Pursuant to a discussion with Google+ user Fiber Babble about proofreaders and grammar checkers, I looked into Ginger Page, a free grammar and spelling checker (and supposedly much more) that I heard about on Twitter.
This time, I have backup from none other than John McWhorter, linguist, author, and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. That backup comes from his book Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.
Early on in Chapter Two (“A Lesson from the Celtic Impact: The ‘Grammatical Errors’ Epidemic Is a Hoax”), he discusses the bias against the usage of “they” to mean “one of an indeterminate gender.” Of course, he points out its appearance as early as the 15th century in the phrase “Iche mon in thayre degree” (each man in their degree) in the Sir Amadace tale. Then he names Shakespeare, of course, and Thackeray, too (“A person can’t help their birth,” from Vanity Fair). And yes, I hear the grumblings and see the head-shakings that “just because the Bard did it doesn’t make it right.” Well . . . I disagree, you see. He did it because it was being done. All over. By many, many people. The 19th-century grammarians and their blind insistence on making English conform to Latin grammar took issue, but that’s because . . . well, they meant well, but didn’t understand much about linguistics back then. Continue reading “More thoughts on “singular they””
No, really. Everyone can make their own decisions about the singular “they.” (I happen to know that Ray and I are on opposite sides of this particular issue. I’m posting about it only because someone I’ve known longer than I’ve known Ray posted about it over on my Facebook wall about a half-hour ago, and in the process of responding to her, I relocated the two wonderful blog entries that helped me face my fear of “singular they” and move past it.)
You may or may not realize that being up in arms over “singular they” while remaining placid about “singular you” could be called hypocritical by some. (Not by me, but by some who are even more rabidly grammar-nerdly than I. There are such people. Oh, yes, there are.) I point this out as a matter of concern for my readers’ relative safety while roaming the Internet.
Once upon a time, long long ago (but not in a galaxy far far away), “ye” (now “you”) was the plural second-person pronoun, and “thou” (now mostly extinct except in historical and fantasy writing) was the second-person singular. Over time, the latter fell into disuse and the former became the acceptable catch-all second-person singular and plural pronoun. And that, my readers, is how we wound up needing phrases like “all of you” and dialectical constructs like “you’uns” and “all y’all” (because “y’all” is singular, you know?). Pitching a fit over a singular they, but accepting singular you without question, causes some people to react very badly indeed. Of course we’re still in the very midst of the shift for the singular they, while most of us were raised with the singular you (unless we lived in Yorkshire in the 1940’s, for example, when “tha” was the dialectical form of “thou” used in everyday speech).
And so, here are the links I mentioned at the start of this ramble. I hope that if nothing else you will find them entertaining. (I can also hope that some of you might decide that the singular they makes sense, just like the singular you does.)
I want to address one more point, because I can hear the thought rumbling around out there in the ether. While I have come to accept the usefulness of singular they when the gender of the antecedent cannot be known and I want to avoid the wordiness of “his or hers” or “himself or herself” or what-have-you, when I am copy editing this is an issue I discuss with the author. If said author is apoplectic at the concept of the singular they, I will do my best to recast sentences to not need gender specificity. If said author is receptive to the concept, happiness ensues. It’s all part of my job, ensuring that the author’s voice is clear even after I’ve fixed all the problems. This isn’t really a problem. It’s a choice–one that everyone can make for themselves.
This rant’s been yammering at me from my forebrain for a few days now, so I might as well get it overwith.
I’ve been reading quite a few ebooks from self-published authors of late, most of them gotten for nothing from Amazon. (Twitter has been very, very good to me.) Having paid nothing for them, I’m at least not ticked off at having spent the rent on ebooks; however, having paid nothing for them doesn’t equate to “expect poor editing.” I’ve been consistently annoyed, and sometimes even appalled, at the lack of what I would consider basic editorial attention displayed by the final products on my Kindle. I’m not even talking about formatting weirdness; that, I can overlook. Seriously. I’m not that annoyed by oddball kerning, or strange page breaks. I am annoyed by things like the following.
- Having your character speak a single word in a foreign language does not by any stretch of my imagination demonstrate to me that your character is fluent in that language. Not even a little bit. I can order from a menu in Spanish, but I can’t speak it. I know “tostada,” “torta,” “burrito,” “carnitas,” and “cerveza.” I’m not fluent in Spanish. I could probably fake my way through one in German (four years of it in high school means I can still sing “O Tannenbaum” and “Stille Nacht”), and perhaps even in French. I am not fluent in either one. So—if your character is fluent in a foreign language, I strongly suggest you show me by having him speak a full sentence or two, preferably with some vernacular forms thrown in, so it’s not right out of a phrase book I could check down at my local library or here on teh intarwebz. Just having him say “Yes” is insufficient for my needs.
- In the same vein, if your character has been living in such and such a foreign city for a decade or more, when you’re describing the contents of his market basket, I expect to see terms consistent with the language of the city—not those of another one in a different country, with a different language. A long, crusty loaf of bread is called a baguette in Paris, but not (as far as I’m aware, anyway) in Rome. Similarly, within the US I expect to see regional variations reflected in descriptions and dialog. A hoagie is a sub is a grinder (sorta, I know, I hear the screaming and wailing from here), but each of those terms has a “home territory.” And if you know what a gagger is, we should talk. I have a recipe you might want.
- Please, for the love of Robert Louis Stevenson (in this instance), get your literary references straight. (And if you the author can’t, make sure your editor—you DO have one, don’t you?—can.) Saying that such and such an occurrence “would bring out the Jekyll in anyone” does not mean what you think it means, I don’t think. At least, not if you want us to think that the worst side of a person will emerge if this thing happens. Jekyll was the good one.
These are not things your grammar checkers and spellcheckers will catch for you, folks. You need a real live editor-type to find these. (I wager you could find them yourselves, but I also know that once you’ve finished writing, the last thing you want to do is read the whole thing again.) I am not a developmental editor, despite what this rant might lead you to think. I’m a copy editor and a proofreader, and a damned good one, too. I do know what annoys me as a reader, and I do know what skills any decent editor should possess. The kinds of things I’ve enumerated above should never occur in the final product—not if the editor’s earned their keep.
(Watch this space for an entry about “they” and “you” and why folks who rant and rave about the former as a singular epicene pronoun often haven’t a clue that they should also be ranting about the latter—and why, if they only rant about the former, they’re right good hypocrites.)