A case for “they”

Ed Griffin’s recent post on his blog Writers Write Daily tackled a touchy subject. When referring to a person of unknown gender, should you use he/his or they/their? I, not surprisingly, have my own opinion about this topic that I would like to share with you today. (And, if you take a look at the title of this post, you probably can figure out where I stand. But, I digress.)

Historically, English speakers have used he/his in these scenarios, such as in this sentence:

Who left his Spock doll on my desk?

In this situation, the speaker does not know whether a male or female owns the lost Spock doll. However, the speaker uses his to mean either his or her.

Obviously, as a feminist living in the twenty-first century, this type of language seems sexist and archaic to me. When people use the traditional he/his in these situations, it reads chauvinistic—like it’s okay to use he when the person could be a she because the hes of this world are more important than the shes. (I’ll pause here so all of the women reading this can dry heave.)

But I’m not the only one who feels this way. This is why you may have noticed the trend toward using they/their in situations when you aren’t sure whether you are talking about a man or a woman. Today, you may be more likely to see the above example written like this:

Who left their Spock doll on my desk?

Why we have this he/she conundrum
The main problem is that Modern English does not have a gender-neutral pronoun that speakers could plug in to sentences where they would normally say he or she. However, this was not always the case for our dear English. Middle English did have such a pronoun. Dennis Baron explains this in his book Grammar and Gender:

In 1789, William H. Marshall records the existence of a dialectal English epicene pronoun, singular “ou”: ‘“Ou will’ expresses either he will, she will, or it will.” Marshall traces “ou” to Middle English epicene “a,” used by the 14th century English writer John of Trevisa, and both the OED and Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary confirm the use of “a” for he, she, it, they, and even I. This “a” is a reduced form of the Anglo-Saxon he = “he” and heo = “she.”

A resolution
There are two ways to resolve the lack of a gender-neutral pronoun.

  1. s/he and his/her
  2. they/their

You may have also noticed a rise in s/he and his/her. Using this option, our example sentence would look like this:

Who left his/her Spock doll on my desk?

This is a viable option to avoid the inherent sexism in simply using he. However, use it repeatedly and you may find that it becomes needlessly cumbersome. After a few his/her this and his/her thats, and you’ll likely wish we were still speaking Middle English with its gender-neutral pronoun.

But there’s an easier solution. Just use they/their. It has become widely acceptable as a workaround, and everyone but your most conservative copy editor will let it slide.

One more thing about they
Ed Griffin’s post included this interesting note about they from dictionary.com:

Such use (their) is not a recent development, nor is it a mark of ignorance. Shakespeare, Swift, Shelley, Scott, and Dickens, as well as many other English and American writers, have used they and its forms to refer to singular antecedents. Already widespread in the language (though still rejected as ungrammatical by some), this use of they, their,  and them  is increasing in all but the most conservatively edited American English. This increased use is at least partly impelled by the desire to avoid the sexist implications of he as a pronoun of general reference.

See, if you use they, you’ll be in the good company of the likes of Shakespeare and Dickens. As if you needed persuading . . .

Is it “pour over” or “pore over”?

This is Worf. He is a Klingon. And he will help you learn about idioms.

Nancy pours over her Klingon textbook the night before the big test.
Nancy pores over her Klingon textbook the night before the big test.

This is an idiom that confuses many. So which is correct? Pour over or pore over?

Answer: pore over

We can find the reason this idiom uses pore instead of pour by looking at the definition and etymology of the two words.

Merriam-Webster defines pore as “to read or study attentively.” Though this word is spelled the same as the word that means those little openings in your skin, it has a different history. It is believed that pore is a combination of two Old English words: spyrian, which means “to investigate,” and spor, which means “a trace.”[i]

Meanwhile, Merriam-Webster defines pour as “to dispense from a container.” As for its etymology, it is believed that pour comes from the Old French verb purer, which means “to sift (grain), pour out (water).” Purer comes from the Latin word purare, which means “to purify.”[ii]

When you look at these differences, you can tell that it should be pore over because this meaning of pore is “to read or study attentively.” If Nancy from our example pours over her textbook, the only thing she’s going to accomplish is getting a wet book. However, if she pores over her textbook, she’s going to accomplish some learning.

Do you understand the difference between pour and pore? Test your skills with this quiz. Fill in either pours or pores in the blanks. The answers are at the bottom.

  1. Nancy really wants to learn the Klingon language, so she _______ over her Klingon – English dictionary every night.
  2. Nancy learned a Klingon ritual involving a glass of bloodwine that she _______ over a special basin.
  3. Once the rubbing alcohol _______ over the cut, Nancy’s Klingon battle scar will be disinfected.
  4. Once Nancy _______ over her lecture notes again, she will have a good understanding of the Klingon future tense.

Answers: 1. pores 2. pours 3. pours 4. pores

Dangerous typos spell check misses

We’ve all been there. You’re in a rush. The files are piling up on your desk. And you only have ten minutes to tackle your bursting email inbox.

Take the extra thirty seconds to reread your message (or your report or whatever you’re working on). It’s worth it.

We all know spell check misses words like two/to/too and it’s/its. But it gets worse. With a slip of the finger, your writing can go from effective to disastrous.

