Sunday, December 5, 2010

Prescribers and describers - the strange case of the pedantic pronoun

Annotated article and 'singular they' quiz


Many famous newspapers and magazines have their own style guides, to make sure that there is some consistency in grammar and punctuation, and in how they refer to various aspects of the news. Some of them, such as the Economist, are freely available on the web.

However, many newspapers in the United States don't have their own guides, but use that of the Associated Press (AP). This makes the AP guide very influential, especially amongst journalists. There's a website, Newsroom 101, where you can do quizzes based on the AP rules, and I've been having fun doing some of them. The majority of AP rules are eminently sensible and in fact quite useful, but there are a few which I find quite weird, and which can result in language I find rather unnatural. Nonetheless, I'm sort of getting the hang of how they think.

I've also recently discovered a grammar and usage website called EnglishPlus, which seems to be mainly aimed at American college students and university entrants. If a bit spartan, the entries are refreshingly clear and most of them are completely uncontroversial. But in a few areas where there might be some room for debate, such as the use of object pronouns with the verb to be and the use of singular 'they' (see below), EnglishPlus doesn't even admit different ways of doing things might exist. They simply prescribe what is correct or incorrect, even if that leaves most of us speaking 'incorrect' English.

Playing around with pronouns, and a quiz


Note: in the original version of this post I mistakenly referred to the Associated Press (AP) as the Press Association (PA). I must have been suffering from some sort of initial confusion. Sorry.

1. Is it I or is it me?

Now as you know, personal pronouns have the following forms:

SubjectObject
Ime
hehim
sheher
itit
weus
youyou
theythem

(Note that some grammar websites refer to these forms as cases. Nominative or subjective case for the subject forms, accusative or objective case for the object forms. Books aimed at foreign learners don't usually use these terms.)

With most verbs there is no problem with pronouns. We have the standard Subject-Verb-Object construction. For example:

She loves me, and I love her. And we both love them.

But the verb to be doesn't work quite like other verbs. It is a linking verb, which doesn't take an object, but a subject complement instead. This means that in theory we should use a subject pronoun after it, and this is in fact what both the Press Association and EnglishPlus tell us to do.

- Was it your brother or your sister who did that, Johnny?
- It was he, not she.

(On the phone) Hello, Mum, it's I.

The tiny problem is, nobody speaks like that (at least not in the UK). Johnny would have said, 'It was him, not her', and the person on the phone would have said, 'It's me.' EnglishPlus partly admits this, but they still insist on the rule:

Even though we may often say, "It's me" the grammatically correct way is "It's I."

Well for a start, I'd change that 'often' to 'usually'. But the real question is this: what percentage of people do we need to 'break' a 'rule' for grammarians to realise that perhaps the problem is not with the speakers, but with the rule? When we get used to hearing and saying something in a particular way, that way becomes the norm; meanwhile the older, 'correct', form begins to sound unnatural and forced. This is how languages change and develop.

I'm pleased to say that grammar books aimed at foreign learners don't usually have these hang-ups. They describe things as they are, not how they think they should be. Swan, for example writes:

In informal English ... object [pronoun] forms are common, for example in one-word answers and after be.

'Who said that?' '(It was) him.'

'Who's that?' '(It's) me'

Remember 'informal English' means everyday spoken English. Referring to the 'It is I' structure, he says it 'is extremely formal, and is usually considered over-correct (especially in British English).'

2. Pronouns after than and as


Consider these sentences, which are quite normal in informal (especially British) English:

He's taller than her. She's as rich as him.

We're as well-educated as them, but they're posher than us.

Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! say both the AP and EnglishPlus. There's a verb missing, and that verb is to be, so we need subject pronouns:

He's taller than she (is). She's as rich as he (is).

We're as well-educated as they (are), but they're posher than we (are).

And they seem to be quite happy to leave the subject pronoun hanging there, without the verb - 'He is taller than she.' That sounds really strange to me, especially 'than we', so if I use this more formal structure, I feel more comfortable including the verb - He is taller than she is.

3. Singular they


There are occasions when we don't know the gender (sex) of the person a pronoun is referring to, or we don't want to specify, to avoid being sexist for example. Consider these sentences:

Somebody's left their umbrella.

If anybody wants more tea, can they just help themselves.

When a lawyer starts out on their career, they need to decide what they want to specialise in.

If the creative writer chooses their phrases carefully, success will surely come to them.

To a foreigner this might look a little strange, but this is the way many of us get round this problem. We use the plural pronouns they, them, their, themselves with singular reference. For me, this is more elegant than repeatedly using he or she and him or her. Consider the third sentence, which would otherwise be:

When a lawyer starts out on his or her career, he or she needs to decide what he or she wants to specialise in.

It's a bit cumbersome. Traditionalist writers will just write 'he' regardless. Conversely, some writers who want to make an anti-sexist point will simply say 'she' the whole time. Others religiously alternate between 'he' and 'she', which I find stylistically really annoying. Some have even tried to invent new non-gender-specific singular pronouns to do the trick, but not surprisingly they haven't caught on.

So I stick with singular 'they'. And it has a good pedigree, going back to Chaucer, and including such writers as Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and George Elliot. In an article in the New York Times it was said:

In fact, so many people now use they in the old singular way that dictionaries and usage guides are taking a critical look at the prohibition against it. ... [One editor] has written that it’s only a matter of time before this practice becomes standard English: “The process now seems irreversible.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) already finds the singular they acceptable “even in literary and formal contexts,” but the Usage Panel of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) isn’t there yet.

But it's anathema to the AP, and EnglishPlus don't even mention it. The mantra goes: the pronoun must always agree with it's antecedent (what it's referring back to). But isn't it the exception which proves the rule?


Quiz - We often use singular they with indefinite pronouns such as: anybody, everybody, nobody, somebody; and with expressions beginning: any, each etc.

Click and drop - Fill the gaps by clicking on a word or expression (in grey) in the top box and then on its corresponding box. If you change your mind just repeat the process.



1.If one of the guests wants another coffee, just let help .
2.Somebody must have forgotten to sign name; left the box blank.
3.If anybody had wanted to leave early, have told us earlier.
4.Somebody must have been in here. Look, left muddy footprints everywhere.
5.Has everybody checked in?
6.If any employee sees anybody suspicious, should report to line manager.
7.Each member is responsible for making sure properly registered.
8.Nobody should think that indispensable. If do, better change attitude, fast.
9.Every government minister has own car and driver.
10.If anybody passes target by more than 10%, get an extra bonus.

References - Pronouns


References - Singular they

These are all aimed at native speakers, so the language could be quite difficult.

Press style guides and quiz

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