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

Dr Readability: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Pronoun

In academic writing, the current modus operandi seems to be: the more words the better. Why say “children” when we can say “individuals of pediatric age”? Why “time” when “period of time” sounds so much more substantial? Strunk and White1 would surely disapprove. Extraneous verbiage may make one’s writing sound lofty and important, but it can muddle one’s message. Writers should not use circuitous, rhetorical language to persuade their readers. Strong, clear writing, without extra baggage, creates a confident tone and allows the reader to more easily understand a work’s significance.

Here are a few ways to clean up one’s writing for easier reading:

Use the pronoun. Use it.

Writers often repeat nouns instead of using pronouns, as writers fear that readers won’t understand what the writers are saying. Not horrible, but is there confusion over what they refers to in this revised sentence: “Writers often repeat nouns instead of using pronouns, as they fear that readers won’t understand what they are saying”? Repeating the same word or phrase creates reading fatigue, like listening to someone beat on a drum over and over. Trust that your reader has a longer attention span than the time it takes to read half a sentence and there will be no need to use the same nouns over and over and over…

Here’s an example: “Because many people use vitamin therapy, we must determine the efficacy of vitamin therapy compared with other treatments.”

How about this instead: “Because many people use vitamin therapy, we must determine its efficacy compared with that of other treatments.”

Use the verb.

Editors are in agreement that “to be” constructions are weak and should be replaced with the actual verb. I agree!

Substituting “to be” constructions with actual verbs makes writing stronger and more confident. Researchers often use the phrase, “Our findings are indicative of…” See the “to be” hidden in there? How about “Our findings indicate…”? Were “patients in receipt of the drug” or did they “receive the drug”? Were participants “in attendance” or did they “attend”? The meaning is the same, but the writing sounds a whole lot better with the true verb.

This goes hand in hand with the passive voice. We’re not saying that the passive voice is wrong necessarily, it’s just that it is believed by some people that it is not as strong as it could be. Rather, some people believe that the passive voice is weak. In general, the active voice should be used over the passive voice, especially in cases when the “actor” is present. For example, “Patients were monitored by resident physicians” should be changed to “Resident physicians monitored the patients.”

This is another way to say: Use the delete button.

Close your eyes. Pretend you have a word limit. Now, pretend you have to follow it. Would you rather cut 100 words from the “Results” section or 100 words throughout a manuscript that add nothing of substance substantial? See what I did there?

Here are a few substitutions that reduce wordiness:

–“combined with” instead of “in combination with”
–“important” instead of “of importance”
–“most” instead of “the majority of”
–“can” instead of “is able to”
–“affect” instead of “to have an effect on”

Eliminating exaggerations can also trim one’s writing. How often is quite, very, or rather necessary (or accurate)? Writers should also avoid superlatives like profoundly and significantly when describing a study’s results.

These tips will help eliminate excess verbiage and heighten readability while preserving meaning. What is there to be afraid of fear?—Laura Adamczyk

[author’s note: Some of these ideas came from lectures by Northwestern University professor Bill Savage, PhD.]
1. Strunk W Jr, White EB. The Elements of Style. 4th ed. New York, NY: Longman; 1999.