The Hipster Nerd’s Pronoun Crisis

This hipster nerd has enthusiastically taught grammar.

I do not want to be that hipster nerd who looks for grammar errors.  We all know her.  She is well-read, she subscribes to literary and political journals, she writes on a typewriter, and she is annoyed that editors are not doing their job.

Yet I must conclude that I am that woman now.

It is not my fault.  I do not go over articles with a fine-toothed comb.  The errors jump off the page at me–not just typos, but egregious grammatical mistakes. We bloggers have an excuse for errors–we do not have editors– but professional writers are no longer edited very well.

I have concluded that there is a pronoun crisis.  Editors no longer understand the correct use of pronouns (he, she, it, they, one, everyone, anyone, someone, who, etc.).  And they have not mastered that simplest of rules, the agreement of pronouns with their antecedents in gender and number. Take the following incredibly awkward sentence, patterned on one I saw recently in a prestigious journal,

“The blogger was asked by a physics professor what they did for a living.”

Note that the pronoun they is plural (more than one), while its antecedent,  blogger, is singular (one).  Here are two correct versions of that sentence. “The blogger was asked by a physics professor what he did for a living.” “The blogger was asked by a physics professor what she did for a living.”  Here are two slightly less awkward versions:  “A physics professor asked the blogger what he did for a living,” or “A physics professor asked the blogger what she did for a living.”

Colloquial English has long been preferred to literary English. And it is probable that Millennials and subsequent generations have not studied grammar, because their English teachers did not study it.   Many learn pronouns from studying foreign languages, or from reading great books.  If standards drop, the grammar of written tradition will disappear.

I hate to see professional writers make these mistakes. But according to a reporter at The Washington Post, “the singular they” (and there is no such thing) was adopted in its style guide in 2015.  The reporter uses the following example:  “Everyone wants their cat to succeed.”  What on earth does that mean? But if one wants to say it, one should say, “Everyone wants his or her cat to succeed.”

Ron Charles, editor of the book pages at  The Washington Post, uses impeccable English. And the editors of The New York Times know how to make pronouns agree with their antecedents.

Jen Doll’s article in The Atlantic, “The Singular They Must Be Stopped,” certainly reflects my feelings.   She writes, “Every time I see a singular they, my inner grammatical spirit aches.”

Yup.

What are your pet peeves about grammar?

23 thoughts on “The Hipster Nerd’s Pronoun Crisis

  1. There is also a movement to make language gender neutral by having individuals opt in to be referred to as they and their. The first time someone requested I do this I was trying to organize something in a group email, and referring to one person as “they” just confused everyone.
    I feel old. Sometimes I want to point out to young women that if feminists couldn’t eradicate high heels and puffy white wedding dresses, remaking language is really a long shot. But I suppose every generation gets to pick its battles.

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    • The language gender neutral movement is beyond me, so I decided not to write about it. Yes, there is a generational divide. My mother loved Frank Sinatra, I loved rock music, and so it goes. Whenever I think, Oh no, they’re making a terrible mistake here, I remember radicals who wrote “womyn” instead of “women.” (That did not last.)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Where to start? In one week in the local media we had an accident in which a car veered off the road and flipped over described as a “collision” and a car flooding out in a puddle described as “submerged.”

    But the one drilled into our heads by our English prof Mom is, “the reason is because.”

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  3. Miss Culp taught us to diagram sentences and Miss Williams taught us Latin, case by case and declension by declension. They did not smile upon error. Those days are gone and I try not to mourn them — yet sadness creeps in. My husband was Hungarian. In Hungarian the singular pronoun (he, she, it) is gender-free (neutered?) and all his life he was not consistent with his English pronouns. It could sometimes be confusing. “Mary lost his book” could mean that she lost some male person’s book, but more probably meant that she lost her own book.

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    • I love diagramming sentences! I taught Latin just as Miss Williams did, because no one can puzzle out the Latin literature without grammar. And most of the students seemed to enjoy it, probably because I did. Fascinating about Hungarian.

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  4. Struggles with tenses give me the bends. The verbs see and lie (as in lie down), seem to be the most common ones that trip the most people up. And I agreee with you about “They”. Its maddening if you let youself listen to it and take it seriously. So much noise! So many dogs barking! I just move on. (Or try to!)

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    • Yes, moving on is all we can do. I try to be less indignant, because it is a waste of my energy to fuss, but I do hope English will survive in some recognizable form. Perhaps we’ll all be talking like Riddley Walker!

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  5. I agree with your blogger example – it reads awkwardly, but would probably pass unnoticed in speech.

    However, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (and they should know) the use of “they” as a pronoun to a singular noun instead “he or she” has been in use since the 14th century (at least) – that’s the first written example given. Particularly in association with gender neutral terms like “anyone”, “everybody”, “any person” etc. The singular use of “them” and “they” naturally follows.

    Anyone wanting to give grammar lessons on this point will need a really good time machine!

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  6. In colloquial English, the use of “they” to refer back to a singular pronoun has long been common, but that does not make it correct. In standard English, as in German, French, Greek, and Latin, pronouns must agree in gender and number.

    Nonetheless, I will review my Shakespeare! I never notice this trend in Renaissance lit, but I’ll keep my eyes open.

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  7. All languages (with the exception of Esperanto), existed long before anybody wrote their grammatical rules! Such rules are descriptive, rather than prescriptive, and an invaluable reference point for all learners, including native speakers.

