Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Editing your own work is a minefield of decisions, your map to safety cobbled together by tips and rules from a dozen different sources. Getting to the other side and publishing your book depends on hundreds of small choices, and it’s easy to find yourself halfway through a project, doubting every choice you’ve made so far and unsure how to go on. It’s useful, then, to understand a little something about the basis on which those choices are made. Appreciating the different approaches to the grammar of your work is a great place to start, so let’s take a look at prescriptive versus descriptive grammar.
‘They’: A case study
Or, rather, let’s move in that direction. First, we’ll take a look at an example that will make the difference simple, and one that covers a handy, single-use grammar tip that many authors aren’t aware of. This example is the following question:
Can ‘they’ be used as a single-person pronoun?
That is, can the word ‘they’ be used to refer to one person, in the same way ‘he’ or ‘she’ might be used? Here’s the simple answer: yes. Here’s why it matters: it makes your writing smoother, it avoids unnecessary problems, and it can be your guiding light when editing your work.Embracing ‘they’ as a singular pronoun avoids a host of unnecessary issues.Click To Tweet
There’s a long history of ‘they’ being used as a single-person pronoun, and it’s usually in cases where a single person is being described but their gender isn’t (or can’t be) known. In the examples below, sentiments are rendered clumsy when ‘they’ isn’t used:
Whoever killed Darius, we know he or she worked alone. It’ll take work, but he or she must be caught.
Please ensure your desk is spotless before you go home on Friday. The interim principal is arriving on Monday, and we want him or her to get the right impression.
You can’t ask a journalist to reveal his or her source!
As opposed to the smoother versions that using ‘they’ as a single-person pronoun allows for:
Whoever killed Darius, we know they worked alone. It’ll take work, but they must be caught.
Please ensure your desk is spotless before you go home on Friday. The interim principal is arriving on Monday, and we want them to get the right impression.
You can’t ask a journalist to reveal their source!
At this point, you may be wondering what the problem is; surely this usage is completely valid? Well, that’s a pretty heated argument that’s been raging for quite some time. Some people really, really hate the singular usage of ‘they’.
The singular ‘they’ has been in use since the 14th century, but generally as a rare choice, with its usage increasing in prominence in recent times. Opponents argue that it’s an unnecessary bolt-on to standard grammar, generally created by unclear or overly precise phrasing, and easily avoided through rephrasing or alternatives.
I’m all for a certain flexibility and adaptive ease with regard to language and how we use it… But I see absolutely no reason other than laziness to start subbing our ‘he’s and ‘she’s with a clunky ‘they’, or our ‘his’es and ‘her’s with ‘their’s. There is a reason we have distinct pronouns, and that is so we can be specific. If we don’t know the specifics, we should try to find them out, or use one of those handy words – ‘he’ or ‘she’ or ‘one’, for instance – that get around the ‘they’ problem.
– Jen Doll, ‘The Singular ‘They’ Must Be Stopped’, The Atlantic
On a more practical level, the singular ‘they’ is one of those unfortunate lessons that hasn’t been properly standardized in early education. Some people grew up being told it was absolutely unacceptable, while for others it was never an issue. Consequently, there are a vocal group of people for who ‘they’ is irritating when used in this way.
That’s fine, we’ve all got preferences (personally, I can’t bear the phrase ‘on accident’), but ‘they’ is pretty useful. If you don’t see the issue, or you’re willing to entertain the counterargument, here’s why ‘they’ belongs in your writing.
The case for ‘they’
First of all, the singular use of ‘they’ has been a great tool for cutting down on implicit sexism. It isn’t a coincidence that the rise in popularity of ‘they’ coincides with changing attitudes to ‘he’ as default. Embracing ‘they’ serves to remove a whole host of potential accidental assumptions in your writing.
A side-effect of this process is that, in some circumstances, the phrase ‘he or she’ takes on an archaic tone – as ‘they’ becomes more and more ubiquitous, ‘he or she’ becomes more and more suspect, as described by comedian James Acaster.
I like when people say, ‘he or she’. Because ‘he or she’ is only ever said by men, who fully intended on just saying ‘he’ but at the very last second remembered that ‘she’ exists. So it’s always said, ‘he OR SHE!’ There’s panic in their voice, no-one’s accused them of anything yet. ‘OR SHE!’
‘I never said they couldn’t, I got in there before the next word, you got nothing on me, OR SHE!’
Women never say, ‘he or she’. Women use a different word; men don’t know this word, it’s confusing and disorientating to men. Women say (and I hope I’m pronouncing this right) ‘theyyyy’. 99% of men have no idea what ‘they’ means, the other 1% think it means ‘he’. It’s a confusing word!
