Monday 30 May 2016

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Singular “They”

Some of you may have noticed a shocking lapse of grammar in one of my recent posts, namely,

Yes, I used the pronoun they (plural) with the antecedent reader (singular). Cue pearl-clutching.

Thirty years ago my they would have been corrected to he, but today that kind of sexism looks antiquated at best. Most current guides advise using the gender-neutral but clunky he or she, or better yet, making the subject plural so it matches they.

  • Your readers instinctively expect parallel construction, even if they couldn’t define it on a game show.

All astronauts must wash their own spacesuits.

The best way to avoid arguments between your antecedents and their pronouns is usually to recast your sentences.

  • X Each astronaut must wash their own spacesuit.
  • All astronauts must wash their own spacesuits.

  • X If anyone needs ammo, they can use my toenail clippings.
  • If you need ammo, you can use my toenail clippings.
  • Anyone who needs ammo can use my toenail clippings.

However, some sentences stubbornly refuse to be recast. Writers may find themselves creating syntactically convoluted rats’ nests in an effort to avoid either sexism or pronoun errors.

The They Option

Using they as a gender-neutral alternative to he has long been accepted in spoken English, and it has become more useful as folks with unconventional gender identities have emerged into greater cultural visibility. Even in written English, there are signs here and there of a thaw in attitudes. The Washington Post created a furor in grammar circles last year when it announced it would be allowing the use of they as a singular pronoun. Some editors have followed suit, but most are still firmly on the traditional bandwagon, and guides like The Chicago Manual of Style warn against using the singular they in formal writing.

Certainly it would be the wrong choice for a government document or an academic paper, but in the fast-and-loose blogosphere the singular they hardly raises an eyebrow. You could even argue that such usage conveys an appropriate breezy informality. As always, it’s a question of audience and tone.

Shall I compare you to a summer's day?

Here’s a secret you probably weren’t told in English class: language changes. Once upon a time, most English-speaking people addressed each other as thou. You was reserved for groups of two or more, or to show polite deference—much like the French vous. Grammar is important, yes; but it’s not written in stone.

So I’ve decided to embrace the singular they in this blog, and if anyone doesn’t like it, they can go jump off a stack of dictionaries.

Sunday 22 May 2016

Designing the Page: Presentation Is Everything

Now that anyone can produce a professional-looking document on a computer, how a piece of writing looks is as important as how it reads. In much the same way good grammar allows your readers to focus on the content of your writing, good design will keep them from being distracted by eye-pinching paragraphs or mystifying font choices.

Sure, this page is pretty, but it could use some paragraph breaks.

Spacing: the Final Frontier

Do not put two spaces between your sentences—or anywhere else, for that matter. I know that’s what many of you were taught, and it’s a hard habit to break, but there is not a style guide in the world that will support you on this.

Double-tapping the space bar after a period is a relic of the typewriter age. At one time, it helped reader comprehension, but now that we’ve moved beyond Remingtons and Underwoods, the double space is no longer necessary or desirable. If your fingers refuse to relinquish their bad habits, a simple Find and Replace All will clean up your documents after the fact and save you from copy editors’ dark looks.

Spaced-Out Paragraphs and the Art of the Indent

Your word processing program likes to put spaces between paragraphs, doesn’t it? This format is the convention for business documents—letters, memos, reports—but it doesn’t fit all occasions, regardless of what Microsoft may think.

The advantage of separating paragraphs with spaces is that it presents content in easily consumed chunks, like informational dog biscuits. You’ll find this paragraph style in business documents, manuals, textbooks, and anywhere clarity is paramount. This is also the style most often used in websites (including this one), where a long wall of text is likely to send readers screaming. Short paragraphs surrounded by lots of space are friendly, and easy on computer-weary eyes.

The other type of paragraph is the indented style, which is what you see when you open any novel or newspaper. These paragraphs are not separated by spaces; rather, each opens with an indent, created automatically or by hitting the Tab key. These indents signal a minor break without interrupting the text’s flow.

