by Barbara McNichol
When it comes to English grammar, disagreements show up in writing and editing all the time – and mainstream media has blurred the lines along the way.
I can hear you saying, “Fine, but why does it matter?”
Well, precision in language is important, because an exception on one platform – a printed newspaper article or spoken news broadcast, for example – will have different repercussions than an exception in an academic paper, a technical manual, or a formal business document.
If you’re creating content on one platform that doesn’t adhere to basic English grammar rules and suddenly find yourself in a situation, at work or in university, where you’re expected to follow them to the letter you’ll be at a disadvantage.
By following the basic rules of English grammar at all times you will establish yourself as an authoritative, clear, and precise communicator. And there are some simple ways to stay on the right side of grammar rules, but first…
What does the media have to do with it?
As I mentioned, mainstream media has influenced English grammar.
The Associated Press (AP) Stylebook gave writers the green light to use one disagreement: the plural pronoun “they” as a singular noun. This change came about because of issues surrounding gender identity, and it’s a worthy endeavour to represent people more accurately.
AP’s solution to this shift is to substitute:
- He or she with “they”
- His or hers with “theirs”
- Him or her with “them”
The Stylebook suggests that writers use the person’s name wherever possible if they’ve asked to not be identified by gender. Further, when using the plural pronoun in place of the singular pronoun, to be sure the reader understands you’re talking about one person, not several.
In theory, this leaves less room for ambiguity on the reader’s part when he or she is taking meaning away from a news item.
Grammar experts are asking themselves…
Why is this necessary?
It’s a fair question.
Isn’t it more important to follow English grammar norms – especially when there are easy fixes to some common problems?
Here are some common examples of noun/pronoun disagreement, and the simple solution:
- “We want the school board to do their job.”
Problem? It’s one school board, not several. Here are two potential fixes for this grammatical error:
“We want the school board to do its job.”
“We want the school board members to do their job.”
- “Your reader can peruse your book at their leisure.”
Problem? There’s only one reader, not several. Here are grammatically correct alternatives:
“Your readers can peruse your book at their leisure.”
“Your reader can peruse the book at his or her leisure.”
In order to keep agreements in place – to not switch between singular and plural – when dealing with gender identity, you can use these writing tips:
- Use the person’s name instead of a pronoun.
- If you don’t know the gender (or preference) of the person you’re citing, use “his or her”, “he or she” or even “s/he” – they’re all grammatically correct.
- Alternate between masculine and feminine pronouns – I edited a book for an author writing about raising a baby who did this seamlessly.
Just because it’s old…
You could argue that it’s not relevant to hang on to the “old” English grammar rules and it’s true that they have flexed and changed slightly over time. But it’s wise to hang onto those basic rules, and there are ways to adapt your message to current communication standards without abandoning the basics.
I’ve got a handy Pronoun Chart you can use if you’re in doubt – request one here.
Finally, I’d like to know what you think. Given our ever-changing language, would you side with the exceptions the AP Stylebook offers, or do you prefer to put accuracy above all in your writing?
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