Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Former editor gets a bit ranty about language

True story: I'm sitting in my comfy chair, probably pretending to write a book, and my phone rings. It's a talky-type phone call, right, not a text, so I knew instantly that it was either my mother-in-law or my mom. And since it was a Yoda ring tone rather than R2-D2, I was fully prepared for my mom-in-law. Not unexpectedly, she was in a flutter about something, but this time it wasn't her computer, her car, or her cat.

It was language, a thing which is dear to my heart. Rant away, Meemaw, for I am here for it!

Anyhow, she was editing a paper for her son, who is a social sciences PhD student and worries maybe too much about his command of commas. She knows I was an editor and copy editor for coughfifteenyears, so she trusts my opinions on things like semicolons and style guides. She also expected me to be horrified at a thing she was horrified over. See, my brother-in-law had broken a basic usage rule repeatedly in this paper, and he is a smart dude so it made no sense. His mother was concerned.

The problem was pronoun-antecedent agreement. As the Towson University web site phrases it, "A pronoun must agree with its antecedent in number. Rule: [Their bold, not mine] A singular pronoun must replace a singular noun; a plural pronoun must replace a plural noun." So, if Chris went to the store, he bought beer. If Christa went, she bought wine. If all the Chrises went together, they bought cheese. We all learned this stuff in grade school, if it sounds familiar.

But my brother-in-law consistently used "they" as the pronoun for all singular nouns. Which was wrong wrong wrong... right?

Except no.

See, Meemaw, I explained, our language is living, agile, functional, and as our society changes, so change the rules. As we try to be more inclusive of gender identities, the old he/she/it rules need to flex to accommodate. "They" is perfectly acceptable -- turns out English speakers have been using the plural "they" to refer to singular nouns of unknown gender for a really long time, and most major style guides have approved the usage. Also, considering the paper was for an academic social-sciences audience, it would have been a mistake to replace "they" with "he or she" (or s/he, which was always an abomination). It would have been wrong.

Which, in my mind, is something so very, very right about language.

So, you just keep evolving, English, you adorable tongue you. The rest of us will catch up.

p.s. -- I am considerably less down with all the run-on sentences I'm seeing lately from people who I guess are trying to use fewer commas? There's nothing wrong with commas, people! If you have two independent clauses, please stick one of those little beauties and a connecting word in between, even if you don't pause at that part of the sentence. Trust me. Also, lay off the semicolons. I can almost guarantee you aren't using them right.

No comments:

Post a Comment