Much Disagreement About Agreement

About a week ago, everyone in my neighborhood received this green postcard from the newly opened Huntington Learning Center. Very eye-catching.

Truth be told, normal people probably tossed it right into the recycle bin. But because I read anything and everything of/or related to education, I flipped over the card.  And I proceeded to do a little dance. Because I knew I had a blog.

Here is the back of the card. Can you spot the error?

The scene of the crime!

What? What do you mean you don’t see it?

Don’t worry, you are not alone. Almost no-one catches this error. In fact, it has gotten so that this “error” isn’t really considered an error at all. So today’s “Who-Gives-A Crap” moment is brought to you courtesy of this twit.

For those of you who are still looking at the postcard going: “I still don’t see the problem,” don’t be ashamed.

The problem is in the sentence:

Help your child learn skills they’ll use all year.

The issue is that “child” is singular. How many kids? Unless you also have a secret love-child unbeknownst to your wife, the answer is one.

But the folks at Huntington linked that singular child to the pronoun “they.”

Whaaaat? Where did all those extra kids come from? I thought there was only one kid.

To be sure, a person can deploy the “singular-they” in his or her speech, and it will likely pass without objection. People do this all the time. Spoken language is more casual than written language because of the speed at which we speak. We can forgive our newscasters, our reality TV hosts, our Snookis.

(We can forgive Snooki, right?)

But careful writers try to avoid using the “singular-they” whenever possible.

Looking for linguistic affirmation, I went over to the folks at Let’s eat, Grandma’ or ‘Let’s eat Grandma’: Grammar Saves Lives’ on Facebook to see if I might get some help from the moderators there.

I asked someone – anyone – to show me a page from a Style Book that says it is correct – even acceptable – to use this construction. Mike Workman showed up at Grandma’s and declared:

I figured someone might say language is always changing and the non-gender specific use of the word “they” is just easier. It sounds more natural, and we don’t have to fuss with any of that “he/she” stuff. But I didn’t expect someone to tell me that “most style guides accept ‘they’ as a gender neutral collective noun that could also be used as a singular noun.”

Whaaaaat?

Throughout the thread, Mike kept insisting that it was fine to use “singular-they.” He quoted famous authors who had done so from Shakespeare all the way up to the 1930’s. I gritted my teeth. To me, all that meant was that famous, dead authors made errors that, sadly, went into their books. (It seemed unfortunate that those great authors didn’t have better copy editors.)

Every time Mike said it was okay to use the “singular-they,” I kept thinking: Eating with our hands seemed more natural than using cutlery until someone taught us how to use forks and knives, no? I felt like I was getting linguistic advice from a Deadhead who had eaten way too many ‘shrooms. His message seemed to be: “Oh go ahead, it’s all right – nobody cares – do whatever you want, dude!”

So I went looking for these sources to which Mike was referring. (Because I am that geeky.)

And, frankly, because I was scared that I have been teaching it wrong.

And then, Charles Young showed up, my knight in shining armor. Or my Grammar Geek in white underpants. It didn’t matter. He swooped in to rescue me. He parried Mike Workman with his linguistic sword:

Okay, so I didn’t totally understand Charles, but I knew he was trying to agree with me. In a really fancy way.

Fifty comments later, Mike and Charles were having a serious cyber fist-fight. Each man was equally passionate about his (their?) love for me feelings about the use of “singular-they.” One man said, “Yea!” The other said, “Absolutely no friggin’ way.”

I figured things would die down at Grandma’s. I went to bed. And then I went away for the entire weekend. And when I came home, I saw the thread was still going strong!

At post 192, people were beginning to wonder if the thread would ever end. I thought I might be blocked from the group for causing such dissension among the ranks.

It was a runaway train. I had to try to stop it.

I left “Grandma’s” again, thinking: What is an English adjunct to do? I mean, I understand Mike’s point. The whole he/she thing is really cumbersome, and didn’t the lucky recipients of those shiny green postcards completely understand the intended meaning? I mean, we knew what we were being offered, right? So what’s the harm?

