As The Chicago Manual of Style has just come out with their 17th edition, I thought it would be a great opportunity to go over some tricky yet ubiquitous grammar and style issues.
The use of “they” as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun
This has been clarified in the new edition (5.48, 5.256).
Since English does not have a gender-neutral pronoun for people, a writer must do some pretty fancy footwork in order to keep his or her writing acceptable to all.
Personally, I couldn’t care less if a writer uses “he,” “him,” and “his” when she writes about a generic person, but I myself try to spread gender equality in these blogs. In fact, see if you can identify two techniques I’ve employed in these opening paragraphs as workarounds for the male pronoun issue.
The new edition of The Chicago Manual of Style clarifies the use of “they,” “them,” and “their” (emphases in bold, below, are mine):
They and their have become common in informal usage, but neither is considered fully acceptable in formal writing, though they are steadily gaining ground. For now, unless you are given guidelines to the contrary, be wary of using these forms in a singular sense.
I too dislike the use of third-person plural for the generic singular and try hard to avoid it. Therefore, yay, Chicago.
However, what’s a girl (or boy) to do?
Chicago lists several techniques for getting around the gender issue,even in the 16th edition (2.255). I have made a convenient chart that comprises some of them:
Get your own copy of this chart here!
Agreement in first and second person
This is a new entry (5:143) in the 17th edition of Chicago.
We all know that subject and verb must agree:
- I write.
- You fold laundry.
- He eats chili con carne.
- Y’all come back now, hear?
- They took a sled to Grandma’s house.
We also know (or should know; if not, I’m telling you now) that if you have two subjects in a sentence linked with the word and, you always use a plural verb:
- Cagney and Lacey arrest the bad guys.
- Laurel and Hardy were not funny.
- Punch and Judy are hardheaded.
However, when you have two singular subjects linked with the word or, you always use the singular verb:
- Either Mr. Kramer or Mrs. Kramer is going to get custody of Junior Kramer.
- Either Mr. Smith’s dog or Mrs. Jones’s dog tramples my hydrangeas.
- “Neither you, Rudolph, nor you, Prancer, are galloping fast enough,” said Santa.
- Neither Rudolph nor Prancer is galloping fast enough, thought Santa.
But what happens when you have two subjects in an or sentence, and each one requires a different form of the verb?
No doubt, because there were too many queries about this in The Chicago Manual of Style‘s Q and A, the editors created a new entry once and for all in the 17th edition.
Chicago tells us that common wisdom is to use whatever form the noun closest to the verb requires, e.g.:
- Neither he nor I am good at geometry.
- Either you or your sister needs to pick up the prescription.
- Neither I nor you are ready to stop fighting.
- Either he or his sons cook dinner Friday nights.
However, these sentences are terribly awkward, and therefore Chicago‘s recommendation is to recast the sentence. I’ll give you two choices for each one:
- Neither of us is good at geometry.
- We are not good at geometry.
- One of you needs to pick up the prescription.
- Either you need to pick up the prescription or one of your sisters needs to pick it up.
- We are not ready to stop fighting.
- The two of us are not ready to stop fighting.
- Either he or his sons will cook dinner Friday nights.
- One of the male members of the family cooks dinner Friday nights.
A few changes from the 16th edition
Some of the following are going to be difficult for me to get used to, but one must keep up with the times – especially when it comes to such weighty issues (not):
America, Albania, Argentina, etc. begin with the letter A.
2. The word ibid. is no longer preferred in footnotes and endnotes; a shorter form of the source is now recommended (14:34):
- Barbara W. Tuchman, The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World before the War, 1890–1914 (NY: Ballantine Books, 1966), 261.
- The Proud Tower, 429.
3. The word email is now written without a hyphen (7:80), the word internet is now lower case (7:89), and the word decision-making carries a hyphen in both noun and adjectival forms (ibid. – just kidding):
In the busy world of the internet, decision-making concerning which blog to subscribe to is difficult, if not impossible. Therefore, I’ve made the decision-making process much easier. Just give me your email address and I’ll subscribe you to Bulletproof Writing. Go ahead and subscribe here.
The Chicago Manual of Style is, in my opinion, the source for both writers and editors. Either the physical book or the online version is worth buying. I encourage you to check it out, buy it, and use it!
Do you already use The Chicago Manual of Style? If not, are you going to buy it? What other reference books to you refer to when writing? Let me know in the Comments below, and perhaps I’ll focus on one of them in a future post.