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.

British English and American English

If you browse the expat blogs, you’ll find gleeful posts tracking the dividing line between British and American English. And a wandering line it is. Are pants those things you wear under your jeans or are jeans one kind of pants? Is the fanny pack a bizarre medical procedure or a practical but geeky accessory? When you live your life in a semi-foreign language, all that stuff becomes important.

It also cues the kind of giggles you get when an eight-year-old has a chance to say “fart.”

Irrelevant Photo: Rocks near Minions, eroded by the wind. By Ida Swearingen

Irrelevant Photo: Rocks near Minions, eroded by the wind. By Ida Swearingen

But pants and fanny aren’t even on the real dividing line. Only I know what really divides the Englishes: It’s the use of that and which.

I know: Speaking of geeky. Only someone who’s worked as a copy editor even notices, never mind cares.

I have worked as a copy editor, though, and I do. American publishing follows Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, and British publishing doesn’t. The distinction has to do with lawnmowers. You never thought of lawnmowers as a grammatical concept? See what you missed out on? Example A: The lawnmower, which is in the garage, is broken. This means we have one lawnmower. Example B: The lawnmower that is in the garage is broken. This means we have more than one, so use the other. I left it on the dining room table.

British publishing doesn’t care about lawnmowers. This—to a recovering American copy editor—is as shocking as wearing your pants inside your trousers.

It all has to do with restrictive and non-restrictive clauses and is too obscure to bother explaining. Which is lucky, since I don’t trust myself to get it right. And (she said defensively) you can be a perfectly competent copy editor and not be able to explain any of it. All you have to be able to do is apply it. It’s like not being able to explain electricity but knowing how to charge your phone.

Legend has it that Strunk and White introduced the that/which division because they thought it would be useful, if only it could be pounded into millions of recalcitrant little heads. In other words, they weren’t telling us about something that already existed, and so the aforesaid heads resisted the distinction because it wasn’t native to the language. But the owners of those heads still manage to mow their lawns and figure out, when and if it matters, how many lawnmowers they have.

So the that/which distinction is arbitrary and unnecessary, and in the long run the spoken language will always win out against the silly twits who tell us what’s wrong with the way we speak. But having made a career—such as it was—out of knowing this sort of stuff, it’s painful to watch as entire country consign it to the dustbin of irrelevant grammar. Even if it belongs there.

On an emotional and philosophical level, I’m on the side of spoken English, in all its barbaric glory. I’m not impressed with formal writing, for the most part. I believe that the language gains its power from use and that the hair-splitters are fighting a rear-guard action. If you break the rules of grammar idiomatically and well, the force is with you. And, in case you care, so am I.

On the other hand, I’ve read enough tin-eared writing to value the rules of grammar. Not because they keep us from barbarism and illiteracy, but because they keep us from incoherence. So I’m passionately on both sides of this battle, and if it ever turns violent both sides will call on me to shoot myself as a traitor.