This style is all about flow—about a lyrical train of imagery or a complex argument built up over several pages. It invites the reader to settle in and get lost in its words. It is immersive. (Note that in this style when you do put a space between paragraphs—as a section break, for example—you don’t need to indent the first line of the new section. Nor do you want to indent the first line of a chapter or story.)

Nothing identifies a self-published novel as quickly as the use of space-style paragraphs instead of indented paragraphs. Unless it’s using both at once—spaced paragraphs with indented first lines. Designers everywhere will shudder at the thought.

Choosing a Font: I Shot the Serif

There are millions of fonts floating around out there, but they can all be divided into two kinds: serif and sans-serif. Serifs are the tiny tails that poke out at the ends of letters. See how the little feet on this m almost form a line? Those feet are serifs, and they help a reader’s eye follow the lines of the text.

Sans is French for “without,” as in sans-souci (without a care) and sans-culottes (without underwear). So, sans-serif fonts are, unsurprisingly, fonts that lack those little tails. Comic Sans is probably the best-known example; use it if you want to give designers an aneurysm.

    •    Serif fonts look like this.
    •    Serif fonts look like this.
    •    Sans-serif fonts look like this.
    •    Sans-serif fonts look like this.

Designers usually recommend using serif fonts for long lines or dense pages of text, as they’re easier to read without losing your place. Sans-serif fonts are often used for smaller, harder-to-read text, such as captions or Wikipedia. In either case, keep your reader in mind when choosing a font. The coolest font in the world will do you no favours if it gives your readers a headache.

Like good grammar, good design doesn’t call attention to itself. It is a frame, a place setting. It’s there so you can enjoy the meal.

Thursday 5 May 2016

Who or Whom?

Does the thought of a misplaced whom make your hands sweat? Does your finger hover, trembling, over the M key as you wonder anxiously, Whoever or whomever?

The good news is that you can decide to sidestep the whole issue. Except in particularly formal writing, it’s safe to use who instead of whom, and The Chicago Manual of Style suggests those who wish to avoid the who(m)ever question use anyone instead.

But suppose you have a hankering for the old-world sophistication of a well-placed whom. Never fear: there is an easy shortcut to determine which case—nominative or objective—to choose, and you don’t need to understand those words in order to use it.

Ed bestows his gifts on whomever he likes best.

The Easy Trick to Decide Between Who and Whom (or Whoever and Whomever)

This invaluable method from The New York Public Library Writer’s Guide to Style and Usage has three steps, which we’ll apply to the following example:

  • Ed bestows his gifts on who(m)ever he likes best.

First, separate the part of the sentence that follows who(m)ever.

  • 1. … he likes best.

Second, insert either they or them, whichever fits.

  • 2. He likes them best.

If they fits, the word you want is who. If them works better, go with whom; the matching m’s will help you remember. (Alternatively, you could use he and him.)

  • 3. Ed bestows his gifts on whomever he likes best.

This method is particularly useful for sentences with nested clauses, which can lead even the most experienced grammar nerds astray.

  • Ed bestows his gifts on who(m)ever he thinks is the most deserving.

At first glance, this sentence might seem to call for the same pronoun as the last one. Try the steps and see.

  • 1. … he thinks is the most deserving.
  • 2. He thinks they are the most deserving.
  • 3. Ed bestows his gifts on whoever he thinks is the most deserving.

Is your mind blown yet?

Often the dreaded who(m) looms at the beginning of a question, but don’t be thrown off. The three steps still work.

  • Who(m) did you ask to the herpetology convention?

  • 1. … did you ask to the herpetology convention?
  • 2. Did you ask them to the herpetology convention?
  • 3. Whom did you ask to the herpetology convention?

  • Who(m) may I say is calling?

  • 1. … may I say is calling?
  • 2. May I say they are calling?
  • 3. Who may I say is calling?

Whom did you ask to the herpetology convention?

Whether you decide to apply that extra m or to skip it altogether in favour of a more informal style, consistency is crucial. It’s like shaving your legs—do both or not at all. Sure, you could walk around with only one leg shaved, but let’s face it: people would judge you. And wouldn’t you rather be judged on the quality of your arguments than on your grammatical grooming?