Don’t like singular they? Tell Mike Tyson.

Everyone has a plan till they get punched in the mouth
Mike Tyson helps James “Quick” Tillis adjust his plans in 1986.

 

 Everyone has a plan till they get punched in the mouth.

Obviously, this brilliant quote from Iron Mike works both literally and figuratively. But it’s a great and timely example of the value and utility of a singular they, which was just declared 2015’s Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society.

If you listen carefully, you can hear copy editors and the least-adaptable among us gnashing their teeth. Late last year, the Washington Post updated its style guidelines to accept singular they, and junior high school English teachers everywhere panicked and bemoaned the decline of the language and the death of rules and meaning. Of course they probably didn’t read the memo from Post copy editor Bill Walsh:

It is usually possible, and preferable, to recast sentences as plural to avoid both the sexist and antiquated universal default to male pronouns and the awkward use of he or she, him or her and the like: All students must complete their homework, not Each student must complete his or her homework.

When such a rewrite is impossible or hopelessly awkward, however, what is known as “the singular they” is permissible: Everyone has their own opinion about the traditional grammar rule. The singular they is also useful in references to people who identify as neither male nor female.

See that? Singular they is acceptable only when a rewrite is impossible or hopelessly awkward. Most of the time, there’s probably a graceful solution. And for those rare other times when there isn’t, or we’re referring to someone who prefers a gender-neutral pronoun, we’ll continue to do what I suspect we’ve already been doing this whole time.

The language isn’t going to die, everyone. We’re all going to be OK.

UPDATE! The Associated Press has finally joined the rest of the world and is grudgingly allowing singular they:

They/them/their is acceptable in limited cases as a singular and-or gender-neutral pronoun, when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy.

I don’t always peeve, but when I do, it’s about something very small

I don’t usually indulge in peevery, but I’m making an exception here.

Just a small fraction came up at work the other day, and I removed the word small, which created strife between me and the writer. A discussion ensued in which he said he wanted small reinserted because nine-tenths is technically a fraction and he was emphasizing the smallness. Without small, how would the reader know what he meant?

Yes, it’s true that nine-tenths is a fraction. And yes, one could truthfully say that a Bugatti Veyron, at $3.5 million, is a fraction of the cost of the $4 million Lamborghini Veneno. But you wouldn’t. You would never say that.

It would be a dumb thing to say because the idiom just a fraction means a very small amount. See how small is built in there? This is what I’m talking about. There’s your technical, mathematical fraction (three-fifths, etc.) and then there’s your idiom, in which the word fraction means a very small amount.

  1. a small part, amount, degree, etc.; portion

Anyway, I don’t care about who/whom or begs the question, and I’m learning to live with due to/because of. But a small fraction still gets to me a little.

My next car is probably going to be a Lamborghini Veneno, except it’s a small fraction too expensive for me. Also, I prefer the Countach anyway.

Conundrum is dumb

Aw, man. Get this: I’m at work, and a writer used conundrum in a way that didn’t feel right, so I looked it up.

 co·nun·drum: noun. 1. :  a riddle whose answer is or involves a pun.

What?! You have got to be kidding me. Since when? So add this to the getting-longer-every-day list of things I didn’t know, I guess, but it needs an asterisk, because come on. This is really so common a thing that it needs its own definition? I had to look up the definition again to find an example of such a thing.

What’s the difference between a jeweler and a jailer? One sells watches and the other watches cells.

Hurrr. Lame. How is this even a thing, people? Very disappointed in English today.

AP’s latest revelation makes copy editors cry like little girls

Pretty disappointed today in my editing brethren after the Associated Press’ bombshell that it will no longer make the distinction between more than and over.

If Facebook and Twitter are any indication, the AP ruined many lives yesterday and copy editors nationwide are in full revolt. The language world is in chaos.

But here’s the thing: Over means more than. It always has. Look:

o•ver (ō´vər) prep. [[ME ouer < OE ofer, akin to Ger über, ober < IE *uper (orig. a compar. of *upo, up) > L super, Gr hyper]]: More than, or above, in degree, amount, number, etc. [a moderate increase over his current salary, a gift costing over five dollars]

And if you can’t believe the dictionary, how about language hero Bryan Garner?

“In one of its uses, the prepositional over is interchangeable with more than <over 600 people were there>—and this has been so for more than 600 years. The charge that over is inferior to more than is a baseless crotchet.” — Garner’s Modern American Usage

It seems to me that editors and others who are supposed to enjoy language should be impressed by over‘s versatility and appreciate that it can do so much (I’m over it; hand it over; he was over the line; discussed over drinks; ad infinitum). I also wonder where all of our copy editors ever got the idea that words can do only one thing. How limiting.

The sooner we can stop blindly following arbitrary and meaningless rules and editing like robots, the sooner we can get back to the business of clarity and common sense. For the record, I don’t think much of the distinctions between over and during; like and such as; or since and because, either.

