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.”


What are your pet peeves about grammar?

Is It Philanthropy? Weeding My Viragos

In the 1980s, I discovered Virago Modern Classics. The American editions had black covers, not green, but the cover art was identical.

As a feminist, I was thrilled to find these reprints of lost women’s novels, though Dial Press, Virago’s American publisher, published only a few.  One of my first Viragos was Rosamond Lehmann’s The Weather in the Streets:  the attractive cover showed a fascinating detail from Still Life at Bedtime by Barbara Balmer.  In this skillful, engrossing novel, first published in 1936, Lehmann describes the desolation of a young woman painfully in love with a married man.

The impoverished heroine, Olivia Curtis, a low-paid assistant to a photographer, is separated from her husband but does not bother to get divorced.  She lives in London in a room in her cousin Etta’s flat, and has many artistic, interesting friends. Sometimes she goes hungry, but she tries to be cheerful.  One weekend, traveling home on the train to visit her sick father, she meets a former neighbor, Rollo, who is now a wealthy, unhappily married man working in the City. He says he’ll telephone her.

Of course we recognize this syndrome:  Will he call?  There are echoes of Dorothy Parker’s short story, “A Telephone Call,” in Olivia’s interior monologue.  But Lehmann is more remote, writing from a third-person point-of-view.

The telephone rang, faint to her ears:  someone inquiring, Kate would answer.  It couldn’t be Rollo:  not yet.  Not ever, of course.  Rollo would think about ringing up, sometime tomorrow maybe; and then he wouldn’t do it.  Because nice men don’t like to get mixed up…. Rollo was undoubtedly in the category of nice men, broad-minded.  They are on their guard….

Rollo becomes all to Olivia, but Olivia is not all to Rollo.  It does not end well for Olivia.

I related to Oliva–at least in my imagination.  Like Olivia, I was cheerfully poor, though Bloomington was unlike London, a city I imagined to be impossibly glamorous.  (Bloomington is more charming–really.)  I sometimes had to sell books so I could buy tampons.   A humanist friend who needed distractions from finishing her dissertation invited me to live with her after my boyfriend dumped me.  And she had too much humor to let me wallow in my misery: she sent me out on a date with a guy who rode a motorcycle.  Everyone loved him except me–he wasn’t “Rollo.”

On a second reading of The Weather in the Streets a few years ago, I admired it less. Lehmann captures the mood of frustrated love, but there are a few purple patches.  It is, I think, a book for younger grown-ups–women in their twenties and thirties!   My favorite Lehmann is  A Note in Music, which I described at this blog as “the best novel I have ever read about women in their thirties”  (here.)

For many years I have collected Viragos at used bookstores, library sales, and the Planned Parenthood Book Sale.  And a decade ago some woman donated her Viragos to the Planned Parenthood Book Sale.  You can imagine how thrilled I was.  And now I am at that same crossroads of life, passing on books I have read and keeping only books I have not read.    Mind you, I’m hanging on to my favorite Viragos.  But I am surprised at how many I am giving away:  my Winifred Holtbys, even some of my Elizabeth Taylors.  Do you think the Planned Parenthood Book Sale will like them?

Below are photos of the Viragos I’m weeding. I have read all of these, and there is not a bad book in the bunch, but I don’t need them.

And here are some more:

How do you feel about collecting books?  Do you keep all your Viragos?  Something about green spines.  These are the only books I have kept together as a color-coded collection.

One More Virago Giveaway: Rosamond Lehmann’s “Invitation to the Waltz”

One More Virago Giveaway:   Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann.  A good book, beloved by Virago fans.  I wrote here in 2015, “Rosamond Lehmann’s brilliant novel, Invitation to the Waltz (1932), is reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.   Both Lehmann and Woolf use stream-of-consciousness, write exquisitely, and master the compression of time.  And both novels center on preparations for a party.”

This is a Virago hardcover edition.

Leave a comment if you would like it!  You are still eligible even if you won one of the other Viragos!

This is a case of, as they say:  EVERYTHING MUST GO.

Winners of the Virago Giveaway!

