An Ettin, who is like to get upset whatever you call them
Last week, the Washington Post announced that it would begin using the pronoun “they” for people who identify as neither male nor female. The WaPo will also allow singular “they” to avoid gendering impersonal pronouns. Here’s Bill Walsh:
It is usually possible, and preferable, to recast sentences as plural to avoid both the sexist and antiquated universal default to male pronouns and the awkward use of he or she, him or her and the like: “All students must complete their homework,” not “Each student must complete his or her homework.” When such a rewrite is impossible or hopelessly awkward, however, what is known as “the singular they” is permissible.
Unlike Spanish, English does not have a singular impersonal pronoun. The APA recommends writing around this deficiency in the language, just as Walsh does. Props to Miracle Mike Sebba for the link. The combination of these two guidelines—call a person “they” if they want you to, but rewrite a sentence to avoid singular “they” if you can—suggests an odd but commendable system of values. Guideline number two insists the singular “they” is not correct. We’re willing to fudge it, says guideline number one, but not for your stupid sentence—only for people.
Because not enough forces in my life push me toward failure, I recently downloaded the new version of Words With Friends, which includes a Word of the Day feature. Yesterday’s word was ugh. Before we embrace despair, let’s remember that two- and three-letter words play well in a
Scrabble- scrambled letter-type game. If the word of the day were “caprophagy,” it would not quite constitute a feature. Besides, short words lead more interesting lives. When I sedulously compared the Words With Friends definition of ugh to the one in my Oxford American Dictionary, I learned it was not the word I thought it was.
Steven Pinker thanks you for coming to office hours, where something sexy could probably happen.
Now that we’ve all done our reading for today, I think we can agree that Pinker’s “Why Academics Stink at Writing” might be better titled “How Academics Stink at Writing.” The bulk of his essay documents the quirks and vices endemic to the genre; only in the last 500 words or so does he focus on the psychology behind them. The why of bad academic writing lives less in Pinker’s analyses than in the boldface headings he uses to taxonomize them: hedging, apologizing, “shudder quotes” (Pinker’s name for scare quotes,) et cetera. The insecurities these gerunds orbit help explain why a sentence trying to explain that people read statements marked true and false came out like this:
Participants read assertions whose veracity was either affirmed or denied by the subsequent presentation of an assessment word.
To oversimplify his argument, Pinker believes academics write badly because they’re scared.