Fiddling with grammar during a refugee crisis

As the world reels around us, let’s spend a few moments playing with the oddities of English grammar, because what could be—when all is said and done—more useless. And sometimes we need to take refuge in the useless. When we’re done and I dump you back out in the real world, if you find a way to welcome the Middle East’s refugees to whatever shore you live on, I hope our short holiday leaves you strengthened for the task. They could easily, if the world’s axis ran through the planet at a slightly different angle (metaphorically speaking), have been any one of us. Or all of us.

But first let’s scramble back to the safety and silliness of English grammar.

Irrelevant photo: These are the (gorgeous) seeds from a (n equally gorgeous) plant, montbretia, that serious gardeners just hate because it will take over entire counties. As far as I can figure out, it's pronounced momBREEsha.

Irrelevant photo: These are the (gorgeous) seeds from a (n equally gorgeous) plant, montbretia, that serious gardeners just hate because it will take over entire counties before they’re even put their trowels away. As far as I can figure out, it’s pronounced momBREEsha.

I used to work as an editor and copy editor, and I’m retired now so I claim the right to screw up and not feel (too) bad about it. But I love this stuff. Sometimes it’s even relevant to the cultural differences between the U.S. and the U.K. that are supposed to be at the heart of this blog, although the particular questions here aren’t. Never mind. One of the rules at Notes is that when appropriate we can cheat.

Both questions were thrown at me when I asked what people wanted to know about either the U.S. or the U.K. And since these have nothing to do with either, and since I can rant on endlessly about this kind of thing with minimal research, and since, further, I still have the flu, I thought I’d move them to the top of the list.

Tim Gatewood asked, ”How do you feel about using they as a singular pronoun (in place of the ugly he/she/they)? Or using she in place of he as the preferred pronoun? I am doing both in the book that I am writing this month as part of the Write Nonfiction In November challenge and I expect to get some pushback from some folks about both of those.”

By now, any hardy traditionalists out there will be asking why you’d want to do any of that, and the answer is that the use of he, she, and they is one of the many places where the English language is insane. Not to mention sexist. When I was in school, I was taught that you couldn’t write (or say) “Everyone should put on their hat,” because everyone is singular (every plus one, geddit?), so it had to be “his hat.” And if everyone is made up of seventy women and one man? The man outweighs the women. Because that’s just, you know, common sense.

No, it didn’t make sense to me either. And because it doesn’t make sense, they took a lot of time over it, because getting it right marked you as someone with a decent education.


So yes, as the second wave of feminism swept the country, some of us went back to those early lessons and said (as a few of us had at the time and as even more of us thought but didn’t dare say), “Wait a wild, screaming minute there.”

Objecting to this sounds—and is—nitpicky and absurd but it also addresses something very real and damaging. When you’re part of a group that regularly gets airbrushed out thephoto, photoshopping yourself back in matters—however awkwardly it’s done. And believe me, I’ve seen some awkward (and unintentionally funny) attempts, including one effort to introduce a new, non-gender-specific pronoun that if you’d been lead-footed and well meaning enough to use it nobody would have recognized, so you’d have been talking well-intentioned gibberish. But y’know, you try all kinds of silliness when you’re trying to solve a problem. It’s part of the process. The trick is to keep your sense of humor, even if it takes you thirty years to get the joke.

So, what about they as a gender-neutral pronoun? In a lot of places, it works. The reason our grade-school teachers struggled to teach us that everyone takes a masculine pronoun is because they were fighting the natural tendency of the English language to (yes, it actually does this sometimes) be sensible. Kids intuit grammar—it’s an awe-inspiring process that I don’t begin to understand—and what they intuit here is that everyone is plural and doesn’t specify a gender, so they use they. Smart kids. Dumb grammarians.

The problems with the they solution is that if you use it and you’re tuned into grammar at all, you’ll find a natter of grammarians swooping into your mind like the harpies of old who would—am I remembering this right?—pursue you to the ends of the earth if you’d once pissed them off. In other words, you’ll worry about people thinking you’re using they out of ignorance instead of choice.

