Wednesday, April 5, 2017

He? She? They?
About two weeks ago, in presenting some of the changes in its latest Stylebook, Associated Press "opened the door" to using "they" as a singular pronoun. The Stylebook emphasizes that this is only for the sake of clarity, to be used when a write-around isn't possible.

My middle school English teacher is, I am sure, lamenting this change, perhaps even wearing black as she mourns the days of antecedent-pronoun agreement.

Although I'm inclined to agree with her, I have mixed feelings. In writing, one person is never "they" -- at least not in usage considered correct until two weeks ago -- but in spoken language, we do this frequently. So much so, in fact, that I find myself giving my green pen a workout as I grade papers from college students intent on transferring spoken language onto the page. And, as I "correct" their work, I can't help but notice the irony of moving from something that flows to something unwieldy.

I get it. It's easier this way.

But is easier always better? I know that common usage often dictates grammatical change, and has dealt near-death blows to things like the subjunctive case and the proper usage of "myriad." And I, for one, love bending the rules by doing things like beginning a sentence with "and" or "because." Or perhaps using a fragment for effect. And I hate worrying about whether the usage I've been taught has expired by the time I go to put it on the page.

Maybe I'm just getting old.

Or maybe I think that a rule shouldn't change just because a bunch of people are doing it wrong, and so now it makes sense to throw the rule out the window. Are we dealing with the verbal equivalent of all of my friends jumped off the bridge, so now I'm jumping too?

I know. Much ado about nothing. No lives in actual danger here.

But for writers, the danger is palpable. Believe it or not, we agonize over things like comma placement, whether the period goes inside or outside the quotation marks and whether or not the word we selected was the right one from among the hundreds or thousands or millions available.

So, for writers, changes like this are the emotional equivalent of ripping up the rulebook and using it for confetti.

For now, I will stick to what I've been taught. For me, that creates clarity, even if it makes the workarounds complex at times.

And, in addition, I will give thanks for copyeditors because they are the decoders who make balance between change and consistency possible.

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