One of the nightmares we editors have is people who are sticklers for correct grammar. You might think that is odd, but with fiction in particular, and even with creative non-fiction, writers have a habit of breaking grammatical rules for effect. Also what is viewed as correct grammar changes with time, and the sort of people who get fussy about grammar are often also the sort of people whose view of grammar was set in stone when they were in school and hasn’t changed in decades.
So most editors will have horror stories of long and tedious letters (or these days emails) sent by people who are outraged at what a poor job the editor has done of correcting the poor grammar in the work in question. “It wouldn’t have happened in my day, I tell you!”
But that, really, is part of the territory, and only rarely becomes a nuisance. This post is not about what is grammatically correct, it is what gets to become grammatically correct.
My friend Deanna Hoak (probably the best copy editor in the world, though Anne Gray is pretty darn spectacular too) has a post up on her blog about the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) which is, apparently, a pain in the butt if you are working with fiction writers. The good news is that the CMS is only for “formal writing”, but it isn’t at all clear what this means, and the phrase “formal writing” suggests an air of authority and superiority than could be socially important.
What caught my eye was the example that Deanna uses to illustrate her point. The latest edition of the CMS has issued an official ban on the use of “they” as a gender-neutral singular, despite apparently having been prepared to allow it in previous editions, and despite noting that it is “common in informal usage.”
I don’t have a copy of the CMS to hand, but I am pretty sure Deanna would have mentioned it if there was an acceptable alternative, so what the CMS appears to be saying here is that you should not use a gender-neutral singular (except maybe “it”, which you would not normally used with a living being). And this, I submit, is a political decision on behalf of whoever is in charge of the CMS. What they are saying is that you should use either “he” or “she”, and I’m betting that what they really want is for people to use “he”. I don’t have to explain why, do I?