When I was the editor and entire staff of a small magazine, I did at one point run a note saying that as of that moment I would accept they as a gender-neutral pronoun. Basically, it was a footnote saying, “I’m doing this consciously and if I prove I’m well enough educated I’m free to throw my support to people who aren’t well enough educated to know it’s even an issue.”

Yeah. I know.

But even if you run around with a banner proclaiming that, in some places they jars more than in others, so a writer really has to their step.

Did the they in that last sentence slide past you easily enough or did it shake you to the roots of your dictionary? If it shook you, the problem was that it was too close to something any five-year-old would recognize as singular: a writer. That language doesn’t like that. But Tim doesn’t want to write as if all writers were male, and if the universe is in the business of raining blessings, may it rain blessings on him for it. Because writers aren’t all male and pretending, grammatically, that they are is illogical, insulting, and airbrushing.

What else can you do? Wherever I can, I shift my sentences into the plural: Writers have to watch their step. Think of that as a grammatical get-out-of-jail-free card.

Where it matters to use the singular—and sometimes you need it so the person you’re talking about seems real—I’ve seen writers alternate he and she so gracefully that if I hadn’t been doing a copy edit on the piece I wouldn’t have noticed they were doing it at all. To make this work, you don’t just plug in alternating pronouns. For a stretch of time you call up an example with a gender and follow that example until you’re ready to move on. And the next time you need an example, you shift genders and talk about a different person.

I read once that Finnish has only one gender for its pronouns and it’s neutral, the equivalent of it. Which must make it incredibly difficult to get used to our gender-obsessed language.

Next, Pixieannie asked about prepositions, and I assume that’s about the rule that says you can’t end a sentence with a preposition. This is another rule that our teachers spent a lot of time pounding into our heads because it conflicts with the language’s natural grammar.

What’s a preposition? Anything you can do in relation to a cloud. You can be in it, on it, with it, near it, around it, by it, above it, and so on, endlessly. And the rule, as it was whispered from desk to desk, is that a preposition is something you should never end a sentence with. There was something satisfyingly subversive about that, as well as memorable,

The idea that we should keep those sharp-edged prepositions safely away from the ends of sentences where they might cut our fingers comes from a bunch of seventeenth-century grammarians with nothing better to do than impose Latin grammar on the English language because they believed Latin was a better and more logical language than English. You can find all sorts of sources for this on the internet, but let’s settle for this one.

Or—oh, I can’t help myself—this one.

To demonstrate how badly English wants the right to place its prepositions at the end of sentences, both contain absurd attempts to relocate them to the middle.

It’s easy to find ways that English isn’t logical, especially if we were discussing spelling, but imposing the grammar of one language on another? That fails the logic test with flags flying and engines exploding.

So sweep the harpies of formal grammar out of your head on this one. End your sentences with prepositions. If anyone tells you it’s wrong, smile sweetly and tell them to get stuffed. Or to get an up-to-date grammar book. Or if you want to keep their friendship, talk about the seventeenth century, Latin, and the ways the world’s moved on. Then send ‘em my way.

97 thoughts on “Fiddling with grammar during a refugee crisis

  1. Thanks for putting the preposition on the cloud for me – never heard the explanation, but will never forget it now (and be able to explain it to my a-linguistic partner!) Take care.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Both these subjects arose when I was teaching high school English. I taught my students to switch between genders for each example so I’m glad that one gets your approval. I also have no difficulty with ending sentences with prepositions if it works stylistically and retains the intended meaning of the sentence. Since I wanted my students to enjoy language and since I taught creative writing as well as literature, I thought it important to teach them the rules so they knew which had to (mostly) be adhered to and which could be broken for effect.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Now perhaps I can write something without fear of those two problems. Thanks for the freedom. :-) I see the possible effects of the flu here in your clever use of “propositions” and “consonants” for “prepositions.” Were you trying to keep us on our toes?