Copy editors riot after the Associated Press announced on Thursday that it no longer sees value in enforcing the imaginary distinction between “over” and “more than.” Many protesters wore helmets of bread because most copy editors cannot afford actual riot gear.

 

 

Ever read something so good you’re angry because someone else wrote it?

Yes, well, that’s where I am with this post by Kory Stamper, whose blog I found today somehow.

I know you’re surprised that I would ever be angry about anything, but whatever. She wrote something awesome, so I’m sharing it even though I resent her.

Let’s say that you feel, despite the evidence I may put in front of you, that “decimate” should not be used to refer to utterly destroying something. That’s fine, assuming you’ve gone through Steps 1-5 above. But before you move in to correct the next guy who uses “decimate” to mean “to utterly destroy,” consider: is this the hill you want to die on? Do you want your legacy in life to be “That One Person Who Bitched Endlessly About ‘Decimate’”? Are you happy with a life that will be beset by smart-asses like me asking why, if you are so interested in so-called etymological purity, you aren’t also tackling “nice” and “frankfurter” and holy hell half the month names of the Gregorian calendar?

That’s all. Carry on.

The language of Abraham Lincoln

I got to see Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” recently, and it was a dazzling film. Daniel Day-Lewis, of course, was incredible, but he had a great script to work with. Screenwriter Tony Kushner really nailed it. Ben Zimmer at the Boston Globe writes about how Kushner pulled it off:

One key to making the language historically suitable, he told me, was having the 20-volume print edition of the Oxford English Dictionary close at hand. A complete set of the OED—which includes deep histories of all its entry words, with examples—was one of his first purchases when he started earning money from his 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play, “Angels in America,” Kushner said. Through the many drafts of “Lincoln,” he checked every word that he thought might not have been appropriate for 1865.

The 20-volume OED is about $1,300, by the way. But the dialogue in “Lincoln” really is a treat to listen to, so I’d say it was money well-spent. And Tommy Lee Jones’ character (Thaddeus Stevens) has some especially good lines. Well-done, Mr. Kushner. Very impressive work. I am a little disappointed, though, that grousle isn’t a word anywhere.

And, again, Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance was flawless — and surprising. Add to the long (and getting longer) list of things I did not know: Abraham Lincoln apparently had a high-pitched voice. Not high-pitched like a woman or a crying cat, but higher than what you’d expect coming from such a large man — in stature and presence. Civil War scholar Harold Holzer wrote last year at Smithsonian.com about what Lincoln might have sounded like:

When Holzer was researching his 2004 book Lincoln at Cooper Union, he noticed an interesting consistency in the accounts of those who attended Lincoln’s speaking tour in February and March 1860. “They all seem to say, for the first ten minutes I couldn’t believe the way he looked, the way he sounded, his accent. But after ten minutes, the flash of his eyes, the ease of his presentation overcame all doubts, and I was enraptured,” says Holzer.

Same with Daniel Day-Lewis. After about 10 minutes, the incongruous voice starts to make sense and it just becomes part of the character.


Here’s an interview where Daniel Day-Lewis talks about finding the voice he used.


The trailer for Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.”


Tommy Lee Jones using words as weapons in “Lincoln.”

Of course the very best Daniel Day-Lewis character ever is Bill the Butcher in “Gangs of New York.” So here’s a clip from that movie for no reason at all. Enjoy.

My word! Breathless despair over language change

I remember working on a copy desk once long ago and discussing with someone whether a word was actually a word.

“It’s not in the dictionary,” she said.

It’s true that the capital-D Dictionary offers a sort-of legitimacy to a language. If it’s in the dictionary, then of course it’s a bona fide word. But if it’s not, then it doesn’t — or shouldn’t — exist. This comes from a fundamental misunderstanding, I think, about how language works. See, words come first. Only later are they recognized (or not) by dictionaries or other sources. (Same with grammar. All those “rules” are really just descriptions of conventions already strongly in use, but that’s another discussion.)

Every year, when words are added to the dictionary, entire throngs of people wail and gnash their teeth. This year, f-bomb ignited a typical uproar (“a grave mistake”) when it was included in Merriam-Webster’s annual update. Buttload, bling, OMG — similar uprisings happened when these words were added to dictionaries in recent years.

Heavens, Oscar! Do you see that “buttload” is now in the dictionary? Whatever is happening to our fair language?

To me, though, words being recognized by dictionaries should bring celebration. It means the language is doing exactly what it needs to be doing. It grows and shifts and changes. Dictionaries adding (and removing) words shows us that the language is healthy and vibrant. This is good news for people who have been worried about English being destroyed by “other” cultures. Or for language purists who despair that the pristine English we all speak is somehow being sullied. Ain’t no sullying happening, folks. Just language change. It’s been happening since, well, the beginning of human language, so we better just relax and get used to it.