, they will be sent immediately to the assistant principal.’
“The grammatical problem, of course, is that the plural pronouns ‘they’ and ‘their’ do not agree in number with the singular antecedent ‘person.’ Given that clear violation of standard usage, why would anyone encourage it? There are at least two good, if not persuasive, reasons: (1) These days, gender equality trumps the arithmetic logic of formal grammar; (2) that’s the way we talk.
“When we speak, we often reach for the particularity of a singular subject: a teacher, a golfer, a carpenter, a nurse. But that sense of the singular, in enlightened usage, need not be exclusionary.”
Clark goes on to say that in a previous book of his, he solved the problem by offering the universal masculine in one chapter and the universal feminine in the next. But he believes that if the context is informal, the singular they is acceptable:
“When we are quoting someone, or writing dialogue, or speaking, or writing in less formal settings, I say go for it. … It’s a simple equation, really: Formal settings require formal usage. Informal settings permit some informal usage. Know when to wear your tuxedo and when to wear your cutoff jeans.”
Well, I don’t know if I agree. I’m sure I’ve used the singular they in talking, but in writing…I just can’t go there. Nonetheless, Clark’s discussion is thought provoking. He even includes a section on the problem in relation to transgendered people, quoting S. Bear Bergman and his book, Butch is a Noun. Two of the questions Clark leaves readers with seem to me to be crucial:
·         Can I find a way to be inclusive in my language but also aesthetically pleasing?
·         If I’m stuck between two choices, can I come up with a third way?


  1. This is an issue with a book I'm working on now. "They" is used almost universally to mean "he," "she," or "it"--in fact, because of the subject matter (historical), it's nearly always "he," with scattered instances of "it" and the rare "she." In a few places, "one" is used instead of "they," and it's awkward for other reasons.

    The problem comes not just in agreement with the antecedent, but in figuring out what the antecedent is, particularly when the intended reference could be a person, a group of people, or another entity (animals, places, events, and philosophies are some of the possibilities). Often it can be figured out from context, but...

    Any suggestions on how to tackle this?

  2. I had one publishing client who specifically agreed with Roy Peter Clark's reasoning and requested that I use/allow the singular "they." But I can't see that this is commonplace in writing yet.

    Marta, did you come up with any good strategies? The most common I've seen is to make the nouns plural so that "they" becomes grammatically appropriate--but as you say, confusion can multiply. If it's an ongoing problem in the manuscript, I'm wondering if heavier rewriting is needed. (Not that this helps us freelancers much when a copyedit is specifically requested.)