Vindication: Sometimes What Sounds Right Is Right


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John McIntyre, a self-proclaimed mild-mannered copy editor for the Baltimore Sun, raised the topic on his blog today of how to deal with use of the words “they” or “their” instead of “he or she” or “his or her.” McIntyre mentions the conventional options of how to deal with this”a or b” situation: (1) use the male pronoun in all instances (nope, not for me); (2) use his and her, no matter how awkward the resulting construction (nah, offends my lyrical and musical sensibilities); or (3) convert everything to plurals so that “their” can be used acceptably (hmm, cumbersome).

There must be a better way … and, there is! McIntyre suggests that you actually can use “they/their” with a singular antecedent. Damn the formal rules, apparently, and use what sounds right and true and musical to his or her or their or my or your ears. It has been used and accepted for centuries – heck, even the English use it with honor. So, then, why can’t we?

I didn’t realize this, but Bryan Garner (of substantial legal writing, grammar and general usage fame) calls this conundrum and its singular solution the “most likely solution to the single biggest problem in sexist language,…” I have never even thought of it that way.

The only argument against the singular solution is logic and adherence to arcane grammar rules. Since when does logic prevail over form? Well, perhaps to a certain degree it must in legal argument crafting. However, when attorneys stick to “logical” grammar rules when writing their briefs, motions, letters and memoranda, they run the risk of drying out the prose, so to speak. Stiff language saps the power of the idea. It forces the reader to spend precious brain cells parsing the words, rather than their meaning. Why detract from your argument just so you can claim grammar compliance?

If it works for Bryan Garner and John McIntyre, by Gum, then it works for me!

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