Warning! This Post Contains a Startling Confession

Book shelf with no booksI enjoy Facebook memes, particularly those featuring a cute or grumpy animal.

Lately I’ve noticed several memes about book hoarding. Reading enthusiasts are portrayed as proud owners of towering bookshelves groaning under the pressure of hundreds, if not thousands, of epic tomes.

As a writer, I am also an enthusiastic reader because there is absolutely no way to be a writer without also being a reader. Well, I have a deep, dark secret to confess: I don’t hoard books. In fact, other than a small stack of reference books I use professionally and a few novels that have been autographed to me by the authors, I don’t keep books at all!

Several years ago I had a sizable collection of both fiction and non-fiction. But, when my husband and I downsized in order to move to the city, the books didn’t make the cut. I thought that I would rebuild my collection once we got settled, but I didn’t. Instead, I discovered Chicago’s wonderful library system. And when I do purchase books, I give them away to friends and family or donate them to the Goodwill—after reading them, of course!

Today,  I have no desire to surround myself with books I have already read. There are just too many books I haven’t read sitting in the local library. As proof  of my bizarre behavior, I am including a picture of the bookshelf that sits in my living room. No books!

The nerd police are going to show up any day now to strip me of my glasses and official “I Heart Homer” badge.

….wait, was that a knock on the door?

 

Erin Wright is a freelance writer and editor in Chicago, Illinois. She specializes in business documents, copywriting, marketing collateral, website copy, and blogs.

The Slow Evolution of Pronouns, Part 2

Coffee helps me to relax when pronoun problems strikeI’m sure the anticipation has been killing you (humor me), so without further ado, part two:

Last week’s post discussed the slow evolution of pronouns, particularly gendered personal pronouns. As mentioned, past English speakers used he and his to represent a subject of unknown gender; however, as times change, so do our perceptions of politically correct language.

Today, style guides and language handbooks frown upon the use of male pronouns when referencing a potentially female subject. In fact, my favorite style guide, The Chicago Manual of Style, and my favorite handbook, Hodges’ Harbrace Handbook, are both quite clear on the matter: If the subject’s gender is unknown, use he and she or his and her.  Or, rewrite the sentence from a plural perspective:1

Each student must turn in his or her homework by the end of the day.

Students must turn in their homework by the end of the day.

In addition, Chicago casts an evil eye on “nontraditional gimmicks” such as s/he because these tactics can lower the writer’s credibility.2 Although not explicitly stated, I assume that invented pronouns like ze and hir qualify as nontraditional gimmicks.

This brings us to collective pronouns as ad hoc gender-neutral personal pronouns:

Each student must turn in their homework by the end of the day.

Each student is singular, so we know that the sentence is referring to individuals turning in homework independently. But, their is always a collective pronoun.

Let’s be honest, most of us use collective pronouns in conversation because actually verbalizing his or her just sounds stodgy. And, at least in my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with this because conversation will always be more casual than the written word. Yet, using they and their as singular, genderless pronouns is still a grammatical error that should be edited out of formal writing.

So, how should we proceed in this perilous world where potentially sexist pronouns lurk around every corner? The answer—just use common sense. There is no hard-and-fast rule for every occasion. When possible, rewrite the sentence. When rewriting is not an option, use he and she or his and her. This can be awkward, but awkwardness is usually better than offensiveness.

1. University of Chicago Press, The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 157.

Cheryl Glenn and Loretta Gray, Hodges’ Harbrace Handbook, 16th ed. (Boston, MA: Thomson, 2007), 275-76.

2. University of Chicago Press, The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 233.

Erin Wright is a freelance writer and editor in Chicago, Illinois. She specializes in business documents, copywriting, marketing collateral, website copy, and blogs.

The Slow Evolution of Pronouns, Part 1

Speech bubbles: Should we say "his" or "his and her"?As I move into my second year of blogging, I decided to review my site statistics from the last twelve months. The review showed that my two most-read posts both involve pronouns:

Keep It Clean–Avoid the Undefined “It” Pronoun

Compound Possessive Pronoun Strings, or Who Owns that Dog, Anyway?

Despite the relative success of these two posts over my other entries, I don’t think pronouns are particularly intriguing to the average person. (Shocking, I know!) Rather, I think these posts are the most-read because pronouns are confusing. And one of the drivers of this confusion is the fact that personal pronouns have generated gender-based conflict for a long, long time.

Although gender-based pronouns have been an occasional concern among academics and social vanguards for centuries, up until the 1960s and 1970s, most English speakers agreed that using he or his was an acceptable way to reference a subject of unknown gender:

Each student must turn in his homework by the end of the day.

However, as the equality movements of the twentieth century matured, inclusivity snuck into our pronouns. Using he and she or his and her, or even just she/ her/hers, became much more common:

Each student must turn in his or her homework by the end of the day.

Each student must turn in her homework by the end of the day.

But, these “politically correct” workarounds can feel cumbersome and overly intentional. In response, many people and organizations have invented new pronouns, such as ze and hir. Well, we English speakers are pretty flexible when it comes to accepting new nouns (e.g., iPad) and even verbs (e.g., text), but we’re far less adaptable to structural changes.

Punctuation, conjunctions, prepositions—and yes, pronouns—allow us to structure nouns and verbs into coherent messages. We don’t like to mess with these elemental building blocks. And thankfully, this stubbornness allows us to read centuries-old texts with relative ease.

In The Slow Evolution of Pronouns, Part 2, we will take a look at the modern usage of collective pronouns (they, their) as ad hock gender neutral stand-ins.

(I bet you didn’t realize anyone could write this many posts about pronouns….Quick, somebody call Guinness!)

 

Erin Wright is a freelance writer and editor in Chicago, Illinois. She specializes in business documents, copywriting, marketing collateral, blogs, web copy, and instructional content.

Happy National Grammar Day, Casimir Pulaski Day, and …

Puppy Pooped from Celebrating National Grammar DayDid you think today was just another Monday? No way! Today is National Grammar Day, the day when grammarians nationwide dress up as the famous lexicographer Samuel Johnson, author of the first widely-accepted comprehensive English dictionary published in 1755.

Okay, so maybe we don’t actually dress up as Samuel Johnson…some of us prefer to don costumes of the fifteenth century printing press inventor, Johannes Gutenberg. Okay, okay, so that’s not true either. Most of us just celebrate by telling unsuspecting bystanders that today is National Grammar Day.  And then we crack open a fresh pack of red pens.

To make the day even more memorable, Illinoisans (or at least Illinois children) are celebrating Casimir Pulaski Day. Pulaski was a Revolutionary War hero who has bestowed a day off school to children in the Chicago area since 1977. Granted, Pulaski Day is not as thrilling as National Grammar Day—although, all of the kids playing at home right now instead of sitting at school may disagree with me.

Now, don’t flip your Samuel Johnson wig, but today is also the first anniversary of my blog. Thank you for reading and please let me know if you would like me to cover a specific topic.

Happy Grammar Pulaski Blog Anniversary Day, my friends!