He/she finds his/her pronouns a problem

November 3, 2015

kim newman - nightmare movies - horror on screen since the 1960sI’ve been stop-start-reading the revised edition of Kim Newman’s Nightmare Movies, a gift from my brother; it’s an encyclopaedic and thoroughly enjoyable account of Horror on Screen Since the 1960s, as the subtitle has it. (OK, OK, 1960’s.)

One chapter traces the development of the haunted house genre in film and literature, and upon reaching the landmark release of Rosemary’s Baby it offers an eye-catching usage:

There is no ghost, except the angry shade of Beethoven invoked by the unseen pianist’s stumbling attempts to get through Für Elise, but the Bramford [Rosemary’s apartment building] does have a Past. Ira Levin refined the parallel plot, a device that has been used in most subsequent haunted house films. While the protagonist is being overwhelmed by the supernatural forces clinging to his/her new home, he/she does a little detective work and pieces the place’s evil past together from newspaper morgues, friendly occultist know-alls, and ageing eyewitnesses.

This use of his/her . . . he/she I found a bit halting and self-conscious. It took me out of the text, and not simply because I attend closely to pronoun use. Instead of conveying the author’s intent discreetly, it’s orthographically conspicuous enough to be distracting. Especially because it’s repeated: one instance might sneak by, but two is a pattern that draws unwanted attention.

I’m going to rework the line in question a few times, so I’ll give each version a number. Here’s the original again:

1. While the protagonist is being overwhelmed by the supernatural forces clinging to his/her new home, he/she does a little detective work…

He/she and his/her are more equitable than generic he and his (which I see depressingly often), but they still give men precedence of position. S/he avoids this, but only by fragmenting she and leaving readers with something weird-looking and effectively unpronounceable. Simple reversals (she/he) are occasionally used, or the slash may be replaced by a conjunction: she or he, he or she.

But there’s another problem. All of these options implicitly adopt a gender binary that excludes people who do not identify as either he or she (see my post on Mx). Writing manuals and style guides commonly note that he/she is awkward or clunky, particularly when repeated, but they seldom acknowledge its politics. One of the reasons I support singular they is that it circumvents this restrictive paradigm.

In Newman’s text, however, simply replacing his/her and he/she with singular their and they could mislead readers into thinking that the new home is the (plural) supernatural forces’, not the (singular) protagonist’s:

Read the rest of this entry »

Fear and loathing of the passive voice

October 27, 2015

A great many people are unsure what the passive voice is, and what (if anything) is wrong with it. That wouldn’t be such a problem, except that a lot of those people misidentify and misrepresent the passive voice from positions of authority – whether they’re authors of writing manuals or journalists in need of a rhetorical scapegoat.

This is why you’ll often find writers deploring the passive while using it naturally in their own prose, blithely unaware of the double standard. For example, The Elements of Style says, ‘Use the active voice.’ But the first paragraph of E.B. White’s introduction to the book has five transitive verbs, four of which are (perfectly unobjectionable) passives.

E.B. White passive voice in Elements of Style - Geoff Pullum

‘Fear and Loathing of the English Passive’ is the name of a recent paper (PDF; HTML) by linguist Geoffrey Pullum on the passive voice. He has followed it with a series of six short videos on the topic (whence the image above). I’ve embedded them all below, for convenience.

Read the rest of this entry »

From language to life

September 15, 2015

Find a way to make beauty necessary; find a way to make necessity beautiful. —Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces

anne michaels - fugitive pieces - book coverJust a quick post to praise Anne Michaels’ novel Fugitive Pieces, which I recommend without reservation. As a general reference point I might suggest Primo Levi, or Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation, but these are only approximate markers.

For a proper flavour of this extraordinary book, see her Guardian interview and the excerpts below, which I’ve chosen only because they’re language related; every page contains treasure of a different sort – on memory, loss, love, longing, pain, grace, and connection.

The narrator of part I, a Polish child hiding from Nazi forces in ‘a delirium of sleep and attention’, starving and terrified, remembers his sister, Bella, crying at the end of Jack London and Romain Rolland stories:

Read the rest of this entry »

Flann O’Brien on translating Ulysses into Irish

August 8, 2015

I’ve been reading Flann O’Brien again, having picked up Hair of the Dogma (Paladin, 1989), a selection from his riotous Irish Times column ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’, which he wrote under the pseudonym Myles na Gopaleen. (Brian O’Nolan was the writer’s real name; he had many pseudonyms, of which Flann O’Brien is probably the best known.)

Because Myles excelled at satire and wore many masks, it is hard to tell sometimes just how serious or truthful he is being. But I believe this passage from his article ‘J.J. and Us’ (J.J. meaning James Joyce), about a plan to translate Ulysses into Irish, to be essentially on the level:

I suppose uncertainty is the handmaid of all grandiose literary projects. Many motives lay behind that 1951 decision of mine to translate Joyce’s Ulysses into Irish. If they won’t read it in English, I said to myself, bedamn but we’ll put them in the situation that they can boast they won’t read it in Irish aither.

