The Merry Grammarian

The Singular Use of “They”

We grammarians love to talk about the “rules” of grammar, as though grammar is something firm and unchanging. But the truth is, grammar—like the English language itself—is always evolving, and sometimes we have to adjust to a new way of thinking and writing.

Behold, the latest evolution in grammar: the use of “they” as a singular pronoun.

For example: “Someone called, but they didn’t leave a message.”

Per strict grammar rules, “someone” is a singular noun, and therefore should correspond with one of the singular pronouns: he, she, or it, as in “Someone called, but he or she didn’t leave a message.”

But linguists now acknowledge that such a construction is awkward, and that using “they” can also be more inclusive than simply using “he” or “she.” “They” was even deemed the Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society last year, specifically because of the rise in the use of “they” as a singular pronoun.

The reasoning behind this is that the English language, unlike many other languages around the world, does not have a gender-neutral pronoun. Yet writers still face situations where the gender is unknown, as in our example above, or where the person they’re writing about wants to stay anonymous or if the author wants to protect their identity.

For a long time, people turned to “he,” in such instances, but all the major style guides now discourage that because it can be construed as sexist, and using “she” alone is really no better. So, in certain cases, using “they” simply makes sense.

This doesn’t mean you want to throw away all your pronoun rules – in general, it’s better to aim for a construction where singular nouns are linked to singular pronouns (he, she, it), and plural nouns get plural pronouns (they, them, we). You’ll also definitely want to avoid referring to named individuals as “they” – instead, use their given names.

But you can now safely use “they” when using nouns like everyone, no one, or anyone, when the gender of the person you’re writing about is unknown, or if you prefer not to reveal the gender of that person for some reason.

Now, be aware that some people dislike this use of “they,” or will claim it’s grammatically incorrect. But rest assured—you are well within your grammatical rights to use “they” as a singular pronoun whenever it feels appropriate.

Editor’s Comment:
This has always been such a troubling writing dilemma. I’m so glad to learn of the change! Thank you, Rebecca.  — Alice

The Merry Grammarian

Staying Mindful of Initial –ING Verbs

As writers, we’re often taught to vary our sentence construction. Sentences that are always the same length, with the same general syntax, are boring. Good writing has a rhythm, and part of that rhythm comes from using a mix of dependent and independent clauses, lists, prepositional phrases, and more.

One of the more common ways we vary our sentences is by beginning with an –ING verb. For example:

  • Glancing toward Ella, I realized her eyes were filled with tears.

This use of the initial –ING verb is great—it’s got action, it’s interesting and it’s a nice way to vary your writing.

But there’s one tiny grammar issue you need to watch out for here: making sure the action you describe in the first half of the sentence can be performed simultaneously as the action in the second half of the sentence.
Bear with me.

In our example above, about Ella, that works because you can both glance and realize at the same time. Those actions can be done simultaneously, so that construction works just fine.

  • But if I wrote this—Crossing the room for my phone, I pressed two on my speed dial—it couldn’t work, because you can’t cross the room AND press two at the same time. The construction makes it seem like they’re happening at the same time, though logically, they can’t be.

The rule here is straightforward:

  • When starting with an –ING verb, if the actions can be performed at the same time, then you’re good to go. Otherwise, try revising.

We could rewrite this phone sentence pretty easily: “I crossed the room and pressed two on my speed dial.” Now, it’s clear those two actions are separate. If you really wanted to keep the initial –ING construction, you could do something like this: “Crossing the room for my phone, I wondered if Jonathan would answer a call from me.” Since those actions can be done simultaneously, it works.

Let’s look at one more example:

  • Shrieking with joy, I leaped from the couch. This works because you can shriek and leap at the same time.
  • Racing down the hall, I dashed through the door on the left. This is incorrect – the person is in the process of running down the hall, so she can’t also be dashing through a door at the same time.

A simple rewrite will do: I raced down the hall and dashed through the door on the left. Yes, we had to give up that initial –ING construction, but since it wasn’t working anyway, at least now we’re grammatically correct.

And that’s always a good way to be.

The Merry Grammarian

Effect vs Affect

The email made me cringe: “It’s going to effect everything,” she wrote.

Did you catch the error? It was the word “effect” – in this case, it should have been “affect.”

