Singular They

One of the more common mistakes I come across while editing is improper use of the singular they. People use it all the time informally, so it often creeps up in more formal writing and authors don’t even know it’s incorrect. Sometimes it’s easy to rewrite the sentence as plural, but other times it’s a real struggle. That’s why I was excited about the recent trend toward allowing it in certain cases. Both the AP Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style updated their policies earlier this year to include a few exceptions when rewriting the sentence as plural would be awkward or unclear.

The AP Stylebook now includes 3 examples of when singular they can be used:

  1. A singular they might be used when an anonymous source’s gender must be shielded and other wording is overly awkward.
  2. When an indefinite pronoun (anyone, everyone, someone) or unspecified/unknown gender (a person, the victim, the winner) is used.
  3. In stories about people who identify as neither male nor female or ask not to be referred to as he/she/him/her.

The 17th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style now includes 2 ways in which they can have a singular meaning.

  1. When referring to someone whose gender is unknown or unspecified. This use of the singular is acceptable in speech and informal writing, but for formal writing, Chicago still recommends avoiding it, offering various other ways to achieve bias-free language.
  2. When a specific, known person does not identify with a gender-specific pronoun such as he or she. This usage is still not widespread either in speech or in writing, but Chicago accepts it even in formal writing.

The AMA Manual of Style will follow suit with the next edition, allowing the use of plural pronouns with singular indefinite antecedents (eg, Everyone allocates their time) in an effort to avoid sex-specific pronouns and awkward sentence structure.

Even though there’s more flexibility with the singular they than before, in most cases rewording usually is possible and still always preferable, especially in formal writing.—Tracy Frey

 

Everything Is Relative (Pronouns)

Unless you fell down a Google rabbit hole and ended up here unintentionally, you’re probably already aware just how much information is contained in the AMA Manual of Style. But to put it in perspective, the style guide’s current iteration contains 1010 pages, and that’s not counting the pages at the very beginning that are numbered with Roman numerals (because no one reads those anyway, right? [sorry Cheryl]). Still, despite the borderline-unmanageable amount of information in the AMA Manual of Style, the articles I edit on a day-to-day basis are usually very sound regarding obscure rules found 3 bullet points below a niche subsection of information explaining…you-name-it. I can generally count on authors to italicize gene names and keep corresponding proteins unitalicized or to capitalize virus terms that end in -virales, -viridae, or -virinae, etc.

But the cost of the attention to the more complicated nuances of AMA style seems to be that baseline grammatical rules get overlooked. I’m not saying that the articles that hit my desk are anarchically grammarless, but there are usually at least 1 or 2 hard-and-fast grammatical conventions that get ignored. And the rule that gets violated far and beyond all the others pertains to the usage of the relative pronouns “that” and “which.”

So here’s a quick refresher for everyone (myself included): A restrictive clause directly affects the intended meaning of the subject in the preceding clause, and restrictive clauses are introduced by “that.” Nonrestrictive clauses are not necessary to the intended meaning of the subject in the preceding clause, and nonrestrictive clauses are introduced by “which.”

Example of a restrictive clause: The band The National wrote a song that is my favorite song. Because “that is my favorite song” modifies the subject “song” to a degree essential for the intended meaning, a restrictive clause introduced with “that” is necessary (the subject “song” would not be the particular song in question—my favorite song—if the restrictive clause wasn’t present). The modified subject’s intended meaning hinges on the restrictive clause.

Example of a nonrestrictive clause: The band The National wrote a song called “The Geese of Beverly Road,” which is a perfect example of early-00’s indie-rock songwriting. Because “which is a perfect example…” simply describes the subject “song” and doesn’t change its intended meaning, all that’s required is a nonrestrictive clause introduced with “which.” The modified subject would still be the song in question (“The Geese of Beverly Road”) in this context without the information the nonrestrictive clause provides.

I know, I know, this seems to be a nitpicky issue that no one save the professional manuscript editor would get hung up on, but precision with language hinges on attention to grammatical detail, which is crucial when presenting scholarly research and information.—Sam Wilder

“NEW YEARS RULIN’S”

As a long-time manuscript editor, it’s not often that I come across things that are full of grammatical errors, but don’t need a lick of editing and are perfect just as they are.

I’ve had Woody Guthrie’s NEW YEARS RULIN’S tacked up in my cube for a while now, and periodically take it down and examine it and marvel at it.

These RULIN’S  are as good as any life advice from any philosopher. What better advice could a person offer than, for instance, to Love Everybody, Learn People Better, Read Lots Good Books, Stay Glad, or Keep Hoping Machine Running—not to mention Dream Good and Change Socks? I love his little sketches and “Middle of Book” note.

I don’t know if Woody was laying on the rustic, ungrammatical charm in his RULIN’S, but I wouldn’t change a thing if asked to edit this advice for a good life.—Karen Boyd

New-Fangled Help for the Grammar Police

I’d been pondering what to write about next for our AMA Style blog, and by happy coincidence someone sent me a link to a Mental Floss article about a great new iMessage app for those manuscript editors and proofreaders who get a little twitch whenever they receive a text from someone with a free-wheelin’ approach to spelling and grammar: the appropriately named Grammar Snob by Apps From Outer Space LLC, available at iTunes. At $0.99, this seems like a real  bargain for grammar cops, maybe youthful ones especially, because errors are corrected by using stickers. Or maybe I should say eStickers. “Tap and hold to peel them off so you can place them in just the right spot,” instructs the website, which also features iMessage screenshots of Grammar Snobbery in action. (Fortunately for my friends and family members, I do not own an iPhone, so I will not be terrorizing them with these grammar stickers any time soon.)

