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.

“Stay on target … stay on target …”

Get a drink and maybe a snack and settle in. Today I’m talking about keeping yourself focused and targeted when writing complex sentences (both those defined that way grammatically and the ones that are just long).

I see the same thing happening time and again. A writer creates a sentence, probably a grammatically complex one with at least one dependent clause along with the independent clause, and somewhere, somehow, the focus of the sentence gets lost. By the time we’re at the terminal punctuation, the thrust has shifted from the grammatical subject to something else that’s related to it, grammatically speaking. Continue reading ““Stay on target … stay on target …””

A sentence must have at least two words.

(And other things English teachers get wrong)

I’m hoping the pitchforks haven’t come out already, just because of that title (or perhaps that subtitle). I’m also hoping that most of you know why that statement is incorrect.

It’s true that a sentence needs a subject and a verb, BUT what most teachers forget (or never knew in the first place) is that the subject might not be overt. It could be understood, as with “HALT!” The implication is that you or someone else is to halt.

That doesn’t make “HALT!” any less of a sentence than “HALT, YOU!” or “HALT, THIEF!” Those last two are just inverted syntax, with the subject of the verb coming after it instead of up front.

Utterances like “Ugh!” and “Oh my God!” aren’t sentences, grammatically speaking; they’re, well, utterances. They’re spoken. They have meaning, but it’s based on context, on the words and circumstances surrounding them.

So once more, with feeling: Every sentence needs a subject and a verb. (Not necessarily “two words.”)

 

Lost in the words: a tale of two commas

Earlier this morning I was scrolling through my Twitter feed, and I came across a retweet concerning crop-circle art of Beto O’Rourke. About halfway through the text, I’d lost sight of the sentence structure. Why?

Here’s the tweet.

And here’s the text, copied exactly (links removed):

“Dying to know how this 2-acre “BETO 2020” crop circle made of sand, mulch, clay, rocks & pecan shells a little over a mile north of an Austin Texas airport less than a week after @BetoORourke announced his run for president shows up in @FEC campaign finance disclosures”

I can’t speak for everyone, of course, but by the time I got to “Austin Texas” I was asking myself what the crop circle did. I had yet to come to the relevant verb.

Grammar will help sort this out. The sentence subject isn’t present; it’s “I,” which is understood. “I’m dying to know.” That’s the basic sentence, here. However, that’s not the really important bit.

What is the writer dying to know? “How this crop circle” did something, presumably. You’ll notice I’m leaving out the modifiers. They’re not germane to the basic sentence. They add information, sure, but they’re not vital to a subject/verb structure.

A quick and dirty fix is to insert commas after “circle” and “president.” Then we have this:

Dying to know how this 2-acre “Beto 2020” crop circle, made of sand, mulch, clay, rocks & pecan shells a little over a mile north of an Austin Texas airport less than a week after @BetoORourke announced his run for president, shows up in @FEC campaign finance  disclosures

There’s no period because Twitter. That’s also why the subject, I, is understood and absent; it saves characters. Sure, we have 280 to play with now, but people are still stingy with them. This version uses 272.

Those commas I added indicate to the reader that what’s set off by them can be ignored safely to get to the meat of the sentence, which is this: Dying to know how this crop circle shows up in FEC campaign finance disclosures. (I’ve left out other modifiers, too, for clarity in making the point.) I’d prefer to see more commas, but as I said, this is quick and dirty. (Twitter register is oh, so forgiving.)

However, we could help readers more by making bigger changes. Those two commas are the minimum work. What if we rearrange the phrases and clauses a little?

Dying to know how this 2-acre “BETO 2020” crop circle shows up in @FEC campaign finance disclosures. Just over a mile north of an Austin, TX, airport, appearing less than a week after @BetoORourke announced his run for president. Made of sand, mulch, rocks, clay & pecan shells.

Two hundred seventy-eight characters. The gist of the tweet, which is the crop circle showing up in FEC documents, is together now rather than separated by a string of modifiers (“made of this and such,” “just over a mile north of an airport,” “less than a week after (he) announced his run for president”).  I also used “TX” instead of “Texas,” with commas where style required them. The least important information, what the circle is made of, comes at the end. We don’t have to use full sentences, again because Twitter.

Do we take time to edit like this before hitting “TWEET”? Of course not. We’re working at speed, on the fly. Some folks are better than others at composing succinct yet descriptive tweets.

This is the kind of work I once did for a national chain’s social media. I edited tweets and social media posts, which were scheduled to go up at specific times. When I see one that’s difficult to parse, my editor brain jumps in to see what can be done: what’s the least amount of editing necessary to help the reader? What more could be done if there’s time?

 

 

A GUMmy thing which might interest you

If you read that and you’re shouting “THAT!” at the screen (or your phone, or your tablet, or whatever device you might be reading this on), this is probably for you.

If you read that and you have no reaction whatsoever, you might not care. Read if you want. I won’t know if you go no farther (further?) than this.

So. The “which/that” issue is one that (or which) editors struggle with (or not, depending on their background), but that other folks don’t think much about. Brits, for example. They don’t differentiate, as a rule, and use the two words interchangeably.