Well, here’s my issue. This place offers tutoring for SAT testing. And, as of today, if the following fill-in-the blank question showed up on the SATs —

Help your child learn skills ______ will use all year long.

— and the possible choices were:

(A) he

(B) they

(C) he or she

(D) who friggin’ cares?

as it stands right now, choice (A) would be considered sexist; (B) would be considered an example of  poor agreement, and (C) would be considered the correct answer. Although I recognize, at this point, most of you are leaning strongly toward choice (D).

I discussed this with two Advanced Placement high school English teachers and Most Excellent College Department Chairperson: a veritable holy trinity of English educators. And while Mike kept insisting the practice of using “they” is “widely accepted,” I was unable to find one single Style Book that stated it was “grammatically correct” to use this construction in formal essay writing.

I mean, some of us have to teach Comp-101. We have to explain the rules.

The nuances of language are complicated. It isn’t easy to master all these rules, especially the ones that feel archaic and forced. Come September, I am going to explain to my students that they need to have a speaking vocabulary and a writing vocabulary. I am going to try to convince them that we have to be poly-lingual. We need to know how to speak one way to friends and another way to teachers. We may write one way in texts, but (hopefully) that is different from the way we correspond to our parents and educators. On Twitter we have to Tweet it in under 140 characters, which requires a lot of creative abbreviation that would not be acceptable in a formal paper. Ever. The reality is, each of us needs to be literate in every one of these vocabularies (and others, too). We all need to be able to move between these worlds effortlessly and with expertise.

Call me old-fashioned, but until the folks at the Modern Language Association tell me otherwise, “singular-they” shall be considered sloppy usage.

Excited by my epiphany, I decided to pop in to “Grandma’s” and – to my horror – the thread was still going strong with over 400 comments! And even though I totally wanted some of the cookies that I knew were baking in the oven, I turned my back on “Grandma’s” house. It was getting ugly in there. I’m telling you, they were bringing out the Bazookas. And I don’t mean the bubble gum. Who’da thunk I’d get so much mileage outta dat ‘they’ question?

Do I need to tell the folks at The Huntington Learning Center about this? And seriously, what do you think they’ll say? Did anyone even make it to the bottom of this post?

Tweet this Twit @rasjacobson

87 responses to “Much Disagreement About Agreement

  1. I made it to the bottom🙂

  2. Ummmm….Renee – I think you made a mistake in your quote “Help your child learn skills they’ll learn all year.” Don’t you mean “…skills they’ll use all year” not learn all year? Perhaps you AND Huntington both just needed a cup of coffee before you sat down to write?🙂

  3. This error in written material has always bothered me. Someone has to care about grammar. People consistently us forms such as, “”between you and I” and think it is perfectly correct. I understand your rant; we can use this construction in informal speech but it is wrong, especially in a written card that purports to be able to teach students. You were right to point it out.

    • Well, to be fair… I haven’t pointed it out. I have only written about it here. I hear this error made so often that I have started to wonder if it is even a mistake at all. It is my understanding that in broadcasting, the “singular-they” in widely accepted, but it is not in formal essay writing.

      So I’m wondering, do I need to say something? This place is charging to teach students to pass standardized tests. And the testing is costly.

  4. “Or my Grammar Geek in white underpants.” Ha! I love this line. I was also glad to read that you didn’t understand Charles. I was beginning to feel like a Huntington employee. I love the idea that we need to be poly-lingual. I love even more that you incited a grammar battle at “Grandma’s” house. As my great-grandad used to say, “Who dat dare say who dere when I say who dere?”

    • Wendy, if you click on that link, you will see how nasty the battle became. I felt terrible. And all over a (seemingly) simple grammar question.

      I think I might be in love with your grand-dad. You all knew what he meant, right?😉

      • Elizabeth Platz

        Mike Workman did eventually get blocked from the group for harassing over his point of view – we usually to be a friendly group and agree to disagree over contentious issues like this one where there really is no right answer.