Take a look at these dangerous typos spell check misses.

a dress when you mean address
Example: Please send his a dress with the order form.

ass when you mean add
Example: Ass the numbers in column A.

bowel when you mean bowl
Example: I want to try a bowel of curry soup at the new Thai place tonight.

ballet when you mean ballot
Example: Next week, millions of citizens will be heading to the ballet box.

blows when you mean glows
Example: Since she got pregnant, she really blows.

busty when you mean busy
Example: Can I take a rain check? I’m really busty today.

cunt when you mean count
Example: Do you have an official cunt of the RSVPs?

damn when you mean dam
Example: There was a three-car pileup near the damn.

dick when you mean deck
Example: This gorgeous condo comes complete with a huge dick.

fat when you mean fast
Example: I am a fat learner.

fart when you mean fast
Example: I am a fart learner.

feel when you mean flee
Example: Thankfully, she was able to feel the predator.

gun when you mean gum
Example: Could you pick me up some gun on your way to the post office?

in piece when you mean in peace
Example: May grandma rest in piece.

previous when you mean precious
Example: My previous boyfriend made me so happy.

pubic when you mean public
Example: Next, the pubic defender gave his closing remarks.

rape when you mean reap
Example: Like the old adage says, “You rape what you sow.”

satan when you mean satin
Example: With your coupon, you can get ten percent off this lovely satan dress!

slut when you mean shut
Example: Teach your children to slut and lock the door.

stalking when you mean talking
Example: I was stalking to John yesterday.

tear when you mean year
Example: They will make changes at the end of the fiscal tear.

Untied States when you mean United States
Example: The Untied States spread the Occupy Wall Street movement to the globe.

whore when you mean where
Example: You want me to leave it whore?

And sometimes typos just sneak through
Huffington Post published a hilarious collection of typos that made it into newspapers. Laugh. Cry. Relish in others’ failure. But take it as a lesson that the extra moments rereading your writing are important.

Irregardless: use at your own risk

irregardless: regardless
—Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Irregardless is likely a blend of irrespective and regardless. People have been using irregardless since at least the 1870s.[i]

Usage controversy
An easy way to elicit groans from your snooty peers is to pepper your conversation with the word irregardless. “That’s not a word!” you’ll hear them cry. However, take a look at this usage note in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

The most frequently repeated remark about it is that “ there is no such word.” There is such a word, however. It is still used primarily in speech, although it can be found from time to time in edited prose. Its reputation has not risen over the years, and it is still a long way from general acceptance.[ii]

Should you use irregardless?
Irregardless of people’s general hatred of this word, should you use it? Technically . . . no. The prefix ir- means not. So when you say irregardless, you are actually saying not regardless. This is likely to be the opposite of what you intend, since the definition of irregardless is regardless. To avoid confusion, and the caterwauling you are likely to encounter in the seconds after you say the word, it is best to stay away from irregardless.

But—I must admit that I, as a professional copy editor and official word nerd, love irregardless. Using irregardless is a cheap way to get laughs from fellow editors. However, I never use it around people I’m not familiar with and who don’t know my borderline obsession with this word, lest I be branded with a scarlet letter I in social circles.


Frequently misused words: unique

Dear chicken: You are an awesome-looking, fancy chicken, but that does not make you unique. Sorry.

unique: being the only one

Imagine this situation: A lady selling her wares on a TV shopping channel tells you that she has a deal you can’t resist. It’s for a unique, one-of-a-kind porcelain Lady Diana doll. There are only ninety left, and one of these lovely dolls could be yours for the low price of blah-dee-blah and ninety-nine cents.

Wait. Unique? How can the doll be unique if there are at least ninety of them?

In this post, we’re going to learn the history of the word unique and its appropriate usage—and also why you should probably not waste your money on TV shopping channels.

English attained unique from French, which got the word from unicus, a Latin word meaning “single, sole.”[i]

Usage controversy
Looking at the first dictionary entry for unique, noted above, we can surmise that the word only applies to people, things, and ideas that are the one and only of their kind. For instance, a unique artifact means that there is no other artifact like it. It is the only one in the world.

However, if you look farther down the page in your dictionary, you’re likely to see a different entry, much like Merriam-Webster’s third entry for unique, which merely cites it as meaning unusual. Merriam-Webster’s also has this usage note:

Many commentators have objected to the comparison or modification (as by somewhat or very) of unique, often asserting that a thing is either unique or it is not. Objections are based chiefly on the assumption that unique has but a single absolute sense, an assumption contradicted by information readily available in a dictionary. Unique dates back to the 17th century but was little used until the end of the 18th when, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was reacquired from French. H. J. Todd entered it as a foreign word in his edition (1818) of Johnson’s Dictionary, characterizing it as “affected and useless.” Around the middle of the 19th century it ceased to be considered foreign and came into considerable popular use. With popular use came a broadening of application beyond the original two meanings.[ii]

Where Grammar Party stands
So, does unique mean one and only, or does it just mean unusual? As a copy editor, I will always recommend that a writer use a different word when they use unique to mean merely unusual. A single, and might I add fancy, word to mean one and only is a very useful descriptor. I would even go so far as to say that English needs a word like that. And unique fills that role. When people use unique for any unusual thing, it waters down the word and takes away the uniqueness of truly unique objects (or ideas or people, in some cases).

Is it wrong to use unique willy-nilly? Like so many topics in the realm of word usage, it depends on whom you ask. If you ask Merriam Webster, and I imagine many linguists, you’d be likely to hear that since people are already using unique to mean unusual, there’s no stopping it. (This is called semantic bleaching.) So go ahead and use it as you wish. But if you were to ask me or other red ink-stained copy editors, you’d likely be asked to save unique for its original purpose, to describe something that is one of a kind.

More unique?
If you agree, as I do, to reserve unique for truly unique things, then you can’t describe something as being very unique or more unique. If something is the only one in existence, and thus unique, then there can’t be something else that is more “the only one in existence.” However, something can be somewhat unique if one aspect is one of a kind but others aren’t. Likewise, something can also be nearly unique.

Word Usage Week
It’s Word Usage Week at Grammar Party. Check back tomorrow for more vocabulary goodness and word nerd controversy.