However, some of us (::raises her hand high::) had it drilled into us that “which” is “nonrestrictive” and “that” is “restrictive” and we have, for decades, some of us, dutifully gone on “which hunts” every time we start a new project, ensuring that all usages adhere to the tradition we learned in high school.

The higher the register of the work, the more likely it will be expected to adhere to the differentiation. Generally speaking, of course.

Here’s how it works.

Bring me the red cloak that is behind the door.

Presumably, there are other red cloaks elsewhere. I want the one that’s behind the door. I’m restricting the options. “Behind the door” is important, because it’s telling you which (HAHAHAHA SEE WHAT HAPPENED THERE) red cloak I want. Not the one on the hook. Not the one on the bed. I want the one that is behind the door.

Bring me the red cloak, which is behind the door.

Two things are at work here. First, there’s that comma after “cloak.” Second, there’s “which” instead of “that.” There’s only one cloak, we can assume, in this scenario. It happens to be behind the door. I’m telling you that as an extra bit of information; it is not restricting you to only one cloak, because, well, there IS only one cloak, and it happens to be behind the door. The comma is a clue that we’re about to get more information that’s additional, not required. “Which” is the word of choice in this situation.

The thing is—and I’m looking over my shoulder for the Ghost of Mrs. Capps (because if anyone would haunt me over this, it’d be her)—that distinction is often overlooked, especially once you get away from the formal register. I’ve gotten to the point where I make my editorial decision based on readability. If I have to reread the sentence because the guideline wasn’t followed, I change it and I comment to the client, explaining why I did. Or, I’ll query without changing.

Bring me the red cloak which is behind the door. [Do you mean there is only one, and it’s behind the door? Or are there more, and you want that specific one? If you mean the first, we need a comma after “cloak.” If you mean the second, I suggest changing “which” to “that” here.]

Lynne Murphy (@lynneguist on Twitter) wrote a highly informative post about this at her blog, “Separated by a Common Language.” Check it out if you’re so inclined.

Dreyer’s English: thoughts

I first encountered Benjamin on Twitter, not long after I joined the site. I don’t remember how it happened. However, I have seldom been so lucky to have made someone’s acquaintance in any kind of reality.

We’re of an age, he and I, and we both love words and language. When I found out his job title, I was floored. Someone with THAT kind of status in publishing would take time to chat with me? I’m a nobody from a blink-and-you-miss-it-but-we-do-have-one-flashing-red-light-at-the-main-intersection village, and he’s from NYC. (Via Long Island, where my dad’s younger brother used to live and work. So there’s that connection.)

However, Twitter is something of a leveling field. Like tends to find like, if like works at it hard enough, and soon I’d stumbled into Editing Twitter.

And of course, in Editing Twitter we love to talk about usage manuals and style guides and who still thinks Strunk & White is useful.

And of course, when word got out that Benjamin (I cannot bring myself to call him “Ben,” nor will I ever, I suspect) was writing a book about English, the denizens lost their collective mind. Genteelly, to be sure.

And so (yes, three paragraphs beginning with “and”—do I look like I care?), when the reviews started coming in, we read them with as much relish as we had the book. Or at least that’s how it began. The relish was a bit off after the first few. Some of the reviewers seem not to have read the book at all; others are of the peeververein variety, looking for anything to skewer as an error. It’s silly, and it does the book (and its intended readers, that “self-selecting” group—as if that’s a bad thing) a disservice.

As I tweeted last night, if you didn’t catch the playfulness in the typography on the dust jacket, you’re unlikely to catch a lot of other things, too. The nose-in-the-air tone of the subtitle, “An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style,” is another clue to the tone of the contents, when taken together with that playful typography. Naturally, Benjamin is confident in his stylistic stance. He’s spent decades steering Random House’s editorial staff, overseeing thousands of books. He also knows that there is room in style for variation. And on top of that, he has a delightful wit that sparkles on the page. He isn’t afraid to lay out his preferences, copiously annotated with footnotes that are worth the price of admission. (Someone else found another point worth that price. Wonderful! There’s a lot to be happy about in this book.)

If you’re expecting dryness such as what’s found in your grandma’s style guides, you’ll be disappointed. If you’re expecting that you’ll agree with everything between the book’s covers, again, you’ll be disappointed. (I already knew that we disagree about exclamation points. I bought the book anyway.)

Should you read reviews? Sure. Should you pay attention to them? Maybe. Should you read between the lines in an attempt to figure out what axe is being ground? Probably.

Should you get this book?

Absolutely. Even if you love your Strunk & White. (Perhaps even because you do.)

Settle down. Time for phrasal verbs

In my circles of friends and acquaintances, I have yet to meet anyone who learned about phrasal verbs before they got into college—and sometimes not even then, because they didn’t take the right courses.

“Settle down” is one such verb. “Down” is an adverb. We know that. But is it really working like an adverb when it’s connected in this way to “settle?” That’s the kind of question that (in my day, anyway) made the English teacher’s head explode and resulted in nothing approaching an answer. Continue reading “Settle down. Time for phrasal verbs”