Friday, October 14, 2022

Maybe it's time to let go of it

I posted this a couple of days ago: What long-held usage distinction/rule/shibboleth have you just given up as an editor, reluctantly or not? I was happy to drop the bogus "over/more than" and no longer see any utility in "comprise/compose" and "compare with/compare to."

Many of the responses were instructive. 

Dave Nelsen replied, "There was a time when I gave a lot more thought to singular 'they,' carefully considering the context and audience every time I’d come across it. Now I just allow it anywhere and everywhere, which is so much easier.."

Wendalyn Nichols was succinct: "I welcomed the moment that being a fan of singular 'they' no longer felt like a dirty secret."

Inevitably, one gentleman replied: "actually, right is right and wrong is wrong, and as the ink-on-paper world dies it should do so with some fidelity to the language. also, 'they' and 'their' as references to an individual are always grammatically wrong. precision exists for a reason."

"They" has been in use as a singular in English as long as there has been an English, antedating the singular use of "you." Even the Chicago Manual of Style and the Associated Press Stylebook have grudgingly accepted reality. Language Log has multiple posts on the subject, for those willing to be informed. 

As it happens, today is the anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, after which the damned Normans destroyed English, collaborating with illiterate peasants to drop inflections and junk the genders of nouns, and to illustrate how a language is an evolving consensus among its users. 

Thomas Consolo says that he is "still not giving up on 'comprises' vs. 'is comprised of.' " Ah, the years I've spent changing "is comprised of" to "is composed of." The rule, for civilians, is that "comprise" can only mean "includes," not "is made up of." The other day I made a quick check at the Corpus of Contemporary American English (limited access because I no longer have university faculty status) and found 2,537 citations for "comprises" and 3,229 citations for "comprised of." When the language moves on, think about moving with it. 

Someone else asked about "farther/further." In the 2011 edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, 62% of the since-disbanded usage panel favored the traditional distinction that "farther" should be restricted to physical distance, not "to a greater degree or extent." In the 11th edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (2014), the first definition of "further" is given as "farther." 

"Farther/further" is a prime example of what I have called dog-whistle editing: insisting on distinctions of usage that only other copy editors hear. Another is the journalistic "over/more than" rule, developed by 19th-century U.S. newspaper editors to restrict "over" to physical distance. It is a rule that does not actually exist in English outside of newspapers. Look that up in Merriam-Webster's

Of course, there was a tweet saying, "So, taken together, the thread respondents uphold no standards at all. Depressing."

I spent forty years as a copy editor enforcing standards, and still do as a retirement side-hustle. Some of the standards I used to enforce I no longer do, having recognized that the language has changed and that some of them  ("farther/further," "over/more than," "since/because") were bogus. If you want to be a serious editor, you must continually examine what you are doing and make an effort to keep informed. 

And there is this. There is not enough time for editing, even in the places that still place a value on it. All editing involves triage, and if you are still spending your time changing "further" to "farther" or "over" to "more than" out of a misplaced sense of precision, you may well be overlooking some error of fact, some jumble of organization, or some piece of slack writing that begs to be tightened. 

Try to keep up.


  1. As the mother of a young adult who uses singular they, I’ve adapted. The last bit I’m still getting used to is “themself,” which makes more sense to me than “themselves.” It’s just a word I’ve never said before.

  2. Two points: Your naysayer correspondent writes "precision exists for a reason." This is undoubtedly true, but what is this reason? This harkens back to the now-quaint complaint about "contact" as a verb. This, we were told, is unacceptable vague. We must specify whether this contact is to be made in person, by letter, by carrier pigeon, etc. And yes, it is certainly possible to imagine a situation where this level of specificity is important. In those situations, the more specific words are still available. But more often it is not. If you disallow the broader word, then there are many situations where the writer is forced into knots to convey the thought with the appropriate level of specificity. The rule is an active liability to good writing.

    So with forbidding the singular "they." The absence of a traditional gender-neutral singular third person pronoun introduces tension into the language. Traditional English pronouns work admirably when gender and number are both known and relevant. It works rather less well when either is unknown or irrelevant, forcing clumsy workarounds. Singular "they" mostly solves the problem, because it turns out that number only rarely is critical. But we already knew that, with the four-century old singular you. Adapting "they" is, it turns out, a very traditional English approach to pronouns. And when gender is both known and important, the other pronouns are still available.

    Second point, about editing priorities. I have been saying this for years. In my (admittedly limited) experience of being professionally edited, the edits fall into three categories. About a quarter to a third are genuinely beneficial: correcting genuine grammatical errors, improving the flow of the text, etc. A small but critical number are disastrous, making the text say something different in an important way. The balance are essentially pointless work to satisfy a style guide. The purported farther/further distinction is a great example. It serves no real purpose. So in my own work I appreciate the improvements, keep a sharp eye out for the disasters, but ignore the rest. This stuff is all great fun and games if the resources are available, but when was that? Certainly not recently, even if ever. In our present circumstances, it is an absurd waste of scarce resources.

  3. The difficulty I found with the self-described prescriptivists is that they haven't read the texts. I'm forever greatfulmentors and executives were well aware of that fact of life.

  4. At my new employer, where I am glad to be, I've been told there is no singular they. I do my best.

    1. Coming soon: You kids get off my lawn!

  5. The issue of agency interests me. I keep hearing and reading ‘is able to’ where I would simply say ‘can’, and often where the subject is an abstraction or inanimate object. Is can/could falling out of use? And has all the nonsensical argument about can/may perhaps precipitated the shift indirectly? Way back when I was teaching, I occasionally discussed the matter of agency with students, and found that they simply didn’t see the (obvious, I thought) comic potential in examples.