“I made the mistake of not pestering my last editor on details like these. I’m not making that mistake again.”
He was absolutely correct to question something he didn’t understand, and I assured him that I would answer any queries he had. After all, how can writers improve their writing if they write in a vacuum?
One of his questions concerned pronouns and antecedents:
I’ve read about the use and acceptance of gender-neutral pronouns. I prefer gender-neutral pronouns when I talk. You seem to be correcting against the use of gender-neutral pronouns in my writing. May I ask why? Is the world about to go to war over this? I really wish it wasn’t an issue, but apparently it still is. Does using gender-neutral pronouns make my writing look that bad?
I want to be one of the trendsetters that makes gender neutral pronouns the norm, but I don’t want my work to suffer for it. How do I walk that line?”
Ahhh, the controversial use of “they” with a singular antecedent, or as one of my fellow editors calls it, the “informal singular ‘they.’”
(Please note: this post is not about gender equality, LGBT rights, or how to address a transgendered person; that is a social issue, not a question of grammar, and I am only discussing the practice of using a plural pronoun to refer to a singular antecedent.)
Editing is both an art and a science. The mechanics of writing—including grammar—is something we learn in school. But linguistics is another subject entirely. Our language is constantly changing and evolving, and those who “regard language and writing mechanics as things that are static and set by some deity of the written word”* often lack the artistic temperament that makes a good editor, the one who understands your vision and your voice and works with you to enhance both in your writing.
*quote from editor Katie Ramos in an email to members of the Editorial Freelancers Association.
But what about rules? Are they made to be followed, or are they made to be broken? Personally, I think those are the wrong questions; if understanding and following rules were the primary goals, we’d all write in a similar style, and anyone who’s taught grammar would be an excellent editor—but we know that’s not the case.
In an article on his blog An American Editor, Rich Adin writes:
Anyone who wants to learn to be an editor can be taught how to make sure a sentence is complete, how to determine head levels, how to make sure that there isn’t a mix of tenses, how to correctly choose between “there” and “their” and when to use “your” and “you’re”, and myriad other things that editors do. And they can earn a living doing those things (especially today when that seems to be much of what editors are hired to do). But an editor, I believe, cannot be taught how to make a sentence “sing”. How do you teach an editor to be the reincarnation of Maxwell Perkins?”
(Maxwell Perkins was Scribner’s legendary editor who “nurtured and inspired such notable authors as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Marjorie Rawlings, Ring Lardner, and Thomas Wolfe.” [http://grammar.about.com/od/editorsandediting/a/Max-Perkins-Advice-To-A-Young-Writer.htm])
When I work with a writer, whether I’m helping with idea development, line editing a manuscript, or proofreading a final version for publication, my goal is to maintain the author’s unique voice while helping him or her create and polish every sentence to make it the best it can be.
That doesn’t mean I stand over a writer, ruler in hand, prepared to rap some knuckles if rules are not strictly followed (can you tell I did some time in Catholic school?).
So, back to the author whose novel I line edited; he wanted to know if his work would suffer for using gender-neutral pronouns. Chicago Manual of Style, the style guide used by many publishers and editors, offers this:
A singular antecedent requires a singular referent pronoun. Because he is no longer accepted as a generic pronoun referring to a person of either sex, it has become common in speech and in informal writing to substitute the third-person plural pronouns they, them, their, and themselves, and the nonstandard singular themself. While this usage is accepted in casual contexts, it is still considered ungrammatical in formal writing. . . . so unless you are given guidelines to the contrary, do not use them in a singular sense.”
My dilemma while editing this author’s novel was in determining whether or not this was “formal writing.” After researching reference books, published articles, and online grammar forums, I decided the best solution was an artistic one; here’s how I responded to him:
Being a grammar trendsetter is a rough goal. I, too, have read a lot of differing opinions about the informal singular they, and because it is so common in everyday speech, I think we’ll see it move from pariah to acceptable as time goes on . . . but how long that will take is anyone’s guess. As a prescriptive grammarist, I am especially sensitive to both the “correct” and the “accepted” uses of words and phrases, so when I wear my editor’s hat, I can’t overlook things I can when someone is simply speaking.
That said, one way you could approach this is to differentiate your grammar choices between dialogue and prose—in other words, when someone is speaking, use the gender neutral pronouns, but when you have a descriptive sentence, choose the grammatically correct version.”
In the end, the decision is up to the author, and I may not know what he chooses until his book is published. However he decides to proceed, I respect his desire to walk that fine line between artistic expression and prescriptive grammar—being the trendsetter who uses “the informal singular they.” Whether I agree with him or not is immaterial; the important point is that we share a mutual goal to communicate his art in the best way possible.Should writers push the envelope when it comes to the changing and morphing of language? #writing #editing #grammar Click To Tweet
Do you agree that writers should push the envelope when it comes to the changing and morphing of language? Should editors stand firm about grammar rules, or should writers be granted “poetic license”? How have you responded when an editor has “corrected” something you feel strongly about, even if it isn’t “correct”?
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Candace Johnson is a professional freelance editor, proofreader, writer, ghostwriter, and writing coach who has worked with traditional publishers, self-published authors, and independent book packagers on nonfiction subjects ranging from memoirs to alternative medical treatments to self-help, and on fiction ranging from romance to paranormal. As an editorial specialist, Candace is passionate about offering her clients the opportunity to take their work to the next level. She believes in maintaining an author’s unique voice while helping him or her create and polish every sentence to make it the best it can be. Learn more here.
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Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
- Quick and Dirty Tips: Generic Singular Pronouns (grammargirl.com)
- 5 Ways to Train Yourself to Use Gender-Neutral Pronouns, and Why You Should Care (alexanderhoofie.com)
- Getting Personal: Correct Usage of Personal Pronouns (english.answers.com)
- Pet Peeve: Singular Nouns with Plural Pronouns (matthewrupert.net)