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 create content that doesn’t adhere to basic English grammar rules and get into a situation of being 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 establish yourself as a clear, precise, and authoritative communicator. And there are simple ways to stay on the right side of the rules, but first…
Media’s Influence on English Grammar
Back to the mainstream media and its influence on English grammar.
The Associated Press (AP) Stylebook recently 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. I agree; it’s a worthy endeavor 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”
This 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 written piece. But English grammar experts are asking themselves,“Why is this necessary? Isn’t it more important to follow English grammar norms – especially when easy fixes to common problems exist?”
Here are two examples of noun/pronoun disagreement and their simple solutions:
Example 1: “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.”
Example 2: “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.”
To keep agreements in place – and not switch between singular and plural – you can use these writing tips when dealing with gender identity:
- 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. E.g., An author I worked with wrote about how to raise a baby, and she did this seamlessly.
You could argue that it’s not relevant to hang on to the “old” English grammar rules. It’s true; they have flexed over time. But it is wise to adhere to those basic rules. These ways help you adapt your message to current communication standards without abandoning the basics.
If you’re in doubt, I have a handy Proper Pronoun Chart you can use – request one here.
What do 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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