A Monday Morning Paradigm Shift

estimated read time: 3 minutes

I learned a new word this morning.

pedant: a person who annoys other people by correcting small errors and giving too much attention to minor details

Oh.

You mean, my openly hostile response to the disappearance of the Oxford comma isn’t charming? My habit of editing billboards aloud on road trips isn’t adorable? My propensity to rearrange sentences beyond all reason to avoid ending them with a preposition isn’t brave and pure?

Fine then. I’m a pedant. (It rhymes with peasant for those of you who are anxious to add the word to your personal repertoire.)

But let me ask this: Who defines errors as “small,” and who decides which details are “minor”? 

Yesterday, a friend posted on Facebook a Washington Post piece titled, “Sorry, grammar nerds. The singular ‘they’ has been declared Word of the Year.”  My response to her post was a not-so-subtle mixture of defiance and abhorrence: “No! No no no no no! Unacceptable!” (Aren’t I cute?)

“Why,” I wailed to myself, “must we continue to pander to laziness? Is it really that difficult to type ‘he or she’ and enjoy a bit of noun-pronoun agreement? No! It’s not! Mrs. Lucky is spinning in her grave right now!” (Mrs. Lucky was a high school English teacher of mine. I don’t even know if she’s dead.)

You’re rolling your eyes at me right now, aren’t you? Who cares, right? To you, maybe this shift seems like no big deal. Well, to me, it’s a huge deal, because I care about words and the way we combine them into sentences and the way those sentences shape our world.

Plus, a singular they is just plain wrong. 

Okay, maybe it’s decidedly pedant-ish to have a heart attack over such a small detail. So, I’m an annoying nerd. I get it. But hear me out, because this is where it gets really interesting.

This morning, I actually read the article. (Pro-tip: Never, ever, ever comment on an article based on the headline alone.) It’s a fascinating and entertaining piece, even for the non-nerdy among us, so it’s worth a full read, but here’s the gist of the they thing:

“It’s a way of identifying something that’s going on in the language which ties to issues of gender identity and speaks to other ways that people are using language to express themselves and present their identity.

The Post’s style guide ratified this usage last month, which caused some grammar pedants to shriek. But as Post copy editor Bill Walsh explained, the singular they is “the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun.”

Oh.

In the interest of authenticity, I’m going to confess to you that I don’t fully understand why someone wouldn’t want to be labeled as he or she. I’m a 45-year-old, reasonably liberal (a phrase several people in my life would label oxymoronic), let’s-hug-it-out, sorta’ intellectual, definitely empathic woman who still has moments of “Wait… what?” I actually understand transgenderism (as much as I can as someone who isn’t transgender). But not wanting to be labeled as either gender? To the point that it’s important to adopt a gender-neutral pronoun? I can’t quite wrap my head around that. But just because I don’t understand it doesn’t mean I get to dismiss it.

Before I read the Post article, I pitched a fit about the earth-shattering grammatical ramifications of the singular they. But now that I’ve detached that pronoun from a rule and reattached it to human beings, it’s an easier shift to make. It’s a small thing, really (grammatically, not sociologically).

Maybe you had the opposite experience, though. Maybe, to you, the singular they was a stupid thing to have a tantrum over—until you realized why style guides are being changed. It’s not because “everyone already uses it that way anyway” (like 2013’s nod to using literally figuratively); it’s because it’s a viable alternative for people who don’t identify with other available pronouns. Maybe, to you, that feels ridiculous or wrong.

Which prompts me to ask again who defines errors as “small,” and who defines which details are “minor”?

Pedancy is in the eye of the beholder, eh?

Note: If you’re someone whose gender is non-binary, and if I’ve said something inappropriate and/or hurtful, please know it’s unintentional and I want to be corrected. If you’re offended by the idea of non-binary gender, I ask that you be cautious in your responses to this post. There’s a lot to learn about gender identity (which is completely and wholly different from sexuality identity), and I hope we can adopt a posture of curiosity rather than superiority.

2 Comments

  1. Mike Jones   •  

    Language is a topic I come back to over and over. What follows is my string of thoughts inspired by your post. Much of it you probably already know or have heard. It’s just me sharing and ranting, and is not intended as any criticism of your points:

    Pedant and pedantic are favorite words in my household. My nine-year-old uses them frequently, and invariably someone has to ask him what the heck they mean.