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I take it that by passing the flu on to me, you are now free from the possibility of bed baths, nurses and rubber suits? I was so tempted to put, innit, at the end of that sentence.

    Ellen, I take my hat off to you for writing this post. I’m sick of people telling me that I can’t end my sentence with a preposition and in particular, when not doing so, kills the essence of what I’m trying to get across. My response to this now…. I can and I am and I will, so bugger off. I don’t need to be pulled up by the Grammar Police, every time I slip an ‘it’ at the end.

    I’ll share this if that’s ok with you?

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Everyone of my age, who went to school in the Twin Cities, will remember Don Miguel. Don (gosh was that really his first name) was the host of a local public television show that taught children to speak Spanish. We all had to do it.

    I remember my buddy Stan gawking at the television when Don told us how words could be either male or female. Stan didn’t think much of the idea and his comments, some being rather graphic for a fourth grader, got him kicked out of class. I got kicked out too – for laughing.

    Later in the hall, having to hold our noses against the wall for punishment, Stan said, “Geez, who thinks up this &^%”.

    Inquiring minds want to know.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Great moments in education. I didn’t take Spanish until high school, and was a boringly sober kid, so I didn’t find a lot of giggles in the idea that everything should have a gender, but I do remember wondering what convinced someone that chair, table, and potato had something feminine about them. It’s a a hard mindset for an English speaker.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. First of all, what a relief to read your common-sense introduction to this post. Grammar as a parenthesis is just what we need these days. I’ve never studied English grammar and had no idea prepositions weren’t meant to end sentences – but that’s the way we speak! I’ve spent hours explaining the oddity to Latin-based learners … and teaching them how it’s done haha! the gender thing is no sweat as most other languages have it. Pluralizing doesn’t even solve the problem, they is gendered too, so you just learn to live with it. Alternating in the same text could turn out to be distracting for attentive readers. I was personally a bit confused the first time I came acroos a She-God in a mainstream religion text, not so much because she was a lady, but because she kept on re-birthing as the other sex (sex?) every few paragraphs.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That would throw me unless the text explained the god’s ability to change genders. (Why a god needs a gender, or a sex, at all is a whole ‘nother question, but let’s not get into that.) The he/she switch only works seamlessly when the examples change as well–from Billy the cobbler to Sue the miller, say. If you’re dealing with one being throughout, you’ve got a problem. The best thing to do, I’d think, is address the problem directly and draw the reader into the writer’s struggles with the issue–as in, I haven’t found a good solution and here’s why, but here’s what I’m going to do and here’s why. It might not make the resulting text any more graceful, but it would in itself be an interesting bit of writing.

      But that’s typical me: I do love an interesting problem.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Certainly more graceful than the he/she I’ve used in translations, though admitedly only in business texts. Where pointing out that some of the managers’ colleagues were actually women – in case they hadn’t really noticed in their “he” dominated language and culture – did serve a purpose of some kind :)

        Liked by 2 people

      • I am more deeply honored than I can say about you choosing my little quibbling and piddling questions to headline your article. THANK YOU! And you make some good points in response to them.

        As for the specifics, I have a bit in the intro to my book explaining that I decided to use “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun whenever possible and “she” whenever I am referring to a notary public unless it would be confusing (due to another female being mentioned nearby in the text) and why I made those decisions.

        I am using “she” this way specifically 1) because most notaries in the USA are female and 2) because it is long since time when we males should feel some of the “hey, wait a minute! Why am I not included in that?” which females endure every day, so I hope the notaries who read my book and are male will get their dose of enlightenment from this practice. If not, well, I tried to do what I could.

        I don’t know that I would have even thought of using “she” as the preferred pronoun in reference to notaries public were it not for the the response that one of my published articles received in which the respondent pointed out that most notaries are female and the articles might be better received if they felt that they were included in what was being said about them. I agreed with the respondent’s point (even if my publisher for those articles did not), so that is now my standard practice.