      • Hi Elizabeth: Thanks for popping over from Grandma’s. I did feel terrible about how my innocent question turned into an out and out war. Grandma’s is generally a lovely place for tea, and I love all her kitties.

        There are a lot of very smart and funny people hanging around there.

        Thank you for doing what was probably in the best interest of the group. You know, the people who like to hang out and eat cookies.😉

  5. Please tell Huntington about this! These public errors drive me crazy, and I would love to see his/her/their response.

    • How about you tell Huntington. I’ve already pissed off Wegmans, a sushi place, and Massage Envy. It’s getting so a girl can’t go anywhere any more.

      I should just walk around with my eyes closed.

      I realize I would bump into a lot of stuff, but still.

  6. blackwatertown

    The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Next – So that was you, was it? Going on the basis of the row you’ve stirred up anyway.
    I’ll say two things.
    1. I’d go for option 3 if necessary, but I’d prefer to step back a little and rephrase it like this: “Help your children learn skills they’ll use all year.”
    It can be either the many kids in your own family – or the greater number of kids in the community.
    2. But what about the other error? “We can improve your child’s skills, confidence, and motivation.”
    Surely no need for the comma after the word confidence, is there?

    • I had a much longer post where I discussed how it is always better to avoid this construction. And how easy it would have been for the folks at HLC to have just gone full-blown plural, as you suggest. So simple.

      Hubby said my post was too long. I lost him at “singular-they.” So I cut out an entire paragraph. And a lot of screen shots. And I saw that construction with the comma. I simply cannot take on another battle. You would have to fly across the pond to offer support.😉

    • The comma after “confidence” is often called the Oxford comma, and it was a standard practice to consistently join all the items in a list. Journalists dropped it as “unnecessary” to save space in a newspaper column. Now, most people consider it unnecessary — but those people are also content with singular they, I think. The last time I checked, MLA and Chicago were both comfortable with or without the last comma. (Just to briefly answer the question!)

    • I’m with blackwatertown…change “child” to “children” and be done with it!

      Wendy

  7. I can’t stand that norm either. Just do everyone a favor and change the noun to plural, and everyone is happy. Or I will be, and isn’t that the point.

    • Jess, I agree wholeheartedly! And folks say it all the time. But until the MLA says it is so, I can’t allow that construction in formal essays because I would be doing a disservice to my students by letting it slip past. It’s wrong. For now, anyway.

      (*kicks the dirt*) Aw shucks.

  8. I think in most cases this error could probably be overlooked. It matters here because of the source. It helps to learn grammar from someone who knows grammar.

    What did I really get out of this blog?

    You sang in a band????

  9. I made it to the bottom of your post even though I was already in agreement with you at the start. Thank you for posting this.

  10. Great post, Renee! I completely agree with you, but I’m a former lit/writing prof, and very picky about using written grammar correctly. I love the way you approach it with your students: poly-lingual. It’s an excellent point, because while it’s easy to distinguish speaking and writing as having different rules, the Twitter/Facebook/texting generation reads and writes in so many different environments. I still love the book title “Eats Shoots and Leaves.”

    • Hi K.B.:

      I think we’re going to have to have that discussion on day 2 (after the diagnostic!), and I will hope that will get them to understand that I’m not trying to get them to always be a slave to “The Rules,” but introduce to them that they need to understand the needs of their audience.

      I love Eats Shoots & Leaves – wish I wrote it!

  11. Here’s another grammar check for you:

    If Huntington was/were selling me something besides learning I wouldn’t care. But these folks are in the business of teaching grammar to kids. They need to know they goofed. They would want to know.

    I love how this topic generated so much interest and debate. And I love how you were able to walk away from it and enjoy your weekend.

    • Believe it or not, I was able to enjoy TWO weekends. I write as quickly as a turtle walks.

      I’m kind of hoping someone from Huntington will find me.

