Pronouns are personal

By which I mean, people get to choose their pronouns. Now that the breaking down of the gender binary is in full swing (and I hope it keeps right on breaking, personally), if someone identifies as NB (nonbinary, or enby), they get to choose “they” if that’s how they want to be referred to. (I’ll wager there are other flavors involved, like genderfluid, but as a bi cis woman, I don’t get to claim I know anything. I’ve seen it discussed, and the conversation’s far from over.)

So, when a professional editor tells an author (one they’re going to publish!) that “they” is unacceptable and that gendered pronouns must be used in the author’s bio (IN THEIR OWN BIO!), well …

Twitter drags them. And rightly so.

I wrote two tweets in response to this mess. The first one had my usual vulgarity (because yes, I believe this is utter bullshit and I call it like I see it); the second was written in a higher register, with more formal word choices and tone (but I still used singular they, ja you betcha). Why? Because of a related issue. At least I see they’re related. Actually, there are three that come to mind.

One is policing people’s language and word choice to reinforce the status quo. I suppose I get this one on level, maybe. But honestly, who is being harmed by someone choosing to be called “they/them?” Who’s injured by that? No one. Oh, sure, you can tell me it’s “harming the language.”

Guess what. It’s not doing any such thing.

Another is using your platform (as a editor, a publisher, a reviewer, whatever) to tell someone that your English is better and therefore YOU are better. That’s what happens when someone denies someone else the choice of a pronoun set. It’s classist (“I speak properly, you don’t”) and it’s phobic (“I’m straight and cis, and you’re something else, and that scares me so no, you can’t use those pronouns”).

It’s unethical and it’s rude (and it’s outmoded). I’ll bet you all know that “they” has been used in the singular since the 1300s. EIGHT HUNDRED YEARS. And a considerable amount of that usage has been printed and published.

Then there’s the “they never whine about ‘you,’ so why are they mad about ‘they?'” contingent. Well, they don’t whine about “you” because that particular change has been over and done (and the singular usage established) for nearly as long, coinciding with the Early Modern English years (roughly the Tudor and Stuart dynasties, or mid-1450s through early 1700s).

I’m no linguist, nor do I play one on TV. But I’ll take a shot in the dark at this. I wonder if the big pushback against “they” as a singular pronoun has to do with gender. Bear with me.

“Thou/thee” are/were second-person singular pronouns. “You/ye” are/were the plural forms. Here’s the thing: when you’re speaking to another person, you don’t NEED to specify their gender. (Oh DeAr GoDs A sInGuLaR “tHeIr”) You’re right there with them, looking at them. And with the plural, it doesn’t matter anyway. We don’t use gender markers with second-person pronouns. Only with third-person (he/him/his and she/her/hers, but the plural is they/them/theirs).

That fear of “not knowing if they’re male or female or what” is, I think, what’s keeping the fire lit under the cauldron of singular they.

Why is it so scary? They are who they are. You are who you are. I am who I am.

What’s scary about that?

Third, there’s the register issue. Formal registers use formal grammar and language and diction (word choices). Informal ones use casual forms. My first tweet contained the word “bullshit” twice. And you know what? I’m positive (and I do mean positive) that some folks brushed it off because of that word. Surely a professional, a former English teacher, would never, ever use such language. Therefore, this person (me!) must not really be a professional.

Guess what. Professionals curse. A LOT. And on Twitter? Boy, howdy. That’s like a big backyard party, with folks coming and going and just chatting and being themselves. I curse on Twitter, especially when I get angry about something. And ESPECIALLY when that something is a professional in my field (editing) behaving badly toward an author.

However, I decided this morning to RT the original tweet again, and this time my comment was in a far more formal register. (I still used a singular they, because TAKE THAT, ENGLISH TEACHER BRAIN!) And I noticed that a different group of people interacted with that one. Now, that could be merely a case of them not seeing last night’s tweet. But, it could just as well be a case of them choosing not to give attention to that one because of the language, and interacting with the “proper” one instead.

I dunno.

And I honestly don’t care. I’m not being harmed by it, and neither is anyone else. I choose my words as I see fit, taking many factors into account. I said basically the same thing in both comments, but one was more personal (“find a different publisher because this is bullshit”) and the other more formal (“it’s a breach of ethics and trust to deny an author the right to choose the pronouns they want used in their own bio”).

And I’m standing by all of it.

[There has been a non-apology issued by the publisher, by which I mean it was mealy-mouthed: “we had no idea” (you did, once the author pointed it out to you, but you ignored it and dug in) and “we apologize for any pain we may have caused” but without a direct “We’re sorry, and we’ll do better” to the wronged author. Ugh]

Whether to use “whether”

Here’s another thing I bump into quite regularly. When is “whether” the right choice? And when should you choose “if”? (Choosy writers … y’know, I’ll just stop there. If you got it, thanks. If not, blessings on you.)

When there’s an overt or implied choice, you want “whether.”

When the statement’s conditional, you want “if.”

There you go.

Oh, that’s not enough. Right. Sorry about that.

“Whether I finish this post depends on how many cats interrupt me.” I hope I’ll finish, but if they keep parading across my desk it’s not going to happen.

“If I finish this post, I’ll make coffee.” On the condition that I finish writing, I’ll schlep downstairs and fire up the coffeepot.

“If it mattered or not” is the same as “whether it mattered.” The presence of alternatives (one or more) is contained within the definition of “whether,” so you don’t have to write “or not.” Neither must you slavishly remove it if it’s present. Let the voice and register guide your decision on which wording to use, and how picky to be.

