Singular ‘They’

Lots of theys

 

“Did someone leave their wallet in here?”

It’s not unusual to hear this sort of sentence in English.  The sex of the subject (‘someone’) is unknown, so the speaker uses the pronoun ‘they’, even though the subject is not plural.  Now, as a copyeditor (and otherwise general linguistic snob), I may be expected to rail against such usage, but alas – I am, in fact, about to do just the opposite.

The problem with this sort of construction is that English, like many languages, doesn’t have explicit fourth person* syntax, so any way we cast it becomes a sort of workaround.  And, when it comes down to it, singular ‘they’ is simply the least ambiguous and awkward of a lot of bad options.

* (“What the #&@$ is fourth person!?” a non-super-language-nerd might ask.  Well, I’m glad you did: a fourth-person entity is one that is unknown, generic, or irrelevant.)

Let’s take a moment to consider the alternatives.

  • The formally prescribed solution is to randomly choose a gendered third-person pronoun: “Did someone leave his wallet in here?”  The issue with this option, aside from the awkwardness of randomly assuming a gender, is that it creates a particularly strong pronoun-antecedent disagreement, so the initial impression is that you are asking if an unknown someone left an identified other person’s wallet in here.
  • The construction “Did someone leave his or her wallet in here?” is also a preferred one, but it is needlessly cumbersome.
  • ‘One’ is the closest thing English has to a real fourth-person pronoun.  So you could ask, “Did someone leave one’s wallet in here?”  But that sounds terribly stilted.
  • Similarly, ‘someone’ itself is, in essence, a fourth-person pronoun as well, but “Did someone leave someone’s wallet in here?” recreates the pronoun-antecedent divorce that makes it sound like you could be talking about two different people.
  • You could subvert the need for the second pronoun altogether by using passive voice: “Was someone’s wallet left in here?”  There’s nothing inherently wrong with that phrasing, but it changes the focus of the inquiry to the presence of the wallet itself rather than the owner you’re trying to reunite it with.
  • You could try a number of other rewordings, but each would have a slightly different meaning than what you’re intending, and they would only be applicable to the specific sentence.

So we’re left with ‘they’.  It’s hardly ideal, but it’s cleaner than the other choices, and it’s used so often informally that it now sounds the most natural, and its meaning in context is immediately clear.  Reusing plural terms for certain singular cases is not without precedent (we have only to look at the subjunctive form of “to be”), and ‘they’ is frequently used in other fourth-person constructions, anyway (“You know what they say.”).

Thus, while I’m not about to encourage anyone to start using singular ‘they’ in formal writing, I would advocate for a grammatical shift in that direction, if for no other reason than to be relieved of the constant need to convolute phrasing that avoiding it entails.  (>^-‘)>

 

Bene scribete.

Wednesday Writing Word: Epistrophe

Epistrophe

/ɛˈpɪstrəfi/  |  eh-PISS-truh-fee

 

Epistrophe is the repetition of a word or phrase at the end of consecutive sentences or clauses (basically the converse of anaphora).  Like its counterpart, it is mostly used for emphasis through poetic redundancy.

 

Examples:

  • The slog is the worst, its face is the worst, and its mere existence is the worst.
  • Stop writing, and you lose.  Stop editing, and they lose.  Humor the slog, and we all lose.
  • I’d slay the slog with pleasure, then dump its remains with pleasure, so I could finally write – with pleasure!

 

Epistrophe.  Use it.

 

Bene scribete.

Public Service Announcement: “Goldfish Mac & Cheese”

Goldfish "Mac & Cheese" display at Wal*Mart

Goldfish Mac & Cheese?
Beware, my friends – it’s a trap;
Sadness lives in here.

 

I suppose I should start by saying that I’m not a big fan of dry-box macaroni and cheese (really, Stouffer’s frozen stuff is the only pre-made kind of any sort I find to be worthwhile).  The other day at the grocery, however, I saw that Pepperidge Farm had decided to throw its hat into the game, and at that very moment I was apparently hungry enough to think, “Hey, Pepperidge Farm makes some really good stuff (mmm, Milanos), so this might actually be decent!”  It was a long day, and Goldfish Crackers in creamy pasta-y form sounded kind of good, all right?