      Don’t they have screeners? My grocery store found me. Oh wait, the same person who busted me on that has already commented on this thread. I’m sure she’s on it.😉

  12. I read it through to the end! You were in the right. I had a coworker who was employed by a different, but equally popular, learning center when she first graduated from college. From her tales, I wouldn’t be inclined to use their services.

  13. Wow. I didnt notice the error why does stuff and things bother u thems just words rite

  14. I am a regular at Grandma’s and found the entire exchange fascinating. Since it was obvious Renee was headed to the books and her learned colleagues for further research and the two gentlemen mentioned above were not going to come to any agreement, I decided to go my own way. I am a simple guy and I decided to devise my own test to see how well the singular “they worked.” I tried constructing various sentences using it in an attempt to see how well it worked. Hmmmm, let’s see.

    “Bob bought a new car and they really liked it, in fact they have a big smile on his face every time they drive it. ”

    Nope, that doesn’t look good nor does it sound right when spoken.

    “Mike thinks they is right but Charles believes that they is right. I think that they are unwilling to compromise”

    Nope again.

    “Betty bought a new bra. I think they is beautiful.”

    Nope yet again. Too much room for error. Is Betty beautiful as in they = her? Is the bra beautiful as in they = it? Or are they beautiful as in they = well, ummm, “them”.

    Language does change over time, but math does not. Singular and plural denote numbers and are designed to make it clear whether we are discussing the one or the many. Let’s hope we never lose clarity in writing for the sake of making it easier. Let us also hope that laziness and convenience in the spoken word does not become the rule of the day for the written word.

    • RobT: Things improved dramatically when you showed up. Any time someone is willing to make a bra joke, things generally get better. Or worse.😉

      But for real, Mike was arguing for this:

      “Everyone should grab their handbags because we won’t be coming back to the room.”

      Technically, this is wrong. “Everyone” takes a singular pronoun. Everyone should grab his or her handbag… And I suppose a guy could have a handbag. We wouldn’t want to be sexist about it. So I actually do not disagree with using the “singular-they” in those types of constructions; in fact, one could argue “they” is often a better choice. Problem is, it isn’t condoned. Yet.

      • You are correct, that is at the heart of what he was trying to say. Unfortunate that he found it necessary to try make his point in the odd way he did. By the way, even though that is what he meant, he would have constructed my first sentence as “You are correct, that is at the heart of what they [Mike] was trying to say. That type of example was given in nearly every post he made. That construction is not in line with the example you gave and it is not more clear communication.

        So much is lost when one feels compelled to win at all costs and take an all or nothing approach. Too often one cannot have all and will end up with nothing.

      • My position is not at all represented above by Renée. Try:

        “Everyone should grab their coat because they may not be coming back to the room.”

        Technically, this is indeed acceptable usage. Not what Renée nor RobT would support, but it is acceptable usage for MOST.

      • Mike! I’m glad that you showed up, actually. I don’t know if you read the entire thread, but I don’t disagree with you. At all. I just can’t teach this as it is not yet accepted in any Style guides. And I looked. Everywhere. Even the newest 2010 Chicago does not accept it, as you had suggested.

        If you look at the rest of the postcard – in the teeny-tiny letters, you can see, they switched to the singular pronoun-singular antecedent construction, so I was questioning the lack of continuity.

  15. LOL, I skipped to the bottom of the post.

    Too many technicalities – brain overload. Sorry.

  16. Renee,
    It was fun to read and occasionally participate in your ‘Grandma’ thread. Even though I have published material and books myself, by reading other people’s work or comments, there is always something new to be learned.

    Back in the 50s, the 1950s in Germany, our English teacher pounded the rules in our head, ‘he, she, it’ singular, with ‘they’ in plural. It was easy for us to understand since those rules are the same in the German language, ‘er, sie, es’ singular and plural ‘sie.’ However, plural ‘sie’ not to be confused with the singular ‘sie.’ The content of a sentence reveals whether it is a group of people/things or one of something.

    Hope to have more fun with all at ‘Grandma.’