But I can’t help wondering about whether using eStickers could possibly be as satisfying as stealth-proofreading with a real pencil or pen. I know that compulsive correctors are out there…I’ve seen the discreet notations in library books and signs in the train station elevator, to name a few. Besides typos, misuse of plurals and apostrophes seems to inspire the most common calls to action: “condo’s for rent,” “girl’s night out,” “the Smith’s party.” Here’s a good one from Apostrophe Abuse: “Cheffin’s Cheesesteak’s and Cubano’s.” In 2014, Grammarly had “a cut-throat competition to determine the most ‘maddening, writing error concluded… with MISUSED APOSTROPHES crowned as the undisputed Grammar Madness bracket champion” (eg, “Deep Fried Oreo’s”). These are the types of errors that editors and proofreaders sometimes cannot leave uncorrected. We just can’t help ourselves. So when faced with an error that needs to be corrected in a friend’s ungrammatical text, the Grammar Snob app is a nice resource to add to our editorial “armamentarium,” although you may not be surprised to learn that it will likely “turn you into a super annoying person.”Karen Boyd

 

When Worlds Collide

Hooray for grammar! AMA Style Insider was pleased and surprised to find our humble blog linked from the website of Midwestern singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens. Subjects, objects, Miley Cyrus, and AMA style—it’s all coming together.—Brenda Gregoline, ELS

Split Infinitives

Would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive [expletive deleted], I split it so it will stay split….—Raymond Chandler1

The proscription against splitting infinitives—the insertion of one or more words between the particle to and the bare verb2 (eg, to really try, to quickly go)—dates from the early 19th century, when an 1834 magazine article fired perhaps the first shot in the war against the construction.3 Other observers such as Henry Alford (A Plea for the Queen’s English [1864])4 quickly followed suit, and soon a full-blown battle was afoot. The timing of all of this is not surprising, given the affection of the Victorian era for Latin,4 a language in which the infinitive cannot be split because it is a single word.5,6

It should be noted, however, that writers of English have been making free use of the split infinitive since the 14th century3 and that “Noteworthy splitters include John Donne, Daniel Defoe, George Eliot, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, William Wordsworth, and Willa Cather”6—and Raymond Chandler, who once took the admirably firm stance noted above.1 Moreover, the split infinitive has enjoyed renewed support since at least the 1930s, and many authorities now agree with Sterling Leonard, who in 1932 wrote that “The evidence in favor of the judiciously split infinitive is sufficiently clear to make it obvious that teachers who condemn it are wasting their time and that of their pupils.”7 Part of the reason for the support is that because the particle to is not truly part of the infinitive, technically “there’s nothing to split.”4 Furthermore, a split infinitive sounds natural because in English, the best place for an adverb… is right in front of the word it describes.”4

However, some discretion is necessary. Some split infinitives are acceptable because the adverb will not make sense anywhere else in the sentence. Others simply sound better owing to the rise and fall of accented syllables (consider, for example, perhaps the most famous split infinitive of all time—Star Trek’s “To boldly go where no man has gone before….”).2,3,7 Still others are acceptable on the grounds that unsplitting them would result in an awkward construction or, worse, change the sense altogether7—consider, for example, the different meanings of “I want to live simply,” “I simply want to live,” and “I want to simply live.”8

This is not to say that all infinitives can or should be split. Given the lingering wariness toward the construction, avoiding splits is advisable when writing for unfamiliar audiences or for those known to favor the proscription; in such cases, if “a split is easily fixed by putting the adverb at the end of the phrase and the meaning remains the same, then avoiding the split is the best course.”7 Also, writers should carefully assess splits involving the insertion of 2 or more words between the particle and the bare verb to ensure that the intended meaning is not changed or simply obscured by a list of adverbs. Last, writers should also take special care to avoid ambiguity that can arise when only the first infinitive in a series of infinitives contains the particle, because it can be unclear whether the adverb modifies only the first infinitive or all of the infinitives in the series.7

The bottom line:

● Splitting infinitives is not incorrect—but deciding whether to split is a matter of having “a good ear and a keen eye.”7

● Whenever possible, take into account the perceived tastes of the audience—and always take into account the rhythm and sound of the construction, the number of adverbs in use, and any ambiguity that might result from placement of the adverb(s).

● Recasting a sentence to avoid using an infinitive altogether is always an option.

● If it seems that splitting is justifiable, by all means go for it—and know that you are in good company.—Phil Sefton, ELS

1. Chandler R. Letter to Atlantic Monthly editor Edward Weeks. Dictionary.com website. http://quotes.dictionary.com/would_you_convey_my_compliments_to_the_purist. January 18, 1948. Accessed November 8, 2012.

2. Fogarty M. Quick and Dirty Tips: Split Infinitives. Grammar Girl website. http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/split-infinitives.aspx. Accessed October 9, 2012.

3. Nordquist R. Grammar & Composition: Split Infinitive. About.com website. http://grammar.about.com/od/rs/g/splitinfinitive.htm?p=1. Accessed October 9, 2012.

4. O’Conner PT. Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. 3rd ed. New York, NY: Riverhead Books; 2009:210-213.

5. Iverson C, Christiansen S, Flanagin A, et al. AMA Manual of Style: A Guide for Authors and Editors. 10th ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2007:322.

6. Split Infinitive. thefreedictionary.com website. http://www.thefreedictionary.com/p/Splits%20the%20infinitive. Accessed October 9, 2012.

7. Garner BA. The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2000:314-315.

8. Maddox M. What Is a Split Infinitive? DailyWritingTips website. http://www.dailywritingtips.com/what-is-a-split-infinitive/. Accessed November 8, 2012.