Annette Lyon

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A reader recently called me out on using their as a singular generic pronoun. (I forget who right now; feel free to claim the comment as your own!)

The issue: What pronoun do you use in a situation where the gender of the person acting either isn’t known or isn’t relevant? For example:

When an employee arrives . . .

The rest of the sentence is about the employee, who must sign in. What pronoun do you use?

When an employee arrives, ____ must sign in.

At one time, writers simply used he as the generic pronoun:

When an employee arrives, he must sign in.

But eventually came the complaints of sexism. (What if the employee is female?) That’s when we started seeing a lot of he or she, just to be sure we covered our bases:

When an employee arrives, he or she must sign in.

That’s seriously clunky and awkward, but it’s better than the other weird compromise, s/he.

Others have opted to use she instead of he. That’s annoying to me as a reader, because a) it’s reverse sexism and b) historically he has a far more neutral feel than she, which jumps out like a flashing red light.

(Good writing should move smoothly, without jolts or flashing red lights.)

To keep the gender thing fair, some writers alternate between he and she throughout a piece. Personally, I think that goes beyond annoying and enters the range of shoot me now.

I’ve seen magazines that alternate on an article level: this article uses he, and the next one uses she. Not a particularly elegant solution, but at least it doesn’t have me wanting to hit something.

So the gender-neutral problem persists: English simply doesn’t have a singular, gender-neutral pronoun.

Finnish does have a gender-neutral pronoun, and I have to say, it’s really convenient when you see a baby but can’t figure out the gender. You can totally compliment the kid without offending the parents. Too bad English doesn’t have an equivalent of hän.

(Another side note: Finns often use se instead of hän . . . which means it, even when referring to people. Totally works in Finnish. Not so much in English. Can you imagine referring to your friend and saying you’re going to lunch with it?)

Chicago and a lot of other style guides suggest avoiding the problem altogether. Either 1) reword the sentence so you don’t need the pronoun, or 2) change the sentence so you can grammatically use the plural:

When employees arrive, they must sign in.

That works fine at times, but it’s still not a solution. Sometimes a piece needs the singular, and making it plural or otherwise doing acrobatics to avoid their as singular sounds odd.

This is precisely why their is becoming increasingly accepted as the singular pronoun, at least in conversation and informal writing. I’m in the camp that accepts this usage already (obviously), although some people still foam at the mouth when they see their used this way. (Just as I foam at the mouth at infer used for imply and other losing usage battles.)

That said, if I’m writing for a professional journal or something similar, I avoid using their as a singular. You write to fit the register you want the piece to fit in. If something isn’t accepted in that arena, don’t use it, and no, their is not accepted as Standard English.

Yet.

I believe it’s just a matter of time before their is considered correct and perfectly fine to use this way. People already do, often, sometimes by accident and other times absolutely on purpose (raising my hand here).

The new rule actually reaching style guides? That may take some time, but it’ll happen.

Grammar Girl agrees with me and adds that “it takes a bold, confident, and possibly reckless person to use they with a singular antecedent today.”

What can I say? I live on the edge.

 

Annette Lyon  is a Whitney Award winner, the recipient of Utah’s Best of State medal for fiction, and the author of nine novels, a cookbook, and a grammar guide, plus over a hundred magazine articles. She’s a senior editor at Precision Editing Group and a cum laude graduate from BYU with a degree in English. When she’s not writing, editing, knitting, or eating chocolate, she can be found mothering and avoiding the spots on the kitchen floor. Find her online at blog.annettelyon.com and on Twitter: @AnnetteLyon.

Need a little extra grammar help? Get Annette’s grammar book, There, Their, They’re: A No-Tears Guide to Grammar from the Word Nerd.

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Post image for Anaphora and Epistrophe by Annette Lyon

Anaphora is a funky term that essentially refers to a stylistic effect with repetition at the beginning of sentences or phrases.

Before your brain starts spinning with “what the huh?” let’s look at some examples you’re probably already familiar with. Note the bolded sections:

One of the most famous examples in modern times is from Martin Luther King, Jr:

I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi a state, sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.

Then there’s one of the most famous openings to a novel, where Charles Dickens used anaphora in A Tale of Two Cities:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair . . .

Or how about Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural address:

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right . . .

A general writing rule is to avoid repetition. But as with any rule, there are exceptions, and this is one.

My critique group is great at catching weak repetition (so, not anaphora), whether it’s when one of us gets redundant with concepts (“beating a dead horse; you already showed that . . . a lot”) or words (“on these two pages, your characters looked twelve times”).

When I find that kind of repetition, I cut it out and revise, and I suggest the same to editing clients. A great way to find repetition is to read you work aloud. Your ear will catch things your eyes don’t.

But anaphora is a different animal; it’s repetition with a purpose. It’s used for a specific emphasis in meaning or to create a desired impact on the reader or listener.

There is another type of repetition that is similar to anaphora, and that is epistrophe, which is repetition at the end of a line. I used epistrophe in Lost Without You, my first published novel (*cough*now on Kindle for cheap*cough*cough*).

It’s a minor moment, when Brooke falls into a lake. Greg and Russell worry at first that she’s hurt herself, but

Brooke was only wet. Very wet.

I remember circling “Very wet” during revisions, wondering whether I should take it out. In the end, I kept it in for emphasis, even though I didn’t realize that what I was doing had a name. In that case, I think it worked.

Once you’re aware of them, you can find examples of anaphora and epistrophe everywhere. Without resorting to Dr. Google, can you think of other examples of anaphora or epistrophe? Any favorites?

 

Annette Lyon  is a Whitney Award winner, the recipient of Utah’s Best of State medal for fiction, and the author of nine novels, a cookbook, and a grammar guide, plus over a hundred magazine articles. She’s a senior editor at Precision Editing Group and a cum laude graduate from BYU with a degree in English. When she’s not writing, editing, knitting, or eating chocolate, she can be found mothering and avoiding the spots on the kitchen floor. Find her online at blog.annettelyon.com and on Twitter: @AnnetteLyon.

Need a little extra grammar help? Get Annette’s grammar book, There, Their, They’re: A No-Tears Guide to Grammar from the Word Nerd.

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Every Day or Everyday? by Annette Lyon

February 19, 2013

Which do you use? When? What’s the difference? Is there one? The everyday/every day mix-up is easily one of the most common mistakes I see in my editing work and one of the most common questions I’m asked. Kinda figured it made sense to address it here. I do mention it in There, Their, They’re […]

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Why Punctuation Matters by Annette Lyon

January 15, 2013
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People joke that I’m the Grammar Nazi. My critique group says that I know exactly how to use commas (and then they go comatose, and tweet about it, if I try to explain why a semicolon is correct on page 5). For that matter, rumor has it that when they speak about our group and […]

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Most Common Misspelled Words by Annette Lyon

November 13, 2012
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YourDictionary.com put together a list of the 100 most misspelled words. (Check it: MISSPELLED is one of them. hah!) They even have explanations to help you remember the correct spellings. Find the full list HERE. A few of my favorites: acceptable For some reason, I tend to spell the ending with the other, similar-sounding suffix: […]

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When Passive Voice is OKAY by Annette Lyon

October 16, 2012
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Don’t use passive voice; use active voice. Ever heard that writing rule? It’s a good guideline, for sure, but like any writing rule, exceptions abound. First, what is passive voice? Passive voice shows up when something or someone is being acted upon rather than doing the acting. It’s usually a weak way to construct a […]

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