    • Ursula:

      Thank you for visiting. Hopefully, you could tell that I was struggling to find some kind of authenticity to back up Mike’s statements. Also, I was trying – desperately – to make sure that I wasn’t teaching something incorrectly. I like to consider myself an open mind, and I like to learn new things – every day. I’m not always the teacher, you know. Most days, I’m the twit!😉

      That is why I posed the question in the first place. I know things have loosened up considerably in the world of broadcast journalism, but I was specifically asking about formal essay-writing. I need to be able to teach my students the rules, make sure they know ’em, and then let them break ’em!😉

  17. I made it to the bottom of your post and I found it delightful.

    Do I think you should tell the PR department at the Huntington Learning Center about their grammatical gaff? Sure. We, the lingustically observant, owe it to our disappearing-as-we-speak language to at least point out errors we encounter (in as humble a way possible). You are one small voice against a sea of green post cards, but you could make a difference!

  18. I think the enemy may be right on this one or at least logical. Why in English (no other language does this) must we use a singular verb for a plural subject and as plural verb for
    a singular subject? It does not make sense to people that speak Spanish, French or Italian or Latin. I think the gender argument has value for using” they”. (period outside quote- British version – because the sentence does not end within the quotation marks: see Eats, Shoots & Leaves). “They” as a gender neutral pronoun has become necessary because of Communism, Feminism and the Hollywood Immoralists. ” They” is more functional than the cumbersome he/she or she/he and him/her or her/him. I did not underline the title of the book that someone sent me because my computer does not allow this .

    • Carl, I love how you integrate all you have learned from EATS SHOOTS & LEAVES in nearly every post. And you are correct. We can neither underline nor italicize, either of which would be considered correct to indicate the title of a book, which is why I have taken to doing it this way!

      And I wholeheartedly agree with you.

      We have a perfectly good gender neutral pronoun (they), and yet we continue to stick with the formal (and awkward he/she construction). That said, I can’t allow my students to use this construction because it is technically wrong/grammatically incorrect and, by extension, could negatively impact my students in future courses, exams or even employment!

  19. Christine Cattell

    As a participant in the Monster Marathon Comment Thread on Facebook, and an oldtimer at ‘Let’s Eat Grandma’ I too thought Renee’s question to be straightforward and required a simple answer. Was I ever wrong!! However, the tide finally changed, people went back to having fun, and now the question is: DOES Charles Young wear white underpants??

  20. You are correct, but I believe this fight is lost. For write or wrong (See what I did there?), the majority always wins out on usage eventually. The lack of a neuter gender in English means the correct phrasing will be considered sexist or non-inclusive. Paid editors at the big houses now encourage “they” in lieu of a singular for usage such as this.

    • PS: Did you catch the grammatical error I inadvertently just made?

      • Hi Michael:
        Please, please don’t tell me it has to do with singulars.😉

      • Michael, your use of “write or wrong” was clearly not inadvertent and I assume you intended a pun, so perhaps you should share the inadvertent error. A couple of centuries ago, when I was being schooled, I learnt to say “Rightly or wrongly, …” rather than “For right or wrong, …”; if that’s not your error either, I abandon the challenge.

        Putting your error aside, I’d like to hear comments regarding the use of “it”, “it” and “its” to replace “they”, “them” and “their” or “theirs”. For decades, a single child of unknown gender was referred to as “it”, as were an animal (often one of apparent gender) and an inanimate object; why not apply the same approach when discussing a student, a teacher, a Principal, a gymnast, etc.?

  21. I am sorry I did not get to read ALL of this (and I did read it all) until a few minutes ago. Busy day. You always reassure me that I am not alone in my interest or emphasis on the rules of English. The comment about spelling and speech took me back to my years of teaching elementary children. I used to tell them, “You can misspell when you speak, but not when you write.” It usually took them a few minutes to pick up on that one.

    • “You can misspell when you speak, but not when you write.”

      I love that line. I don’t think college students will appreciate its snark factor, but I have internalized it, so it might come out at some point. You know, like, accidentally.😉

  22. “Whaaaat? Where did all those extra kids come from?”