This could not have turned out more perfectly!  There is one book for each commenter.  Email me your address at

The winners are:

Elaine (Pigeon) – Comyns’s Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead

Lorraine – Rachel Ferguson’s The Brontes Went to Woolworths

Melissa – Bawden’s Walking Naked

Nancy – Bawden’s A Little Love, A Little Learning

Julie – Bawden’s Ruffian on the Stair

Cynthia – Bawden’s The Birds on the Trees  

Ann – Bawden’s The Ice House

A Virago Giveaway: Nina Bawden, Rachel Ferguson, and Barbara Comyns

Are you ready for a Virago giveaway?  Five by Nina Bawden, one by Rachel Ferguson, and one by Barbara Comyns.  You know what to do: leave a comment telling me which you want.  And go for all seven if you want them!

The books are:

Nina Bawden’s The Birds on the Trees.

Nina Bawden’s Ruffian on the Stairs.

Nina Bawden’s A Little Love, a Little Learning.

Nina Bawden’s Walking Naked.

Nina Bawden’s The Ice House (a hardcover, not the Virago pictured below).

Rachel Ferguson’s The Brontes Went to Woolworths.

Barbara Comyns’s Who Was Changed and Who Was Not.

The Luxury of Long, Slow Reads

On the internet, we hustle to meet our goals. We participate in the Goodreads challenge (we “promise” to read a self-imposed number of books  and Goodreads tracks our progress), learn the speed of our reading on Kindles (can we speed up?), and keep pace with innumerable book groups.

Sometimes we forget the luxury of long, slow reads.   My computer calendar pops up to dictate my reading progress, but not even the calendar gods could convince me to finish Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil.   Before the distractions of the internet, I would have slogged through it anyway because I expected less amusement. In those days I was able to finish War and Peace in a week and Trollope’s six-book Palliser series in six weeks.  I have reread these brilliant, unputdownable classics with pleasure, but now the experience is different because electronic devices split my attention and I tend to read multiple books in the same time period.  Pity the poor blogger who writes that he/she has given up long books because they get in the way of reviewing a set number of books at his/her blog.  That strikes me as very wrong.

And so I was very interested in Erin Bartnett’s article in Electric Literature, “Reading a Book Takes Time—Deal With It.”  She criticizes the start-up companies that tailor books to  your commute time.  She writes,

Serial Box turns the book into a quick, consumable, commute-sized commodity: each “episode” in the serial season is set up so it only takes about 40 minutes to read, in order to line up with the average back-and-forth commute time. As Molly Barton, one of the founders of Serial Box, told Vox: “I was aware that for many people, reading a book can feel rather slow and daunting compared to other media forms at this point. It’s harder to fit into your life.”

I say malarkey. You only have 40 minutes to read a book? Get a bookmark! Don’t worry — the book will still be there when you get back. Reading is supposed to be slow. And it’s okay if it’s daunting. Books take a long time to write, and the good ones deserve more than a morning commute time to fully digest and understand. Books also have the capacity to take you out of time and space and make you miss your subway stop, and that’s a good thing, too. The right story gives us permission to get lost when we need to. Indeed, Constance Grady reported the Serial Box books she’s read did not enchant: “I couldn’t lie on the beach and lose myself in it because it actively did not want me to do so.” Is our obsession with hurrying up getting in the way of our having fun?

Serial Box is an outrageous attack on the art of reading, and, yes, hurrying up does get in our way.   I agree with Bartnett:  get a bookmark!

The long read is still alive, I learned from Alex Clark’s brilliant essay in The Guardian, “I’m going back to Proust this August. The truly long read is a summer treat.”  She writes,

Another summer, and another assault on the unscaled mountains of literature. Having woefully failed at 2017’s attempt on Henry James, who fell foul of a sudden addiction to his sleuthier cousin PD, I’m once again preparing to tackle Proust, courtesy of a 50th birthday present of a beautiful boxed set of In Search of Lost Time. Thank God I shan’t be doing it alone, but in the company of novelist Susan Hill, who explained in last week’s Spectator Diary that, having got so far and no further on multiple previous occasions, she too was going back in. She is now on Book 5, and I salute her.

What a wonderful summer reading plan!

I declared the summer of 2018 my summer of science fiction but it has been the summer of Trollope and P. G. Wodehouse. And I wouldn’t trade this summer for my original plan.

Have you met your goals this summer?   Have you changed them?  And are you reading long or short?