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  • Heer, hiser, himer: Pronouns in the news, 1912 edition

    On January 7, 1912, a headline in the Chicago Tribune breathlessly announced, “Mrs. Ella Young Invents Pronoun . . . Makes Principals Gasp.” Ella Flagg Young, Superintendent of Chicago’s public schools, told the Tribune she thought up what she called the “duo-personal” pronouns he’er, his’er, and him’er as she walked to a meeting with school principals. The story went viral. Then it unraveled.

  • The French Academy wants you to remember, this virus is feminine

    With millions around the world getting sick and dying from a pandemic virus, the French Academy wants you to know that the virus is feminine: la covid 19, not le covid 19. Young and old, previously healthy or immuno-compromised, recently arrived from abroad or never been out of the hexagon, breaking quarantine or sheltering in place, it seems that the French have been treating the pandemic as masculine. But the rule makers at the French Academy want to put a stop to all that. 

  • Thats all Folks: The Apostrophe Protection Society Gone for Good

    With all that’s going on in the UK—an election, Brexit, terror on London Bridge, another Donald Trump visit—it was surprising to see the British media so eager to report the death of the Apostrophe Protection Society. The Times, the Standard, the Independent, the Daily Mail, BBC radio and TV, and RTE all ran stories about it, as did the Guardian (two articles on two consecutive days), together with outlets as far flung as Australia and New Zealand, not to mention the Washington Post and the New York Post. 

    What happened was that the society’s 96-year-old founder announced that the ignorant had won, and he, the nation’s self-appointed pedant-in-chief, no longer had the energy to campaign against the rude, apostrophic errors of the ignorant. So he called it quit’s.

  • Grammar-shaming Trump

    Donald Trump is torturing the English language. Says New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, the president “is as inept at English as he is at governing,” adding, “He’s oxymoronic: a nativist who can’t really speak his native tongue.” What got Bruni riled up was not just the nonstop alt-right ravings, but also Trump’s constant misspellings, his oddball capitalization and bizarre punctuation, and his word-manglings like hamberder and covfefe. 

    Berating someone for making language mistakes is called "grammar shaming." Grammar shaming ordinary people doesn’t work: their English still won't meet your expectations and they'll resent your superior attitude. And there’s no point grammar shaming Trump because he’s incapable of feeling shame....

  • Teachers' pronouns

    I’m a teacher; my pronoun is _______.

    If you answered, My pronoun is they, you’ve done nothing wrong. Yes, teachers are expected to model good grammar as well as teach it—sometimes the job depends on it—but no matter what you’ve been told before, singular they is grammatically correct, and the American Psychological Society’s influential Publication Manual (7e) is the latest authority to agree. The APA manual stresses correct grammar in writing, and it approves the use of they, them, their, themselves, and even themself, when an individual’s pronouns are unknown or irrelevant.

    Teachers have a reputation for stressing grammatical correctness, but the last time the National Education Association had a style manual, back in 1974, it didn’t even consider singular they as an option. At the time, Mildred Fenner, editor of Today’s Education, reported that for many years the NEA journal used generic she for teachers because most teachers were women. But in the 1960s men began to complain that expressions like the teacher . . . she were responsible for teachers’ poor public image and their low salaries. One man objected at an NEA meeting that generic she was both bad English and a bad look for the profession. . . .

  • Forget Rees-Mogg, Fowler, and Strunk & White, the arbiter of English today is Autocorrect

    Jacob Rees-Mogg, the foppish MP newly-appointed Leader of Britain’s House of Commons and sometimes called the Honourable Member for the Eighteenth Century, has issued a no-nonsense style guide for all writing done by his staff. Like any set of language do’s and don’ts, Rees-Mogg’s guide to utterly correct if somewhat outdated English, prepared some years ago for use in his Somerset constituency office and now to be used in the leader’s new office, includes rules to be followed and words to be banned.

    But all style guides are doomed to fail--except maybe Autocorrect, whose decisions prove difficult to reverse.