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

 

Questions From Users of the Manual

Q: Is it correct to leave “post” as a separate word in the following sentence? “These activities must take place from prelaunch to post launch.”

A: In section 8.3.1 (“When Not to Use Hyphens”), you’ll see the following:

Note that when post is used as a combining adjectival form, as in postmortem examination, it is set closed up. When it is used as an adverb, as in post hoc testing, it is set as 2 separate words.

So in your example, you would not close up “post launch.” However, the meaning of this sentence is ambiguous to me.  I would suggest rephrasing it to avoid an awkward construction and to clarify exactly what interval you are talking about. How about “These activities must take place both before and after launch.”?—Cheryl Iverson, MA

Quiz Yourself

Correct the grammar error in the following sentence:

We performed a quantitative overview of randomized trials which tested β-blockers in myocardial infarction, heart failure, and hypertension.

Highlight for the answer:

We performed a quantitative overview of randomized trials that tested β-blockers in myocardial infarction, heart failure, and hypertension.

Incorrect use of relative pronoun (which vs that) (§7.2.2, Relative Pronouns, pp 317-319 in print). That introduces a phrase that is essential to the meaning of the sentence, and which introduces a phrase that adds more information but is not essential to the meaning. Which should always be preceded by a comma. Another example: “He visited the new hospital, which had been built last year” is correct. However, if there were 2 hospitals and only 1 had been built last year, the sentence would read, “He visited the new hospital that had been built last year.”—Laura King, ELS

Questions From Users of the Manual

Q: I am used to writing “compared with” when discussing results/measurements. Can you please comment on whether this is correct?

A: This is addressed in the glossary in chapter 11. See “compare to, compare with.” You’ll see there that “compare with” is usually used when the aim is to examine similarities or differences in detail.

Q: I was trained in other settings to ignore having to write out the state on first mention if the city is well known, especially if the readership is primarily American. For example, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco would not require adding the state name on first mention. Something like Spring Green would. What would AMA style require?

A: Please see section 14.5, where this is addressed in detail. The key sentence is this:  “At first mention, the name of a state, territory, possession, province, or country should be spelled out when it follows the name of a city.” In earlier editions, we used to follow a policy something like what you describe but changed that as it was a matter of opinion what was “well known” and what was not.  Also, with the international readership of so many publications, this becomes a trickier question.—Cheryl Iverson, MA

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

Questions From Users of the Manual

Q: My colleagues and I are debating the correctness of the following sentence:  If any of the side effects gets serious, contact the study doctor.

A: If you remove the words “of the” from your sentence, you will find the answer(s) readily apparent. If there is one side effect, you’d use the singular:  “If any side effect becomes serious….”  If there is more than one side effect, you’d use the plural:  If any side effects become serious….”

Q: Should “week” or “weeks” be used in the following sentences?

 The changes in serum creatinine remained stable from week/weeks 48 to 96.

Nausea typically develops between the fourth and sixth week/weeks of pregnancy.

A: We would suggest using “weeks” in both examples. It would, of course, not be incorrect to repeat “week,” eg, “…at week 48 and week 96,” but for efficiency you could use “…at weeks 48 and 96.”—Cheryl Iverson, MA

Questions From Users of the Manual

Q: I understand that the second printing of the AMA Manual of Style is now available and that many of the items in the list of Errata on the companion website (www.amamanualofstyle.com) are corrected therein. How can I tell if I have the first or the second printing? Does the second printing have a different ISBN?

A: Yes, the second printing was published in October 2007 and in it the majority of errata listed on the companion website are corrected. You can tell which printing you have by looking at the copyright page of the book (p iv). In the lower left corner of that page is a string of numbers, beginning, on the left, with 9. The number on the far right of that string will indicate the number of the printing. If the last number on the right is a 2, you have the second printing. The ISBN does not change with printings.

Q: Which is correct: “Qvar has similar systemic effects to those of fluticasone” or “Qvar has similar systemic effects as those of fluticasone”?

A: The correct idiomatic form is “similar…to” not “similar…as,” as with “identical…to” rather than “identical…as.” I suspect the use of “as” in this construction comes from a related idiom: “the same as.” You could also rephrase this to “Qvar and fluticasone have similar systemic effects.” or “Qvar has systemic effects similar to those of fluticasone.”

Q: Has the policy on SI units changed? If so, how?

A: Yes. These changes are addressed in detail in section 18.5.10. For laboratory values reported in JAMA Network Journals, factors for converting conventional units to SI units should be provided in the article. In text, the conversion factor should be given once, at first mention of the laboratory value, in parentheses following the conventional unit.

The blood glucose concentration of 126 mg/dL (to convert to millimoles per liter, multiply by 0.055) was used as a criterion for diagnosing diabetes.

For articles in which several laboratory values are reported in the text, the conversion factors may be provided in a paragraph at the end of the “Methods” section. In tables and figures, this information can be provided in the footnote or legend.

Q: Although the 10th edition recommends spelling out state names except in full addresses and the reference list (for location of publishers), I notice that you still show “DC” for District of Columbia. Is this an exception?

A: Yes.

Q: If a state’s full name is spelled out on first mention in running text, per the new style, what do you do when numerous cities in the same state are mentioned in an article? Should the state name be spelled out every time it is mentioned, every time a new city is mentioned, or should the 2-letter postal code be used after the first time the state name is spelled out in running text?

A: The answer will depend on the context. If the article is about cities in a particular state, you might not need to include the state name with the individual cities at all, as it will be clear what the state is, eg, “6 cities in Massachusetts.” If the state name is spelled out at the first mention of each new city, it shouldn’t need to be repeated, unless there are instances in the manuscript of a city that exists in more than 1 state (eg, Springfield, Massachusetts, and Springfield, Illinois).—Cheryl Iverson, MA