The “new” singular they

You’ve seen the posts and tweets and articles, I know you have. Jane Austen. William Shakespeare. Literary greats for centuries (literally) have used the singular they.

So why are folks so bent out of shape about it? Why now?

Because this is a new singular they. It’s not the one Jane and Will used, referring to an unknown person. It’s used with a new purpose. It’s nongendered and refers to a known individual. Nonbinary individuals may choose it as their pronoun rather than the gendered “he” or “she” or the many options that have never really caught on (like “zie”).

It’s the difference between “Every student needs their own pencil” and “Robin needs their own pencil.” (I tweeted this exact example a couple of days ago.)

And along with this new singular they comes the matching reflexive pronoun: themself. Used for one person who is referred to as “they.” Think about it. “Themselves” makes no sense whatsoever in a singular context. “Themself” is sensible.

It hasn’t yet made it into the online Merriam-Webster dictionary, but here’s the page at American Heritage Dictionary’s site. Take note that the second entry is labeled “nonstandard” and that it uses this word to refer to more than one individual. The main entry is not labeled.

We’re getting there. Happy Pride Month 2019, folks.

What a dictionary is and isn’t, from this editor’s point of view

I’m not a lexicographer, but I know several from Twitter. That’s my disclaimer. What I’m writing here is taken from English-language dictionaries themselves (did you know the print versions usually include a “how to use this book” section?), personal experience, and Twitter discussions.

Dictionaries do not dictate how you are allowed to use a word. They do, however, tell you how words are used. Do you see the difference? They’re showing you a snapshot, in essence, of the English language at a moment in time. The definitions change with the language, but not as quickly as language changes. For a word to enter a dictionary, or for its definition to change, that word must appear in print in places where the lexicographers can cite it. That can be news media, fiction, nonfiction, periodicals, personal correspondence made public, transcripts of speech, websites, and so on. Continue reading “What a dictionary is and isn’t, from this editor’s point of view”

The requisite end-of-year post, or “four books I read this year and think you will enjoy”

I’m the first to admit I don’t read for pleasure nearly as much as I’d like. That’s something to work on in the coming year. However, of the handful of books I did read this year, I’ve chosen four I think will interest most of you.

They’re in alphabetical order by author’s last name. No favoritism, nothing hinky going on. I decided to organize them by some normal, rational method. (That should tell you how important I think they are.)

The Joy of Syntax, June Casagrande. The grammar lovers among you need this book. I mean, NEED it. This is the deep stuff you know you should know (it even says so in the subtitle!), but it’s not intimidating. At all. If the thought of opening Greenbaum or Huddleston & Pullum scares the bejeezus out of you, this is the book you want. (I own both of those, too. I’ve used them, but I use this more.) It’s written in her trademark style, as if you’re sitting on her porch sipping a cool drink on a hot day and chatting. You know, about infinitives and clauses and the subjunctive mood. As one does.

I particularly like this, the final paragraph from Part 1, Chapter 1 (“Who’s in Charge Here?”): “A great deal of modern-day grammar confusion stems from people not understanding the role of style guides. Their rules are not meant as definitive statements on what’s right or wrong. They simply work as playbooks to be followed by anyone who wants to follow them. But the rest of us are not bound by them—a fact some people fail to understand.”

You Are What You Speak, Robert Lane Greene. The subtitle tells you what you need to know about this one: “Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity.” The introduction’s by John McWhorter. With only eight chapters, this book packs a lot of punch into a small space, covering language myths, peeververein (my preferred term instead of “sticklers”), linguistics, nationalism (“You live here now, so speak X”), language legislation, and alternative ways of considering language, in addition to a few topics I haven’t mentioned.

I give you two quotes, because I have to limit myself somehow, don’t I? “Language is too enjoyable to get so angry about it” is the first. The second is this: “A truly enlightened attitude to language should simply be to let six thousand or more flowers bloom.” All right, I lied. Three quotes. “In this world of homogenization—everyone speaking one standard language the same way, all the time—are we richer or better off? Not at all.”

The Prodigal Tongue, Lynne Murphy. Here’s another where the subtitle is defining (as one should be, but often is not): “The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English.” If you don’t know Professor Murphy, she’s a linguist born in the US and living in the UK, currently teaching at the University of Sussex. There’s so much to delight in, in this book! If you are familiar with her blog, “Separated by a Common Language,” you already know the kinds of things she gets tied up in. Here are 350+ pages of such discussions, clarifications, and outright flinging up of hands.

For this one, I give you my favorite chapter title: “America: Saving the English Language Since 1607.” I’ll also tell you I was greatly entertained by the discussions of which English invented what word/phrase. Lots of finger-pointing goes on, lemme tell you. Lynne sorts it. And yet, through it all, she doesn’t take sides. Not really. You want to know more? Read the book, honey.

Word by Word, Kory Stamper. Subtitled “The Secret Life of Dictionaries,” this is a charming in-depth look at lexicography. At the work of defining words. Like “is.” Someone has to write those definitions, y’know.

It’s nearly impossible to choose a quote or excerpt, but I forced myself. In her discussion about the letters of the alphabet and which are “better” or “worse” from a definer’s standpoint, we come to this.

S is, to put it in the modern vernacular, the worst. It is the longest letter in the book and an absolute heartbreaker, because you can see the end of the alphabet from it, and you know that once you clear S, you are moving on to T–Z, and half of those are barely even letters. But SS goes on for-fucking-ever. Exactly 11 percent of your dictionary is made of words that begin with S. One-tenth of your dictionary is made up of one twenty-sixth of the alphabet. I bet the guy in the picture who supposedly went home and shot himself was in the middle of S when he did.”

So, there you have them: four books I read (or reread) this year that I think will be of interest to you. Happy New Year, folks.

A Storify from last year: “Building a Reference Library”

Yes, I know that Grammar Day is coming (March 4!), but a friend and former co-worker sent me this link a little bit ago with the comment that it might be “a good lead-in blog before ACES [national conference] this year.”

And indeed, it is. I won’t summarize here, because this is a Storify and therefore comprises numerous tweets (some from me!), making it already nicely chopped into bite-sized pieces for easy consumption. (That’s consumption as in “eating,” not consumption as in “tuberculosis.” Let’s be clear about that.) I dare not forget to thank Gerri Berendzen for collecting and Storifying the tweets for posterity.

Thank you, Steven, for suggesting  this and providing the link. It’s in my bookmarks, along with dozens of others. I hope some of you will decide it’s worth keeping, too.

 

Building a Reference Library: An #ACESchat Storify

When the right word is still the wrong word

This came up earlier today over on the Twitterthing, and it’s worth a short blog post.

There’s “erstwhile” and there’s “ersatz,” and neither one means “so-called.”

I’ve seen it happen enough times that I made a note for myself. A writer wants to use a fancier word instead of “so-called,” and they grab “erstwhile.” Trouble is, that means “formerly” or (currently, more often) “former.” What they think they want is “ersatz,” which means “substitute, replacement, fake, faux” and suchlike that there. It doesn’t mean “so-called.”

The erstwhile mayor showed up at the commemoration wearing an ersatz fur with alarmingly realistic holes as if actual moths had eaten at it.

If you want to say “so-called,” say it. Just like that. It’s legal. I swear.

Titular or eponymous?

Here’s the definition of “titular.”

Here’s the one for “eponymous.”

Note that initially, “titular” has nearly nothing to do with the title of a book or story or what have you. It has to do with a title, as in an office (like queen or king or president), and with that title being “in name only” with no actual power. Continue reading “Titular or eponymous?”