– James Acaster, ‘Reset’, Repertoire
This perception is only likely to increase, as ‘they’ has also found utility as one pronoun used by non-binary individuals, who can’t accurately be addressed using gendered pronouns.
Both of these examples are to say that ‘they’ has a specific, deliberate place in the lexicon. It’s certainly not going anywhere, and it’s likely to continue to grow in popular use. Part of this is that it’s a simpler and clearer mode of expression. ‘He or she’ is ungainly, and this is especially the case in dialogue, where characters begin to sound bizarre if they try to discuss an individual whose gender they don’t know without using ‘they’.
Finally, ‘they’ allows for non-specific sentiments where they’re appropriate. For example, when describing a role that is always held by an individual, but where gender is not fixed. The Marvel superhero Thor wields a hammer emblazoned with the text ‘Whosoever holds this hammer, if s/he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor’, with the ‘s’ appearing and disappearing based on the gender of the person who successfully wields the weapon. It’s an odd detail springing from the early assumption that the character would always be male, but one that could be solved by a simple ‘they’, which would never need to change. In fiction, where linguistic trickery is often at a premium, there’s a benefit to not having to specify gender in things like contracts, prophecies, and wagers.‘They’ fills a hole in our lexicon, which means it’s almost certainly here to stay.Click To Tweet
In short, ‘they’ has enough unique utility that it’s worth incorporating into your vocabulary as a replacement for ‘he or she’ and ‘s/he’. That’s the single tip I promised earlier, and here’s why it has wider importance.
Prescriptive versus descriptive grammar
When it comes to grammar, there are two schools with differing opinions on how grammar should be defined. Prescriptive grammarians focus on how language should be used, insisting that the rules of grammar are there for writers to follow in pursuit of an objectively correct ideal. Descriptive grammarians focus on how language is used, insisting that grammar should be an observation of how language is utilized in a given moment.Prescriptivism decrees how words should be used, descriptivism chronicles how they are.Click To Tweet
The answer, it goes without saying, is somewhere between the two. To be purely prescriptive is to rob language of its power to adapt and evolve, whereas to be purely descriptive is to erode the foundations of shared understanding. Of course, that doesn’t mean the ‘right’ path is the exact middle, but it does address one of the core worries of anyone editing their own work: when you’ve written something in accordance with how language is used, but not in accordance with the strictest rules of grammar, are you going to run into problems with editors, publishers, and the reading public?
The answer is that people differ, but that descriptive grammar is a completely valid school of thought, and it’s your job, as an editor, to find where you lie on the prescriptive/descriptive spectrum.
There are lots of arguments about how ‘they’ has historically been used, and the precedents for its popularity as a single-person pronoun, but at its core, this debate comes down to prescriptivist versus descriptivist attitudes. Can a word, having found a niche in which it provides a unique service to the language, change the way it is used?
The answer is usually ‘yes’, but rather than being a referendum on a single word, this process can help you establish your own rules as a self-editor. To what degree is the real-life use of a term justification for how it is depicted in print? To what degree do you feel that established rules should guide your hand, and to what degree do you feel that the words on the page should describe words as they’re actually used?
Going your own way
Making this decision may seem academic, but it’s the solid foundation on which you can make a huge number of decisions when editing your work. Put it down on paper and you have your own rule by which all future, tricky decisions can be judged.
The first rule of editing is consistency; that a decision made should be made the same way throughout a text. Figure out where you stand in regard to prescriptive and descriptive grammar and that consistency just got much, much easier.
Good self-editing is built on a bedrock of consistency.Click To Tweet
When it comes to everyone else, as long as you can justify your choices, editors, publishers, and readers will be able to work with your reasoning. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, editors are there to help you fulfil your intent, so if they can see a consistent approach, they can stick to that. Publishers might have opinions about what will sell, but since your decisions are based on consistent logic, you’ll be equipped to have that discussion. Finally, readers are open to a lot of experimentation. Again, so long as your decisions are consistent, few readers will reject you out of hand.
After all, even extreme descriptivist approaches can achieve mainstream popularity. Many writers use descriptivist grammar to represent unique language choices common to their communities – Irvine Welsh, for example, deliberately writes in a way that recreates Scottish phrasing, pronunciation, and slang. So long as it’s a deliberate choice made according to consistent logic, it’s got potential.
Where do you stand on prescriptivist and descriptivist grammar? Will you resist ‘they’ until your dying day? Let me know in the comments, and check out The Easy Way To Fix Your Preposition Problem and Four Secrets That Will Turn You Into An Objective Editor for more on this topic.