It’s work, though. And black thoughts encloister me, like brooding buzzards. Is it worth being accurate if nobody will ever read the translation? What’s the Irish for Robert Emmet? And who will put Irish on this fearsome thing written by Joyce himself: Suil, suil, suil arun, suil go siocair agus, suil go cuin.

See the snares in this business, doom impending, heart-break?

Read the rest of this entry »

Almost vs. nearly — the order of approximations

August 5, 2015

Among the pleasures of Robert Graves and Alan Hodge’s writing manual The Reader Over Your Shoulder: A Handbook for Writers of English Prose (1943) is their attempt to put some order on phrases of approximate quantity. It appears among the book’s Principles of Clear Statement, the principle in question being: ‘There should never be any doubt left as to how much, or how long.’

After grumbling briefly about the ‘proper’ (read: borderline etymologically fallacious) use of terms like infinitesimal and microscopic, the authors state that there is ‘a popular scale of emotional approximation’ – not found in any dictionary or reference table – for ‘estimating the comparative degrees of success in, say, catching a train’. It goes like this:

Not nearly, nearly, almost, not quite, all but, just not, within an ace, within a hair’s breadth – oh! by the skin of my teeth, just, only just, with a bit of a rush, comfortably, easily, with plenty to spare.

Read the rest of this entry »

How rare soever it may be

July 27, 2015

Muriel Spark - The Abbess of Crewe - Penguin book coverChapter 3 of Muriel Spark’s witty novel The Abbess of Crewe (1974) begins with a lingering description of an object that proves centrally significant to the story unfolding in loose parallel to Watergate, the events of which Spark satirises.

One word in one line in particular interests me, and is underlined, but the whole paragraph is a pleasure to read:

Felicity’s work-box is known as Felicity’s only because she brought it to the convent as part of her dowry. It is no mean box, being set on fine tapered legs with castors, standing two and a half feet high. The box is inlaid with mother-of-pearl and inside it has three tiers neatly set out with needles, scissors, cottons and silks in perfect compartments. Beneath all these is a false bottom lined with red watered silk, for love-letters. Many a time has Alexandra stood gazing at this box with that certain wonder of the aristocrat at the treasured toys of the bourgeoisie. ‘I fail to see what mitigation soever can be offered for that box,’ she remarked one day, in Felicity’s hearing, to the late Abbess Hildegarde who happened to be inspecting the sewing room. Hildegarde made no immediate reply, but once outside the room she said, ‘It is in poison-bad taste, but we are obliged by our vows to accept mortifications. And, after all, everything is hidden here. Nobody but ourselves can see what is beautiful and what is not.

Read the rest of this entry »

Double passives, real grammar, and finding fault

July 22, 2015

At Macmillan Dictionary Blog I’ve been writing about double passives, beliefs about grammar, and usage criticism. Excerpts and links follow.

In The double passive is suggested to be avoided (sometimes), I look at a construction often criticised in writing manuals, reporting on why double passives are (sometimes) problematic, and what writers can do to avoid them:

The double passive, as its name suggests, is when a phrase contains two passive constructions yoked together. There’s one in the title of this post. How acceptable it is depends principally on how legible or awkward is the result. Phrases like ‘It must be seen to be believed’ and ‘He was sentenced to be shot’ are fairly straightforward and unobjectionable. ‘The order was attempted to be carried out’ (a line cited in Burchfield’s revision of Fowler) begins to pose a problem, because it’s unnecessarily complicated.


Reflections on Real Grammar follows up on Macmillan’s recent series on that topic, which included a quiz in which over 13,000 people took part. In a Twitter chat I was asked if the results surprised me. Some did, such as the 24.7% who said they would say Whom did you see at the coffee shop? rather than Who…? in a conversation with their sister:

This seems a very high proportion. Remember, it’s a hypothetical chat with one’s sister, not a formal job application. Some answers were probably an attempt at the ‘right’ answer – the more formally ‘correct’ or ‘proper’ one – rather than a realistic and honest answer. Instead of saying what they would say, some people may have said what they thought they should say. This often happens in surveys. But it might not explain all the thousands of people saying they would use whom in a casual conversation with a family member.


Finally, in Finding fault in the right places I examine the practice of using examples of people’s language to make a point about correctness, and stress the importance of doing this appropriately:

Criticising language use is a political act. If we say, ‘This is bad English’ or ‘X here should be Y’, then it matters who we use to illustrate our point. There is the option of making up examples, but existing ones can be more meaningful, showing readers how and where someone’s grammar or style went awry in real life.

For centuries grammarians have used examples from books and other printed material to analyse or deplore certain writing practices, often stating that their intent is not to shame but to educate. . . . Edited copy is fair game: criticism goes with the professional territory. But the same high standards should not apply to casual contexts like everyday conversation.

You can also browse my full archive of articles for Macmillan Dictionary.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 22,632 other followers