    Ha! I love that.

    I speak for myself and also on behalf of every other editor I know: keep fighting the good fight on the agreement topic. Otherwise, one day all grammar will go out the door, and people will be allowed to say things like “I should have RAN to the store” and other such nonsense.

    Thanks for stopping by 36×37 today. I’m very pleased to meet you, too!

  23. Renée has yet to note that the Facebook group thread was never about preference but from the start was about acceptable use. My position, also yet to be mentioned here:

    I know that it does not matter how many scholarly papers by linguistic professors were presented, complete with footnotes, there will continue to be some that will never agree that using the word “they” also as a singular pronoun is acceptable usage.

    They [each individual and/or others] are entitled to their preferences and opinions. The fact remains that most today consider using the word “they” also as a singular pronoun as acceptable usage.

    “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts.” ~Pat Moynihan (1927–2003)

    More later…

    • Mike, I had so many screen shots of so many things you said. I simply couldn’t put them all in. For brevity sake, I tried to keep things short. As I said, I lost my husband at “pronoun.” There are people here – even people from the group – who admit that we are probably heading down that path. My only concern was should I be teaching it.

      Final answer: No, I should not.

      And The Huntington Learning Center, as a venue that purports to help students prepare for STANDARDIZED tests (which go by current rules of grammar in agreed upon by current style guides) probably should not use that kind of grammar either.

      • The question at the Facebook group thread and here has always focused on a single line on that card: “Help your child learn skills they’ll use all year long.” And the question was never on preferred use but rather on acceptable use.

        They [Renée] asked: Is it acceptable use?

        Final answer: Yes, it is.

        Then they [Renée] asked if they [Renée] should contact Huntington about their [Huntington] grammar.

        Final answer: No, they [Renée] should not. They [Huntington] are using the “singular they” as it is used by most today in the USA.

        Now they [Renée] further ask: Should they [Renée] be teaching it?

        Final answer: They [Renée] can and should note that the usage standards have varied on this issue and then state their [Renée] preference. Please also note that they [Renée] would mark it as incorrect but that some newspaper editors will dock the paycheck of those that don’t exclusively use gender-neutral language in their [singular] submitted copy.

        And they [a student] will thus then be better educated.

  24. I resisted using ‘they’ for a very long time, but I now accept that it’s become common enough to be correct, and it has its uses.

  25. I was actually surprised that the ad got so many of them right (e.g. your child from being his or her best). I’d let them know.

    I widely accept that language is changing. In many ways, I encourage it. English has always been a dynamic language. Try reading Old English, as I know you know.

    Still, I like rules. I like following them because it makes breaking them more fun. Often it’s easier to use plurals (eg. children/their) than deal with this whole singular/gender specific problem.

    Great post! By the way, stop by my blog today. You won The Grand Prize! (i.e. Me! My blog!)

    • I cannot believe I am the big winner at your blog. Just emailed you. Linky-love doesn’t seem to be working, so I only found out because I read you the moment you post.😉 I am beyond thrilled. I love your Random Number Generator. Is that an app? I would like to use that in my class next fall.

      So all the hims and hers feel included.

      I like breakin’ dem rules, too.

      But you already knew that, right?

      I knew that you did.😉

  26. I have much forgiveness in my heart for mistakes made while people are speaking. It is sometimes hard to achieve grammar perfection when you’re talking – especially if there are kids hanging off your legs or you’re drinking wine. Or both.

    But when something will be in print (whether it’s a formal essay or a billboard or a pamphlet advertising EDUCATION???) the words should be edited by someone who knows better.

    Yep. Incorrect pronoun agreement drives. me. batty.

    As does “myself” used incorrectly.

    But the one that’s currently under my skin?

    Lay.

    As in “go lay down.” “I was laying down with him.” “I just need to lay down for a minute.”

    I can’t get through a day without hearing it or reading it.

    I think very few people conjugate To Lie and To Lay correctly these days.