        Liked by 2 people

        • The main goal, in handling a tricky grammatico-social issue like this is to make sure your choices quickly become background, so the reader can pay attention to what you’re saying instead of how you’re saying it. If you could manage to make at least some of your mentions plural, you’d save yourself a lot of work: Instead of “the notary…she,” you end up with “notaries…they.” When it works, it’s fantastic. (At least it is in English, as people have pointed out.) At other times, you can makes the he-she shift work by creating imaginary people, so instead of some abstract notary you get Lucy (or Lucky, or, I don’t know, Lucifer), who trails in with a gender-specific pronoun that doesn’t need explaining. But that only works if there’s some justification for it–if there’s a bit of extended story about the situation so that having an imaginary person there makes sense. In a passing reference it would be bizarre.

          It’s nice to hear a tale of someone who actually listens when a reader pops up to say, “Hey, wait a minute, this is a problem.”


  7. Hi Helen,
    After quite some time, when “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun sent shivers down my back, I’ve become quite used to it.
    As to the silliness of grammar: Can any language beat German, where, as Mark Twain noted, a turnip is female [“DIE Ruebe”], whereas a girl is neuter [“DAS Maedchen”]?
    Have a great day,

    Liked by 4 people

  8. One of my favorite cards is a photo of two nicely dressed young gals. The balloon above one’s head says, “Who are you going to the Christmas party with?” The balloon above the other, “You’re not supposed to end a sentence with a preposition, Bitch.”

    Liked by 4 people

  9. It is said that English is a difficult language to learn… and, of course, once learned there are all sorts of things to argue about grammatically. But, at least we don’t insist that all nouns be either masculine or feminine like in French or Spanish. In Spanish, not only would everyone be putting on his hat, the hat itself (sombrero) would be masculine.

    Liked by 3 people

    • True. And as Bea dM pointed out, talking about Italian, shifting the sentence so the subject is plural doesn’t help because plurals are masculine and feminine as well. Funny, but in English it seems to natural that plurals are neutral.


  10. Am I always the last one at the party? I’ve never figured out the preposition bit, still don’t even with your ingenious explanation. Still trying to figure out what it has to do with clouds? But I almost sprayed the computer screen with tea at the last comment (Flo’s and yours — why isn’t it your’s?) And how do you get italics in comments?

    Liked by 2 people

    • If I add a comment on the–oh, what do they call it? let’s say the admin side of the blog; the backstage side–it offers me the choice of italics, links, bold, and all sorts of jazzy stuff. If I add it out front, where everyone else has to work, I can’t–although I could add the code by hand and it might or might not turn the text into italics. I’ve never tried so I’m not sure.


  11. We have a new word in Swedish to solve the he or she problem. He is in Swedish “han” and she is “hon”. When we don’t want to say han or hon, we say “hen”. That word has a total different meaning in English, but in Swedish it is a mix of han and hon.

    Liked by 4 people

  12. My world keeps getting shaken apart. I just had a type-setter friend tell me that it’s no long appropriate to put two spaces after a period, just one. And now *permission* to let my prepositions hang? World spinning… must sit down…

    Liked by 1 person

  13. The “can’t end a sentence with a preposition” thing is a bit of nonsense invented by Victorian grammarians just to assert their authority. And it’s just that – nonsense. English “as she is spoke” quite naturally has sentences that end with prepositions. And, as a technical writer, I don’t hesitate to use that sort of construction where it makes sense. I like Winston Churchill’s riposte: “This Is the Sort of Nonsense Up With Which I Will Not Put”
    As for using “they” as a singular pronoun (in place of the he/she/they) – yep, I do use “they” in that way in my technical writing, especially in instructional text, where you need to keep it short and snappy.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m with you on all of that except the Churchill quote, which to my disappointment I found some sources claiming he never said. (Sorry–I’ve lost them now; it seemed like a side issue at the time.) I will admit that I’ve heard various versions of the quote, although that could as easily be a marker of its popularity and the weakness of memory as it could be proof that he never really said it. But it’s a great quote and if he didn’t say it he should have.