    I have always thought I was very open-minded and liberal about gender identity issues (trans-gender, gender fluidity, etc), but it is only through some extensive reading and discussion in the last year that I’ve come to realize how uninformed and clueless I have been (and still am). At least now I know enough to know when I’m in over my head. To me, gender-neutral, singular “they” is a Godsend. I know “he or she” is simple, but it isn’t inclusive and it is occasionally clunky. And even when I know they prefer it (see how I started a sentence with a conjunction there?), I abhor the use of “ze” and “zir” and other constructions as gender-neutral pronouns, because my mind and tongue refuse to wrap around them.

    By the way, I know we were taught otherwise, but I LOVE starting sentences with conjunctions, especially “and” or “but”.

    And, as in my last sentence, I’m adamant that punctuation can go inside or outside the quotation marks, and the exact placement depends on the construction of your sentence and the exact meaning. She asked, “Are we there yet?” Question mark inside. Did she say, “I refuse”? Question mark outside. No one agrees with me or seems to even care much, but I keep plugging away at this one.

    Commas, Oxford or otherwise, are amazingly useful pieces of punctuation and should be included when they are useful to clarify meaning or emphasis or nuance. They should be eliminated when they are not. I believe the Oxford comma is not necessary, but I use it almost every time I have the chance.

    A properly used semicolon is a thing of wonder.

    As for not ending on a preposition. Some stuffed shirts decided on that ages ago. The thinking was that Latin didn’t end a sentence on a preposition, and therefore, neither should English. This, despite the fact that writers and speakers in the English language have ended on prepositions for as long as we have records. Always have. Always will.

    Do you know how many words are in the English language? Over a million. And French? Just 100,000. And the reason is that France has literal language police. They have a government entity that is responsible for deciding what is and is not officially part of the French language. It is their job to protect the language from un-French influences and keep their speech pure. In comparison, English is huge and messy, and I’ve come to really like it that way. We decide on our rules of speech only after the fact and by informal announcement of people who carry no official authority. A word becomes a “real word” when enough people have used it that a book maker decides to put it in the “official” list of words. So the official rules of “proper English” are just the codification of a particular written dialect. And I’m fluent in that dialect and am happy to employ it when my writing needs to look professional, just as I start to slip into a Texas drawl whenever I go visit my family down South.

    I revel in the fluidity and the messiness of our language. And while I cringe every time I hear “supposably” or “all the sudden” or see “could of” written in a Facebook post, I also know that by the time my grandchildren (which I don’t have yet) get out of school, those will be proper, acceptable uses of the language. Common usage will make them the law of the land.

    I’ve run out of thoughts, so I’ll end it there. Thank you for writing so much and for sharing your thoughts.

  2. Kelley   •     Author

    Ohmygosh, Mike. This made me smile so big! Love, love, love.

    As you’ve likely noticed, I tend to lean quite liberal, and I, too, am amazed when I discover yet another something I didn’t know I didn’t know. (Being honest about that may very well be the hallmark of liberal thinking.) I’ve tried to use “ze” and “zir,” recently, and I don’t like ’em either. So “they” it is.

    I often begin sentences with “And.” It’s the way I think. Everything’s “and.” Even “buts” are really “ands” if you think about ’em long enough.

    I agree with “it depends” in regard to punctuation and quotation marks. Except there are actual RULES for this one, one of which you’ve illustrated quite nicely. Periods? Always, always, always inside. On this I shall own my pedancy. Even if that’s not a real word. Also, I’m a consistency nerd, so it’s either “yes” or “no” to the Oxford comma for me. Ummm… actually, it’s “yes.” Unless I’m writing for a company that shirks it, in which case my teeth ache from the grinding.

    Love me some semicolons. Trying to get used to ending sentences with prepositions. I think I’m still trying to decide if I want to sound smart or normal. Sounding both at the same time is beyond my capacity, apparently.

    I love our language and its ridiculous array of words, too. Especially when those words are used to inspire and heal. (I also enjoy an occasional sentence fragment. And by occasional, I mean frequent.)

    I better quit here, because I’m mostly rambling anyway. Thanks for reading–and for your comment–and for truly bringing a smile my way this morning.

    K

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