Grammar Is Political

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?

17 thoughts on “Grammar Is Political

  1. Hi, Cheryl. They do offer “Nine techniques for achieving gender neutrality,” such as repeating the noun or using a plural antecedent, and they do note, “On the one hand, it is unacceptable to a great many reasonable readers to use the generic masculine pronoun (‘he’ in reference to no one in particular). On the other hand, it is unacceptable to a great many readers (often different readers) either to resort to nontraditional gimmicks to avoid the generic masculine (by using ‘he/she’ or ‘s/he’, for example) or to use ‘they’ as a kind of singular pronoun. Either way, credibility is lost with some readers.”

    So it’s not so much that they don’t give alternatives to achieve gender neutrality; it’s more about the reticence to accept the change that’s already upon us.

    1. Thanks for the correction, but I think it has to be more than reticence to accept change because, as you note, they used to allow it.

      And thanks for a great post. 🙂

      1. You’re welcome, Cheryl! Yes, it’s puzzling that they allowed it in the past. “They” is a very simple way to achieve gender neutrality without having to put up with clunky sentences.

      2. I think you really need the introductory paragraph to this chapter (“Bias-Free Language”) to get their whole argument:

        “Maintaining credibility. Discussions of bias-free language — language that is neither sexist nor suggestive of other conscious or subconscious prejudices — have a way of descending quickly into politics. But there is a way to avoid the political quagmire: if we focus solely on maintaining credibility with a wide readership, the argument for eliminating bias from published works becomes much simpler. Biased language that is not central to the meaning of a work distracts readers, and in their eyes the work is less credible. Few texts warrant the deliberate display of linguistic biases. Nor is it ideal, however, to call attention to the supposed absences of linguistic biases, since this will also distract readers and weaken credibility.”

        Note that the whole section on “grammar and usage” was new in the 15th Edition (prior to that CMS only covered “punctuation and spelling”), and the section on bias-free language was significantly expanded in the 16th. So it seems to me the change in advice on singular “they” is more a consequence of their broader argument in this new section (which I generally agree with, at least for non-fiction) rather than a reluctance to accept change.

        1. I could accept that reasoning if they had not added this usage. To remove the usage, having added it? I can’t help but question that. Absent something more convincing, using the “credibility” argument call’s Chicago’s own credibility into question to reverse their own decision.

          1. OK, found my copy of the 15th, and, in fact, the 15th disallows “they” as the singular as well, in 5.204: “Gender bias. Consider the issue of gender-neutral language. On the one hand, it is unacceptable to a great many reasonable reader to use the generic masucline pronoun (he in reference to no one in particular). On the other hand, it is unacceptable to a great many readers either to resort to nontraditional gimmicks to avoid the generic masculine (by using he/she or s/he, for example) or to use they as a kind of singular pronoun. Either way, credibility is lost with some readers. What is wanted, in short, is a kind of invisible gender neutrality. There are many ways to achieve such language, but it takes thought and often some hard work. See 5.43, 5.51, 5.78.” (I did check and none of those sections permit the singular use of “they” as an option).

            So, no, they didn’t change the rule, they just got more verbose about it.

            (The Grammar & Usage section was new in the 15th Edition; 14th and earlier have nothing to say on the subject of pronouns).

          2. I hate replying to myself, but I found the footnote on singluar “they” in the 14th in a completely unrelated section. It’s footnote 9 in the section on “The Editorial Function”, paragraph 2.98, “Watching for errors and infelicities”: “For the editor in search of guidance in avoiding sexist connotations the following sources might be suggested: Casey Miller and Kate Swift, The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing, and Dennis Baron, Grammar and Gender. Along with these and other authorities, the University of Chicago Press recommends the “revival” of the singular use of they and their, citing, as they do, its venerable use by such writers as Addison, Austen, Chesterfield, Fielding, Ruskin, Scott, and Shakespeare.”

            CMS answered a question about the change at

            At any rate, that means their change in thinking occurred between the 14th edition in 1993 (where it was a rather innovative new rule) and the 15th in 2003, but was unchanged in the 16th of 2010.

        2. Andy:

          Thanks for the explanations. Obviously it is a fairly complicated situation and not as clear cut as I first thought. However, I am rather dubious of anyone who claims to write “bias-free language” as I don’t think such a thing can exist. You’ll never get everyone to agree on what is right, so language will always be biased in favor of one point of view and biased against another. Even finding supposedly neutral formulations to avoid using a particular term can seem offensive to some if what you have done is obvious from the literary gymnastics you have gone through to get there.

          Trying to annoy the least number of people might seem like an admirable aim, but it can easily become an argument in favor of cultural conservatism, and against catering to the concerns of minorities.

          Bias-free language always sounds to me like the people who claim that their writing is “color blind” because they don’t mention the appearance of their characters so “John Smith” could easily be black, Latino or Asian.

  2. I have been using ‘they’ in a singular sense for twenty years now, and I’m not going to stop now, CMS or no CMS. All of the alternatives are either unacceptable (‘he’) or inelegant (‘he/she’, ‘s/he’, ‘zie’).

    1. In British English, “they” is perfectly acceptable. The Chicago Manual of Style only applies to American English. I do not write American English.

  3. And there are people who choose to identify themselves with a gender-neutral or differently gendered pronoun like sie or ze. So if anything editors and readers need to be accustoming themselves to more pronouns, not fewer…

  4. One of my favorite lectures is on the difference between prescriptive and descriptive grammar, and how to decide what to do when you run into a conflict between a stupid rule and a better sentence.

  5. My high school English teacher said that you have to learn the rules before you learn how to break them.

    It is an epiphany to me that she was not only implying that you *could* break them, but that occasionally you’re *supposed* to…. something I’ve been doing deliberately for emphasis for years.

    Besides. Using CMS for fiction, if it says it’s for formal writing only? Fiction hasn’t been formal since… well, Alex Haley wrote Malcolm X formally, but had shifted to a more informal style by the time he wrote Roots… so roughly 1970; Heinlein had converted by ’61 with Stranger… that probably bookends the conversion.

    But, yeah. I’ve long thought that one thing Latin had over English, despite its patriarchal tendencies, was a neuter form… for CMS to attempt to remove such from formal speech is definitely regressive.

    AP, I see, has made no such change… and that’s the book I use when I’m writing for pay.

  6. “they” drives me utterly nuts; it is plural! I prefer “sie” and similar, and would prefer to see them enter the language. But, as in politics, in grammar I must generally compromise when in the public domain (voting, writing for a general audience), so as I end up often having to vote somewhat to the right of my leftist beliefs due to the limited political system of the country I live in, so too, I will accustom myself to using they. Even though it feels as inelegant as s/he.

    Dammit English, learn the ways of Finnish! Or add sie. Grr.

    As long as I’m dreaming of ponies, I’d like a plural you (an equivalent to “vous” or “vosotros”) in English other than “y’all”. Although that’s considerably less political.

    1. And what’s wrong with “y’all”? (Kevin’s family are from Arkansas hillbilly stock, and I’m catching the habit of using y’all from them.)

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