  14. OMG that’s ‘Merica for WTF… My brain hurts from trying to comprehend all this information that was hammer f@&ed into my head with this post… Well written too. BTW… Even though most of it went WAY over my prison educated head… Oh and most of what I know of grammar in the U.K…. I learned from a program I’m watching on the teller… “Went worth.” It’s about a woman’s prison over there across the pond… Cheers..!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Somewhere along the line I started noticing the use of “she” in places. My first thought was ‘what a great solution! “she” actually includes “he” inside it. “They” for plural tends to be gender neutral. It works for me.

    A bit of a side note: when Latvia was liberated from the Soviet Union, those of us who escaped before the Soviets closed down that iron curtain noticed that the Latvian language had evolved naturally as languages in the wild tend to do. Here in the diaspora, it was a bit calcified, sounding quite quaint to those back in Latvia. It was also noted that a lot of Russian influence had crept in, mostly in the slang.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fascinating, but no surprise, when I think about it, that a language in exile would calcify. Either that or turn into a hybrid. You know about the French Academie that’s charged with keeping the language pure? I think of them every so often and wish them luck. They’ll need it.

      Well, I sort of wish them luck. I do understand wanting to do that, but far more of me is on the side of the forces of chaos and change in language.


      • Yes, I’d heard of the French Academie trying to keep their language pure. Almost the same as the exiled Latvians wanting to keep their language ‘pure’. I suspect that some English must have rubbed off that they likely didn’t notice or care, especially when it came to technical words, i.e. TV. computer, etc. I saw it as mostly political statement since the objection was mostly to words that were Russified.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes–trying to make the language reflect the world as they want it to have been. It never does work, no matter how hard we try. It’s interesting, in that context, to look at Fargaregardsanna’s comment about the changes in Swedish, where they’ve successfully introduced a neutral pronoun, which many disliked at first but which is widely accepted now. It’s different–that’s a consciously introduced change in the language to reflect a change in the country and its consciousness, not an attempt to edit the language of past changes. But it comes to mind because both are conscious attempts to change a language.


  16. Pingback: Fiddling with grammar during a refugee crisis | Notes from the U.K. | Minister Is A Verb

  17. On a different note re: prepositions. Not only is their use quite variable cross-culturally (I do a lot of work with global teams), but on the US side, there is a generational shift. For example, my daughter never says that she did something “by accident” but “on accident”. I have heard a wide variety of substituting one preposition for another as if which one you use doesn’t matter. Long gone are the days of memorizing them as we did in (Catholic) grade school: above, about, across, after, against, along, among, around, at, before, behind, below, beneath, beyond…and on.

    Liked by 1 person

    • A generational shift? Now that’s interesting. I don’t remember having to memorize them–they were one of those things we just somehow knew. But in learning other languages, prepositions are one of the things that always give me trouble. There’s no particular logic to them (do you sit in an armchair or on it?) and you just have to memorize the beasts and their uses.


    • Oh, it was back in the day when feminists were flying high, the world was full of possibility, and brilliant insights rubbed elbows with pure silliness and flat-footedness, as generally happens when an idea takes off. (I’ve mixed half a dozen metaphors there. Sorry.) I wrote the gender-neutral pronoun off as a combination of silliness and flat-footedness, but it turns out (see Anna’s comments) that Swedish has introduced one very successfully. So I won’t be so scathing about the idea of introducing one into English, even though it fell flat on its face in a mud puddle and drowned there. Apparently it’s possible to change a language in this conscious sort of way. Who knew?


  18. Congratulations Ellen! You won the Inspire Me Monday Linky party last week. You are being featured tomorrow. Tune in to my site tomorrow to see why I was so moved by your post. Congratulations. I am really happy for you.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Pingback: Inspire Me Monday Linky Party #61 | Mostly Blogging

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