    I can appreciate that it is confusing (what with the past tense of To Lie being “lay” and all…)

    But I can’t take it when even the English teachers I know don’t get it right.

    What do you think? Does this one bug you at all?

    • I’m sorry, did you say something? I was laying down.

      Nails. On. The. Chalkboard.

      But guess what? That means you are a pedantic prescriptivist, too.

      i learned that at Grandma’s.

      (I think it is code for “bitch.”)😉

    • Was this UK-defined misuse of ‘lay’ not the accepted standard in the USA? I recall a guest (perhaps a linguist) at an Oprah show, who set me right regarding many expressions that I’d come to accept as the ‘American way’; according to her they were grammatically incorrect, so in most such cases, UK and USA rules were identical and the apparent ‘American way’ was the ‘erroneous American way’.

  27. I find the chronic misuse of MYSELF infinitely more annoying than they/he/she bestiality. ;} (Really? How often does one get to use [or misuse] THAT word?) I was relieved Oprah decided to retire her show around the fifty-first time she said, “It was important to myself that…” SAY IT WOMAN! YOU KNOW YOU WANT TO. ME, ME, ME, ME, ME, ME, ME!

    I find I have become more liberal about accepting the evolution of English grammar since I joined grammar groups on Facebook. I knew I had holes in my knowledge and I am still learning. I adore debates over usage. The most important thing I learned is that usage, in the end, governs changes to rules. This means that Oprah will be correct some day (I suppose that is why she is OPRAH) and I will remain a whinging guttersnipe bemoaning my lot in life.

    It is important to remember good manners when posting on any Facebook page (especially a page that harbors an innocent looking, cookie baking, tea serving, limb borrowing, cannibalistic Grandma). But (for MW), I was happy to see the passion we all have for our native or adopted language. Debate is good. Civil debate is even better. We don’t have the ability to hear the tone of someone’s voice, so it is critical to watch for indications that lines are being crossed. It takes a degree of finesse that is learned over time.

    And (for MW) finally, I must applaud Renee for a well written blog, for being one of the voices of reason on her thread, and for being involved enough in her profession to ask a very good question and then research her answer after receiving input. You can teach me any time! I am subscribing to your blog. You had me at, “Much Disagreement About Agreement.” Grandma T

  28. Great post! I get rather irritated by these things, too, especially since it’s so blatantly wrong. I work at the Undergrad Writing Center at my school where my main job is helping ESL students hone their English grammar skills, and even most of them know that singular-they is wrong (and if they don’t, when I explain the rule to them they go “oh, right!” and fix it).

    Also, the problem I’m seeing with some of the arguments made in that Facebook thread is using authors of fiction to prove their point. Fiction writers can get away with breaking grammar rules by calling it “personal style” (much like how we can get away with it in speech). Academic writers can’t, because they have to follow specific style guides, and most style guides still frown upon singular-they.

    • lmmixer:

      Where is the LIKE button on WordPress?

      That is what I was trying to say to MW: I know that fiction writers do this – fiction writers, novelists – they can get away with breaking the rules. Why Because they can. (See what I did there? It’s a fragment. But I did it intentionally.)

      Students in Comp-101 courses need to know the rules of academic writing which will serve them across disciplines. And – let’s face it – many of them don’t come to college with these skills in the first place.

  29. “He quoted famous authors who had done so from Shakespeare all the way up to the 1930′s. I gritted my teeth. To me, all that meant was that famous, dead authors made errors that, sadly, went into their books.”

    Well, to catch the “error”, Shakespeare would have needed a copy-editor from the distant future, since no one before the 18th century ever thought to object to this particular “grammatical error”. The rule originates with a grammarian (Anne Fisher) in the mid-1700s who thought English could be improved by requiring strict pronoun agreement, in contradiction to centuries of usage. It took it another century or so to finds its way into schoolbooks, and become a hard and fast “absolute” rule, at least for persons who encountered the arbitrary, constructed rule.

