What grammar rules should go?

March 9, 2015

Since most of us just switched to Daylight Saving Time (not “Savings”), let’s play a game called “Is it Time?” We’ll pose some usage issues that people often fight over, and ask whether it’s time to let go.

Is it time to accept “they,” “them,” and “theirs” as singular pronouns when you don’t know the sex of the person, or when you have a singular collective noun like “everyone”?

For hundreds of years, people have been saying things like “everyone has their own way of doing things,” even though “everyone” is singular and “their” is plural. But English has no neutral singular pronouns; we have only masculine and feminine, like “he” and “she.” Using the plural pronoun instead of a gendered singular came under fire in the late 19th century, about the same time many other “zombie rules” came into being, and has been considered wrong by most grammarians and usage authorities. But that hasn’t stopped people from saying “them” instead of “him” or “her.” Many transgendered people, or people who do not identify themselves as having a singular gender, are using “they” in place of “he” or “she” (or using artificial pronouns like “zhe”), adding to the debate. And it’s easy to tie yourself into knots trying to avoid using a plural pronoun: “Everyone has his or her way of doing things” just sounds artificial. So can we agree that, once in a while, it’s okay to use “they,” “them,” “theirs,” and the like as singular pronouns, especially when the alternative sounds unnatural?

Is it time to accept that split infinitives, ending sentences with prepositions, and beginning sentences with a conjunction like “But” are perfectly fine?

See the answer to the previous question. Those “rules” also became popular in the 18th or 19th centuries; using a split infinitive, or beginning a sentence with a conjunction or ending it with a preposition elicits scorn from many sticklers. Our own thinking on split infinitives has changed some; we used to say avoid them when possible to protect the sensibilities of the sticklers. Now we say: the hell with their sensibilities. Split infinitives aren’t wrong. Neither is ending sentences with prepositions. People have been doing those things for centuries, and there is no clear explanation as to why they are wrong. As for starting sentences with conjunctions, many grammar checkers, including Microsoft Word’s, suggests replacing “But” with “However.” Um, “however” is also a conjunction. If the solution to a problem is another problem, maybe it’s time to let it go.

Is it time to give up the argument that there’s a significant difference between “over” and “more than,” or between “farther” and “further,” or between “stanch” and “staunch”?

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Last year, when the Associated Press announced at the annual conference of the American Copy Editors Society that it would accept “over” for quantitative relationships as well as spatial ones, the outcry brought down Poynter.org’s website. (Warning! The AP plans to make other announcements at this year’s conference in a couple of weeks. Stay tuned.) As we’ve said, how many people understand the distinction? Similarly, the distance between “farther” and “further” is hardly worth mentioning nowadays. We’re a little more reluctant to give up on “stanch” and allow “staunch” to mean stop the flow of something, because it’s a useful distinction, but there are times to acknowledge that the world has moved on and maybe we should, too.

We’re not advocating giving up on grammar entirely. We’re just questioning how long one should fight battles lost long ago, whose roots are murky enough that people just follow “rules” instead of think. What are your thoughts? What should we give up on, and what should we maintain? And, most important, why?

Let us know by email at languagecorner@cjr.org or via Twitter with the hashtag #askcjr or tweeted to @cjr and @meperl.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.