Some Thoughts About the Singular They

rogersgeorge on February 10th, 2018

I touched on the singular they in the past, and I recommend you follow the link if you don’t know what the singular they is. Today I ran into a usage of it that jumped out at me a little, so I thought I’d share.

First, look at the conversation in the third panel of Scott Meyer’s Basic Instructions:

Since we’re talking about spouses here, the issue of “his” or “hers” being the right word is a little stronger than it would be in a lot of other contexts. On one hand, in this context he’s talking about his wife. And on the other hand, he wants to make his statement tactfully general. And on the third hand, Scott is somewhat constrained for space, so “their” fits better than “his or her.”

Now look at panel three’s heading. Same problems. Scott doesn’t have much room, and he doesn’t know whether your spouse is male of female. So even though the topic is spouses, which is reasonably gender related, which would make “his or her” appropriate, he chose “their.”

Writing can get tricky sometimes, eh?

Subscribe to this blog's RSS feed

A little Quiz

rogersgeorge on November 10th, 2017

Scott Meyer is a pretty funny comic strip artist and writer. This recent comic made me twitch. See how many mistakes you can count. You should be able to find at least one in every panel. I counted more than a dozen. I don’t think he’s writing about me; I corrected him only once and that was years ago.

Adverbs Inside Infinitives

rogersgeorge on December 11th, 2016

I’ve written about this before, but hey, I have a comic!

Everybody knows about the TV show (or was it a movie?) that started with something about “to boldly go where…” and you probably had an English teacher (if you’re old enough) who said not to do that, you should say “boldly to go…” or maybe “to go boldly.” You might remember that I said that this rule was promulgated by Latinists who wanted English to be more like Latin. Baloney! Put those adverbs right there in the middle of the verb! (If you’re going to use an adverb, anyway. Try your sentence with a better verb and no adverb.)

So here’s the comic. See the second cell:

Thank you, Scott. I’ve been hanging onto this comic since 2014 and only now got around to finally using it. Shame on me.

By the way, at the top of that second cell, he writes, “have only noticed…” a similar construction.

A Mistake that Bears Repeating

rogersgeorge on January 1st, 2016

That is, I should repeat mentioning it so you won’t do it! I’m pretty sure nobody memorizes my little grammar lessons, and besides, repetition is the mother of learning, right?

Anyway, in English, we use the objective case for words that are objects of prepositions and direct objects. That means me instead of I, them instead of they. Other languages, that have more cases, can use any of several other cases with prepositions. We say their prepositions take the accusative, or the dative, or the genitive. But nobody uses the nominative with prepositions. Nominative is reserved for the subjects of sentences.

English speakers tend to get confused when their prepositions and  verbs have a compound object. I think this error descends from a common correction in sixth grade English class that I won’t get into right now. So we say, the prize goes to Bill and Bob, or Tom whipped Bill and Bob, which are correct. (Nouns in English don’t show case except for the possessive.) But when we use pronouns (which do show case), lots of folks revert to the nominative, and they say it the way the third cell in this comic says it. I’m pretty sure Scott Meyer knows the correct way to use a compound direct object, but he drew his character as someone who doesn’t. Thank you, Scott, for giving me a good example of what not to say!

Basic Instructions

I don’t think it’s correct for a kid to whip his parents, but if Dad is describing it, he should say, “his mother and me.”

Linguistic change

rogersgeorge on January 26th, 2014

This comic,um, literally addresses an issue I mentioned not so long ago, so I won’t go into that. It also addresses another issue–linguistic change. As a technical writer, I am tempted to wish that language didn’t change. Eliminating the ambiguity of having new meanings for words would certainly make it easier to be understood. I think this is the rationale for the French Academy, which is infamous for its insistence that the French language not change.

But language has to change over time. After all, the world changes over time. New ideas mean neologisms (and if you know what neologism means, I don’t need to explain this to you). A principle in linguistics is that all languages are sufficient. That is, for their environment. A corollary of this is that when something new comes along, we make or borrow a word for it.

Language also changes for less justifiable reasons, and that’s what makes me roll my curmudgeonly eyes.

Let’s look at the comic, from January 17, 2014:

Basic InstructionsDefinition creep is a neologism, by the way, derived perhaps, from “scope creep,” a term you hear too often in software development circles. The comic dances around the point, dear to my heart, that if you mush around the meanings, you can lose the use of perfectly good words. If if “literal” and “figurative” both mean “figurative,” how can you say that something is literal? Here’s another example: nauseous means “making one want to throw up,” and nauseated means feeling like throwing up. Both ideas are useful (in the right context), so don’t make both words mean the same thing.

We’re going to lose a lot of these battles, but I recommend that when you write, you exercise care to use the right word. In fact, here’s some evidence that we’re going to lose the nauseous/nauseated battle. The character speaking in the center panel is one of the intellectuals in the Luann Strip (Nov 9, 1998).

Luann

On the other hand, perhaps Greg Evans has already gone over to the dark side. This one is from 1992.

Luann

One last comment: Note that the guy on the left in Basic Instructions said “…in a recent dictionary.” It’s been a running battle in the lexicographical world whether dictionaries should prescribe the “correct” meaning, or merely describe what people are saying, without casting judgement. Currently the trend is toward being merely descriptive. Alas.