    Imagine this: take any particular, undisputed rule of grammar, something everyone knows… something where, if you question 1000 random native speakers of the English language, every single one of them will say it’s completely grammatical. Imagine that, in the year 2300 or so, some writer imagines they can improve the language by changing this rule. Then, maybe, in 2500, the rule has percolated out, and future copy editors everywhere know that everyone who misuses this rule in 2500, along with everyone in the history of the English language up to 2300 when the rule was invented was also “wrong”.

    Oh well, that’s all I have. I need to get some sleep, since my family is dropping by tomorrow. I plan to fix it lunch when it arrives.

  30. Renée, I certainly enjoyed your jocular handling of the subject and its accompanying dramatisation. I recommend that anyone wishing to review the reality, use your link for a personal examination of what transpired.

    As another pedant, I’d love to know why you chose to change “‘Let’s eat Grandma!’ or ‘Let’s eat, Grandma!’ Punctuation saves lives.” to “‘Let’s eat, Grandma’ or ‘Let’s eat Grandma’: Grammar Saves Lives’”; I noted that the correct link was applied and do see the tendency toward title case, but miss the rest.

    I share the view of those who, albeit grudgingly, accept that the battle to keep plural pronouns away from singular antecedents, is virtually lost already; I let it ride when gender is unknown and not otherwise.

    I’m not prescriptivist enough to reject the rational evolution of English, but in support of those whose mantra is “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”, I don’t see the benefit of the present evolution, which seems to be hell-bent on changing the entire language quickly enough to ensure that grandparents (not to speak of great grandparents) fail to understand or be understood by their grandchildren. Isn’t this area of communication bad enough already?

    One need only try some Old English to appreciate what might result in a far shorter time-frame.

    • “As another pedant, I’d love to know why you chose to change “‘Let’s eat Grandma!’ or ‘Let’s eat, Grandma!’ Punctuation saves lives.” to “‘Let’s eat, Grandma’ or ‘Let’s eat Grandma’: Grammar Saves Lives’”; I noted that the correct link was applied and do see the tendency toward title case, but miss the rest.”

      Completely an error, my dear, Lex.

      And I would change it, but I am so very tired. Perhaps in the morning.😉

  31. I’m late to the party, but I think I’ve got a few cents to toss in:

    1. I made it to the end (did you ever doubt it?😉 )

    2. I understood Charles Young, as I understand the long-standing animosity between prescriptivists (prescribe proper usage) and descriptivists (describe actual usage). Charles was being a bit dismissive of a valid point. Mike Workman was being equally dismissive of valid points in his comments here. I didn’t read – nor will I read – the thread on Facebook. Even I have limits!😉

    3. English has a history of shifting plural pronouns towards singular. ‘You’ used to be only plural. It eventually replaced ‘thou’ for the singular. Then there’s the royal ‘We’, but also the slang British usage of using ‘us’ instead of ‘me’: “Give us a kiss, love!”

    4. ” ‘They’ as a gender neutral pronoun has become necessary because of Communism, Feminism and the Hollywood Immoralists.” I hope this was offered as tongue-in-cheek comic relief because it’s not accurate. English speakers long have had tension deciding between agreement in number with agreement in gender. The use of the generic ‘he’ is not satisfactory because it’s too clearly associated with the male gender. It feels wrong. ‘They’ is unsatisfactory because it doesn’t agree in number.

    We chose gender anonymity over number agreement long before communism, feminism, or Hollywood existed.

    5. Last point, I promise!🙂 It’s common, acceptable usage IN SPOKEN LANGUAGE. This does not mean that it is presently acceptable in ACADEMIC WRITTEN LANGUAGE. (Yes, I’m yelling.) We simply don’t have in our written language the contextual cues that we have in speaking to reduce ambiguity, so in our writing, we must follow the rules more carefully in order to retain precision and clarity.

    Okay, who made it to the end of this comment?🙂

  32. Oh yeah. I lied. There is a #6. Contact Huntington.

  33. I did! They were underwhelmed!

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