    Yes, I’m a grammar nerd. And yes, pronouns do agree in gender and number in the languages you mention, but that doesn’t make this English exception to the rule wrong. English is quirky. The OED also quotes examples of this quirky use from such literary heavyweights as Fielding, Shaw, Thackeray and Yonge. Why not accept it as standard?

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  8. Actually, the rules of grammar are both descriptive and prescriptive. Thus we have The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, the MLA Handbook, etc. In the first century B.C., Cicero shaped the Latin grammar and vocabualry of the next 13 centuries, and Roman writers are consistently finicky about pronouns. And of course the Romance languages ARE Latin, in simplified forms).

    So what does this have to do with English? Well, until the early 20th century, British and American “gentlemen” studied classics, meaning not only literature but grammar and rhetoric. Milton wrote not only English poetry and Latin poetry. And the long rolling sentences of the 18th and 19th centuries owe much to Cicero. (Trollope even wrote a book about Cicero.)

    I can tell you that in my recent reading of 20th and 21st-century books there are still plenty of writers who mind their pronouns, including John Steinbeck in East of Eden and Juliet Carpenter in her translation of Minae Minura’s The Fall of Language in the Age of English.

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  9. The usual things irritate me i.e. the misuse of your and their, but we are not allowed to correct our friends’ texts or FB posts because that is rude! There are also some colloquial phrases that really don’t sound correct to me e.g. I am looking forwards to seeing you (I would say I am looking forward to seeing you). Am I wrong?

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    • Ooh, I’ve never heard “looking forwards,” and that “s” is certainly superfluous. If I had a phone, I would certainly want to correct texts. And my own grammar and spelling would go out the window!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. OK, I’m going to weigh in on Singular They because it’s only partly about not defining someone as male or female, but also about eliminating the assumption of binary genders. I do appreciate that the identity politics so prevalent today can be confusing or even seem indulgent, but just as in earlier times, when someone growing up gay wouldn’t know what word they could name themselves with or that there were any people like them, or the fact that POC are still denied adequate representation of themselves in popular culture, so people who do not identify as a binary gender, but are on the gender continuum, or people who are transitioning and choose to use a neutral gender as well as anyone who chooses to be defined first by something other than their gender, welcome the use of singular they as something which gives them room and space. In addition, if we’re discussing an unknown person in a position of e.g. a nurse, secretary or fire officer, it perpetuates tired stereotypes of they are constantly referred to as she / she / he, which does tend to happen if the writer doesn’t think about it (I see so many texts with this issue).

    As a commenter up-thread has mentioned, this is an old and valid use of “they”. As a professional editor, I find it a lot neater than clumsy workarounds for he/she, s/he etc. I had the discussion with an older client who wast not aware of new thought on this, and we got to a good compromise where anyone they actually knew (and presumably had the right pronouns for!) was referred to as he or she, but any general idea of a person was they. And all of the style guides (Oxford, Chicago Manual of Style, AP Stylebook) now offer it as an accepted alternative.

    I am all for retaining the differences between subtly different words and for expressing things as clearly as you can, and I don’t like when a mistake creeps into usage and then becomes ever-present. But a) I am no termagent and forgive people errors in comments, etc., very happily, and b) I have used singular they in my work (always including a note on my style sheet, never imposing it on a client without mentioning it) for a long time and am glad the style guides now provide backup for that nervous client who needs proof it’s OK.

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  11. Oh, Liz, this makes my head ache to hear about “binary genders.” There are three genders. We also have “it!”

    But each to her own! Everybody has the right to his opinion! Still, I demand the crispest, most traditional grammar from the highbrow publications I subscribe to. One has let me down lately.

    And I certainly forgive bloggers and commenters poor grammar. We all make mistakes online. It is a different medium.

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    • Ah, that is true, but humans tend to be gendered in binary manner, don’t they, which is where the term binary gender comes from (obviously it’s different when used as a term describing language as a whole rather than human genders). I certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable calling a fellow human being “it”. I should have made it more clear that I was referring to their use with humans.

      I’m going to leave that here as opinions obviously differ and I know there’s no changing anyone’s mind on the Internet. I just would encourage readers to consider that as the definition and description of identities blossom out and change over the years and people find their place in the world and peace with how they are, it’s kind to adapt our language so as not to cause people pain. And I know that mis-gendering or gendering at all does cause people pain.

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    • My husband and I are old Latinists who will never agree with the use of “they” as a singular pronoun (and very few of our generation took Latin, so we are dinosaurs even among our own kind), but I do agree with you about “less/fewer” and “whether.” Here’s an issue I’m not sure about: in my publishing days I had an editor colleague who always changed “over” to “more than.” She did not think it proper to say, for example, “over 40%.” I’ve never looked it up, though!

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    • One other thought: Is it possible that this is a British quirk?

      According to the Chicago Manual of Style (2017), this use of “the singular they” is accepted in speech and informal writing, but not in formal writing. Here’s a quote:

      “Chicago accepts this use of singular they in speech and informal writing. For formal writing, most modern style and usage manuals have not accepted this usage until recently, if at all. CMOS 17 does not prohibit the use of singular they as a substitute for the generic he in formal writing, but recommends avoiding it, offering various other ways to achieve bias-free language.”

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