Misusing “effect” and “affect” is one of the most common grammatical errors—as proven by this email, which was written by an English teacher.

But which one to use is actually pretty straightforward. Let’s take a closer look:

Affect is most commonly used as a verb. It’s an action word that indicates an influence or change: “The accident affected me.” Or: “I will be affected by the changes to the healthcare policy.”

Effect, on the other hand, is most often used as a noun, usually when you’re referring to the end result of something: “The lack of Internet service had a negative effect on my experience at the hotel.” Or: “I felt better once medication took effect.”

Occasionally, “effect” can be used as a verb, and “affect” can be used as a noun. This ambiguity in the rules sometimes trips people up.

But those instances are rare. Affect is generally only used as a noun in the field of medicine, in reference to how someone responds to stimuli: “The man took the news with little affect.”

Effect is generally only used as a verb to describe something that was caused: “The mayor effectedchange across the city.”

In the vast majority of cases, however, you’re looking at “affect” as a verb and “effect” as a noun.

So next time you’re confused, try this rule of thumb: The action is affect, the end result is effect.

Hopefully, it will have a positive “effect” on your writing!

The Merry Grammarian

Our Mission: To Boldly Explore Infinitives

If you’ve ever watched Star Trek, you’ve witnessed a controversy.

No, I’m not talking about Captain Kirk’s excessively tight shirt, or the show’s moral and environmental subtext. I’m talking about a grammar controversy, and it happens right in the title sequence, when we’re told that the Enterprise’s mission is, in part, “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

That phrase — “to boldly go” — is a split infinitive, and it’s been making English teachers around the world cringe for decades.

An infinitive is a two-part form of a verb, like to be, to go, to read, to jump, etc.

A split infinitive is when you insert an adverb or adjective between the “to” and the verb–for example, to eagerly shop, to quickly scan, to slowly realize, to casually ask–or, in the case of our example–to boldly go.

This split construction makes some editors and readers nuts. As a writer, don’t be surprised if you get your copy back with that phrase circled and rephrased.

But here’s the thing: it’s not grammatically incorrect to split an infinitive. Some people don’t like it, but technically, it’s perfectly legit to split.

That’s right, we’ve stumbled upon another example of a false grammar rule. It’s one of those old grammar myths that editors and English teachers have been perpetuating for generations, but isn’t actually true.

The idea of avoiding split infinitives was put forth by a grammarian in the late 1800s, but was never fully adopted, and you won’t find this rule in any dictionary or grammar guide today. On the contrary, even the persnickety Strunk and White says it’s okay to split an infinitive as needed–such as when it’s clearer or sounds better.

For instance, academics often use the phrase “to better understand.” It actually makes more sense than the alternative–“to understand better” and it’s cleaner than having to add in a noun “to understand their subjects better.”

Still, sometimes it is cleaner to avoid the split infinitive. And so many people hate that construction that it may be a good idea to avoid it except when it makes sense for clarity.

But if your writing Anchorcalls for a split, then I encourage you: Boldly go where many have gone before, and split to your heart’s content.

Captain Kirk would be proud.

The Merry Grammarian

Eliminating Expletives (the other kind)

Let’s talk about expletives, shall we? No, I’m not talking about thosekinds of expletives—I’m talking about expletives in grammar—specifically, a type of sentence structure called expletive construction.

Expletive construction is when you start with a phrase that does not add any structural or grammatical meaning to the sentence, such as:

-There are
-There is
-There were
-It was
-It is

The word “expletive” comes from the Latin word explere, “to fill” — in other words, these phrases are just filling up space in the sentence, but offer no value or meaning.

For example: There were five people standing in line at the deli.

Using expletive phrases can make your writing clunky or vague. And the subject of the sentence often gets obscured, making it difficult for the reader to figure out who or what is doing the action.

Look how much clearer it is to say this: Five people stood in line at the deli.

Let’s look at a few more examples:

Expletive: It was beginning to snow.
Corrected: It began to snow.

Expletive: There are likely to be some people protesting the new speed limit.
Corrected: Some people will likely protest the new speed limit.

Expletive: It was then that I realized I had to quit my job.
Corrected: I realized I had to quit my job.

Whenever possible, aim to reduce or eliminate expletive construction from your writing. Your prose will be leaner and clearer—and your reader will be happier.