Languages change. If languages didn’t change, we’d be speaking like Chaucer, British and American English would be identical, or we’d still be using words like “chairman”, “crippled”, “omnibus” and all sorts. We also wouldn’t have a way to describe “selfies”, “Brexit” or “omnishambles”.
The verbs formed from nouns, “medalling” and “podiuming” have been heard again recently, as they are every four years in an event whose name is controlled so closely you’re not supposed to go around mentioning it in blog posts. Lots of people have been complaining about these, saying it’s an erosion of the English language, etc., etc.
Now, I’m one for making sure we retain two words with a close but not identical meaning in order to be able to distinguish between different concepts or things. But in this case, it’s not taking away the distinction between two different things, it’s just adding another word to say the same thing. And we form words in all sorts of ways – by blending, shortening, lengthening them and shifting the part of speech they belong to. Once, we weren’t even allowed to start sentences with and or but …
The other wordy thing I wanted to mention briefly was singular they. This is something editors and other wordy people are still arguing – quite bitterly – about. “They” used to be used just as a plural. But, just as we’ve removed words like chairman and dustman from the language to cover the fact that different genders of people do different jobs, over recent years there’s been an acceptance that binary genders – the idea that everyone is either “he” or “she”, has joined up with a common dislike of the clumsiness of using “he” and “she” in alternate chapters or “he/she”, “s/he”, etc. to promote the use of singular “they”, i.e. the use of “they” to refer to one person in the singular. An example would be, “When someone gets to the front of the queue, they should go to the first available window”.
Now, some people rail against this change, but I think that it can be made to work grammatically, it gets rid of clumsiness and it doesn’t exclude people to whom, for whatever reason, it’s not appropriate to refer using binary gender wording. This is standard in my editing, although I’d never make this kind of change without consultation if it appeared more than very sporadically.
I’m not expecting to change anyone’s mind here; I’m just setting out my stall. These are my personal opinions, but these are interesting topics to think about and they’ve been at the front of my mind recently. Thank you for reading!
I generally talk about word stuff in my Troublesome Pairs posts which do distinguish meanings between pairs or triplets of words. Have a look at the index here!
August 17, 2016 at 11:34 am
I had a translation client recently who specified a contemporary, informal, conversational style then wanted to change all my singular theys to he or she in their final version. Refused to accept it was a perfectly normal usage.
August 17, 2016 at 2:26 pm
I wouldn’t agree that it’s a perfectly normal usage. And the client is always correct. Especially in this case where he or she was. I’d worry if I were paying a translator and he or she made such a blunt call.
I must admit I’m riled by the article. Surely, language usage should reflect changes; not push an agenda.
August 17, 2016 at 2:35 pm
I would say that I am reflecting a change, because there is a lot being said and written about singular they (which I assume is the thing that is upsetting you) and people who need to use it have claimed their space, so who am I to insist they are forced into a space that’s not theirs, just as I change “Chairman” to “Chair” to reflect that not ever Chair is a man.
I was also careful to say that my aim was to set out what I do (and always marked, and always noted in the style sheet if it’s more than the odd example), not to change anyone’s mind, and I certainly don’t mean to cause offence. Once reason to write such an article is to help explain who I am and what I do, so people are aware that this might come up.
LikeLiked by 1 person
August 18, 2016 at 7:42 am
For me, singular ‘they’ is perfectly normal usage. I find it very difficult to write anything else. By the way, I’m 31 and an English teacher 🙂
August 22, 2016 at 3:50 pm
Thank you for your comment, Sandy, there’s a very useful range of voices here!
August 17, 2016 at 2:52 pm
And we’ve always had a non gender-specific pronoun; it. The problem’s not with language, it’s cultural and political. If society were more comfortable with changes, the reflecting descriptors wouldn’t feel clunky to any of us.
On a similar note to ‘medalling and podiuming’; for years I couldn’t figure out Titleist (they make golf balls etc.), I even pronounced it germanically. It turns out it’s named after the person who wins the title 😀
And, without apology, I use the words, ‘crippled, omnibus, and chairman’. My ability to express myself would be crippled if I allowed political-correct newspeak into that part of my brain; my daughter watches the Corrie omnibus; and after having a female Chairman at work for years my current Chairman is male for the first time in years. But I’m sure he or she will do a good job 😀.
August 18, 2016 at 1:10 pm
I think ‘omnibus’ in this article referred to the sort of bus we get to work rather than me catching up with the Archers on Sunday.
I’m not sure how I would substitute ‘it’ for she or he without it looking rude. Referring to a person as ‘it’ to my mind implies the person is contemptible.
August 22, 2016 at 3:51 pm
Yes, indeed, it’s that kind of bus, although I should have been more specific in my word choice. And I agree, calling someone “it” feels to me like I’m being offensive to the person, and I wouldn’t do that; I don’t even like animals being referred to as it!
LikeLiked by 1 person
August 17, 2016 at 2:57 pm
Apologies if I seemed overly critical. I found your article and well-expressed position stimulating. Thank you.
August 17, 2016 at 3:28 pm
If I’m at a football game, and there’s a fire at the stadium, and I’ve gone to the toilet ‘cos it’s half-time. Please yell ‘he’s gone to the toilet’, to the fireman. Not ‘they’ve gone to the toilet’. It’ll increase my chances of survival by eliminating 50% of my possible locations. And that there’s only one of me to save from the flames.
And please don’t stall for time or stutter in communicating the information.
And I honestly don’t care if the fireman is male or female. As long as he or she can kick down the door and rescue me.
I could – and often do – talk about this stuff all day. But I need to watch the telly to see if Usain Bolt is still on for his triple three-peat.
August 17, 2016 at 3:33 pm
I think if you read my other posts you will see that I am not one for rigidly applying rules and that we’re all aware that context is everything. Of course I’m not suggesting some kind of political correctness gone mad, I’m talking about making sure people’s identities are honoured and texts are made as inclusive as possible where the context makes this appropriate.
August 30, 2016 at 1:03 pm
If someone uses singular “they,” they is wrong. 🙂
August 30, 2016 at 1:35 pm
If someone uses singular they, they are usually able to adjust the grammar to make it work. If you really do find it unbearable to use, what do you suggest as a pronoun to avoid gender distinction / gender binary assumptions? I’m always interested to hear about alternative options!
July 5, 2019 at 6:59 am
Stumbled upon your posts when looking for clarification of annex and annexe. I found your explanatios beautifully clear and quietly entertaining. Thank you. I’ve enjoyed reading a few extra pieces just for fun.
July 5, 2019 at 7:07 am
Ah, thank you so much, that’s the aim, and I’m glad they’ve hit the spot. What a lovely comment to read!