“If he made it out alive, he’d be home for the holidays.” It’s contingent on the fulfillment of a condition: he has to get out alive.

“Whether he made it out alive didn’t matter. The family would gather for the holidays.” Makes no difference if he lives or dies; that ham will be on the table at noon on Sunday.

I hope you all make it out alive, and that your holidays are happy ones.

Tool Time: Using Google Ngrams

I was sure I’d written about this before, but no. So.

Google Ngrams is a great, easy-to-use tool for finding the frequency of a word or phrase in printed material. Let’s say you want to know how popular the phrase “try and” is, compared to “try to.”

You go here and then you enter the phrases you want to search for, separated by a comma. (You can fiddle with the start/end dates, the corpus to be searched, and more, but for my purposes here I’m not getting in to that. I seldom need to change the default for my work.) Then you press ENTER, and voila. You’re presented with a simple line graph showing which word or phrase is more (or most, if you enter three or more) common.

Here’s the result for the example I used two paragraphs back.

What this means is that in edited, printed texts between the years of 1800 and 2000, “try to” is used far more often than “try and.”

There’s no judgement in that. It’s just numbers.

I’ve used it on the fly when editing to see which phrasing of a given idea is more common. I’ve used it to see whether a spelling is EVER used. (It’s more fun than a dictionary, sometimes.) I’ve changed the dates and checked for usage in a specific time period. Why? Because it’s faster than hauling out one of my reference books, mostly. If I have reason to question the result or I want more information, then I hit the bookshelf.

Click on that little drop-down at the far right of the search term field, and you’ll see more ways to search: wild cards, inflections, parts of speech, and more. It’s easy to get caught up in the process. (Not that I’ve done that, you know. Not me. ::cough::)

If you’re wondering just how useful this tool can be, perhaps it’ll help to know that Bryan A. Garner of Garner’s Modern English Usage used it in the writing of that edition. Many entries include a ratio at the bottom, showing how often one word/phrase is used compared to another. If a usage is clearly an error, there’s no entry; however, for things like “try and” and “try to” you’ll see “Current ratio” as the last line of the entry. We have Ngrams to thank for that. (If you’re unfamiliar with Garner’s usage guides, and thus with his “Language Change Index.” I strongly suggest you rectify that situation. The Index is a time-saver, especially for editors. It helps me and many of my colleagues decide when a stance is worth fighting for.)

#SpellcheckCannotSaveYou: a bit of explanation

This has gotten a little attention in the last month or so, mostly thanks to June Casagrande (a fantastic editor-person who’s written a number of highly accessible grammar and style books, most of which I own). One thing that some folks don’t quite understand is why it’s “cannot” and not “won’t” or “will not.”

Simple. And it’s got NOTHING to do with the fucking apostrophe (which kills a hashtag every time, y’know).

I don’t care whose software it is; the fact is, no spellcheck program is able to save you from yourself. It is incapable. It is unable. It CANNOT save you. It can ensure you won’t have any egregious misspellings, but when it comes to homonyms, it cannot save you. If the word’s spelled correctly, but still the wrong word, spellcheck is unable, incapable, powerless to save you.

It’s not a case of it being unwilling to perform, or uninterested in doing the job.

It cannot perform that duty. Only a human brain in conjunction with human eyes and reasoning abilities can parse the difference between cleaver and clever. No spellchecker will flag either of those words, unless for some reason you have manually told it to. (You did know you have that kind of control, right? Like, telling the program to always flag the word “pubic” to save you from mortification?)

Spellcheck cannot save you from errors stemming from correctly spelled words used incorrectly. Not that it will not (although technically, that’s true — it won’t save you, but there’s more to the sense behind the phrasing), but that it cannot. It is not capable. It is unable. It cannot perform that action.

Spellcheck cannot save you.

Intimate Register in the Real World

In my ongoing efforts to bring the various registers of English to light, so that writers, editors, and readers may make use of the knowledge and understanding, I’m linking to a thread from Iva Cheung that quite literally exploded on Twitter over the last couple of days, including being picked up by Buzzfeed. (How exploded did it get? She hit her tweet limit. There is one.)

Here are dozens upon dozens of terms from people’s familiolects (words they use only with their family members, or “intimate register”) for people, places, things, actions … all kinds of words for all kinds of situations.

I love that so many of them come from toddlers’ mispronunciations.

Why use “yet” in this phrase?

I saw a billboard the other day advertising the House on the Rock. If you’ve been there, you know what it’s like. If you haven’t, perhaps you’ll make plans to go. Fans of American Gods know about it, thanks to Neil Gaiman’s interest in it. And yet …

The billboard exclaimed “AMAZING YET INDESCRIBABLE”.

Yet?

Why use “yet” there? Isn’t it logical, sensible even, that something amazing could also be indescribable? Used as a conjunction, “yet” means “but” or “though.” “Amazing BUT indescribable”? “Amazing THOUGH indescribable”?

WHY? I must have pondered this for a good ten minutes or so after seeing the sign.

I still don’t have a good answer.

About that word Comey used

There’s a lot of discussion (I’m trying to be neutral, here) about FBI Director James Comey’s use of “nauseous” in the last day or two.

Pedants will shout that he should have said “nauseated,” because “nauseous” is only and ever used to mean “capable of creating nausea” (like some fumes, or some votes in the US House. But I digress). Continue reading “About that word Comey used”