…stop judging me.  (>^-‘)>

Anyway, I was feeling adventurous enough to try the “pizza” kind, so I whipped up a batch thereof.  The smell…was frightening.

And then…and then I tasted it.

Now, I don’t know in whose mind this substance could taste like pizza.  Or cheese.  Or food, for that matter.  No, the flavor was more akin to dark, tangy, bitter misery.  To wit, if you were to subtractively combine Top Ramen with Totino’s party pizzas, this would taste cheaper still.  I tried to drown it out with pepper and garlic, but even so I was only able to stomach a few bites before throwing the rest away – something I am typically loath to do with any food, no matter how inexpensive.

But as those few bites sat upon my tongue, I found myself wondering who “Goldfish Mac & Cheese” could possibly be for, as I was unable to imagine any person who would simultaneously actually exist and enjoy its taste.  Even if I were to expand my consideration to theoretical people, and the basis for one such theoretical person (from which all other characteristics were derived) proposes that he is someone who would enjoy “Goldfish Mac & Cheese”, I can only conclude that he would also hate it.  It just made me angry at food in general for the rest of the day.

So I guess all I’m really trying to say is that, if you happen to find yourself in a position where you might consider putting Pepperidge Farm’s “Goldfish Mac & Cheese” into your body, well, you’ve just got to not do it, that’s all.

 

Bene scribete.

Upcoming eBook Services

It’s been a good week for the world of eBooks, with not just one, but two separate announcements – one from someone big, one from someone small – on new ways we’ll soon have to get these things on our devices.

 

MatchBook Logo

Amazon’s MatchBook service, launching next month, is just the sort of thing I’ve been waiting for – buy a physical copy of the book, and get the digital one for free.  Sensible enough, right?  Well, actually, it’s buy the book in print and get the eBook for $2.99 or less, but I’m optimistic that publishers will eventually gravitate toward electing the free option.  The film industry has done this with movies for a while now (DVDs and Blu-rays all seem to come with free digital downloads these days), and Amazon itself gives away free MP3s with CD purchases.  It seems a little odd that books – far more basic than these other media types – are once again last to the party (and not even fully committed to complimentary yet), but as they say, it’s better late than never.

Naturally, the service is limited to Kindle eBooks, but Kindle applications are ubiquitous, and Amazon does have the largest library.  Plus, as is the norm with the industry, B&N and others will likely soon enough follow suit.  So I’d call it a good thing all around, and a smart move on Amazon’s part that will simultaneously support both print and digital media, keeping readers and publishers happy.  I was even excited about the prospect of The Amber Ring being be a free download with the purchase of its paperback, until I quickly remembered that the Kindle version is free anyway…  (>^-‘)>

 

Oyster Books logo

Oyster – a much-anticipated “Netflix for books”, as it were – made its initial launch yesterday as an invite-only iPhone application, with open enrollment and support for other devices to come over time.  For $9.95 a month, Oyster offers unlimited reading of any and all books in its library (100,000 and growing).  HarperCollins is the only big house they’ve got on board to start with, but if they can secure one, and the service takes off, it’s not too hard to imagine that they will score others.  For the meantime, it looks like they’re also happy to work with smaller presses and independent authors.

Again, with services like Netflix and Spotify having existed for years, it’s strange to think that it’s taken this long for anyone to adopt such a model with books, but here’s to hoping that it does as well as its counterparts!

 

Bene scribete.

Wednesday Writing Word: Antimeria

Antimeria

/,æntɨ’mɛriə/  |  AN-tih-MAIR-ee-uh

 

Antimeria is one of my favorite rhetoric devices.  It is the application of a word outside of its lexical category – e.g., using an adjective as a noun or a noun as a verb (in this case also autologically called ‘verbing’!).  Even with the words repurposed ad hoc, the missing semantics are filled in by context and their meaning is easily understood.

When particular uses become common enough, polysemes are born.

 

Examples:

  • The slog is giving me a case of the sads.
  • I can’t computer very much with the slog gnawing at my brain.
  • Thanks to the slog, I feel like I’m stupiding all over the place.

 

Antimeria.  Use it.

 

Bene scribete.