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?

“Irregardless” Is Not a Word

“Irregardless” is not a word.

One wonders if some experts say it to get attention.

I was irritated when the lexicographer Cory Stamp, author of the popular book Word by Word, asserted in the  New York Times  that “irregardless” is a word.  And I was bored when Penny Modra, a “grammar enthusiast”with dubious credentials,  said in a recent article in The Guardian that people will be disappointed if they want her to “solemnly rule that ‘irregardless’ is not a word.”

That’s all very cute. Really.  And doubtless it sells dictionaries, popular books, and newspapers.  But why pretend “irregardless” is acceptable?  The editors of  The New York Times and The Guardian use the correct form “regardless,” except in cute articles about grammar divas.

I am sure many of  you, like me, are traditionalists.  We want to speak and write as well as we can.  If we say “irregardless,” we have a problem:  we have a double negative.  The  prefix “in-” (“ir-” in front of the letter “r”) means “not.” The suffix “-less”also means “not.”   So “irregardless” means “having regard; heedful, mindful (of),” or “with concern to advice or warning.” It means the opposite of what you intended.  “Regardless” means “having no regard; heedless, unmindful (of)”; or an adverb meaning “without concern as to adcive or warning.”  (Ex.  They told the lie regardless.)  The word you want is “regardless.”

These days Cory Stamp and Penny Modra trawl Twitter and allow the illiterati to determine grammar and invent silly new words. I can understand reading newspapers to find new words.  But Twitter is not about words, is it?

The Roman poet Horace spoke about the introduction of new words to Latin poetry. In The Art of Poetry (Ars Poetica), Horace writes about the need for poets to choose an appropriate style for their subject matter.  And he also talks very specifically about the changes in language.  He says he is not opposed to  new words, “if they fall from a Greek source and are only slightly changed.”  Of course that  is quite a bit stricter than the liberal changes via Twitter.

Horace continues, “It always has been and always will be acceptable/ to produce a word stamped by the present mint-mark./  As leaves in forests change in the fleeting years,/ and the first leaves fall, so the old age of words dies,/and like young men new words bloom and flourish.”

Words change, but Horace wants poets to keep the Greek in mind.

Here’s Horace’s Latin:

…Licuit semperque licebit
signatum praesente nota producere nomen.
Ut silvae foliis pronos mutantur in annos,               60
prima cadunt, ita verborum vetus interit aetas,
et iuvenum ritu florent modo nata vigentque.