As the more humorless and glassy-eyed among us have been known to warn anybody they could grab by the lapels, literally or figuratively: We are living in End Times.
(The Bible tells us quite clearly that no mortal knows any such thing. But there are folks, and they are seldom shy about telling you this, who apparently have a private line to the Big Guy.)
I’m now convinced they’re right. An Armageddon is upon us. And like those true believers who regularly ascend to mountaintops to await the Rapture (and inevitably amble back down, healthy and whole, with no apparent embarrassment) we in this industry are peacefully embracing it. Brace yourselves — this isn’t pretty.
“They” and “their” are now acceptable as singular pronouns.
I’ll give you a moment to compose yourselves, usher the children out of the room and ponder what’s best for you and your family in the face of this tsunami of sanctioned illiteracy.
We must now accept such abominations as “Somebody should never park their car outside in a hailstorm.” (If I were an old-style editor of “The Front Page” vintage, I’d be reaching into my desk for the obligatory pint of newsroom bourbon just for having typed that.)
I’ve weathered a lot of painful battering from a turbulently changing world. I’ve gritted my teeth through the designated hitter, the wild card, baseball’s interminable “instant” replay and now the “automatic” intentional walk. I survive NFL telecasts with 10-minute commercial breaks, followed by a kickoff out of the end zone for a touchback, followed by another 10-minute commercial break. I sweat through college football games that begin at noon in September. I’m surviving, so far, a reality show presidency that denies the existence of reality.
But this? I don’t know. This is an assault on Mother English even Donald Trump might consider offensive. (OK, check that. He doesn’t acknowledge assault, and he doesn’t speak English.)
A Washington Post piece on this noun-pronoun agreement thing went for a few lighthearted laughs at the expense of “grammar nerds” (the author’s term) like me who get the fantods (Twain’s term) over stuff like this. All in good fun, and we’re fair game.
Still, I’m not sold on the idea that somebody is a “nerd” about grammar just because he or she (sorry — “they”) have … has? Oh hell, whatever — a passing acquaintance with it. English Majoritis is a chronic condition, and EM has no known cure.
One of the clear symptoms of language decline is plain laziness. Case in point: these annoying health disorder abbreviations. (See above.) It’s one thing if we’re talking about some unspellable 12-syllable medical term. But really — we’re too lazy to say “arthritis” now?
It’s apparently become too much trouble to write “Somebody should never park his or her car (or even “a car”) outside in a hailstorm” or “People should never park their cars in a hailstorm,” or any other simple alternative to aggravated languicide.
We all understand that language, like everything else — including, sadly, baseball — is fluid and evolving. If it weren’t, as my late editor and friend Jack Swift liked to point out, we’d still be writing like Chaucer … or chiseling hieroglyphs on rocks. That doesn’t mean we have to like it.
A special challenge in this business is the word “style.” Like the word “cleave,” which can mean either to join or to sunder, it has two meanings that are literal opposites. For most of us, “style” connotes uniqueness: Faulkner’s writing style, Gary Clark Jr.’s guitar style, Adele’s singing style, Pete Rose’s batting style.
Its meaning in the context of news writing is one of conformity — to a set of rules and norms that make it consistent, coherent and clear. But sometimes, and I have been profoundly guilty of this, we lose sight of the contexts in which such consistency is and isn’t necessary, or even appropriate. (I once had an editor I respected, when I wasn’t close to strangling him, who rewrote Dave Barry’s humor columns into AP style. I am not, as Barry would say, making this up.)
Don’t get me wrong. In casual conversation you’ll hear me break every rule I ever taught or defended, including “they” and “their” and all the rest. I do it all the time. I’m also fluent in Anglo-Saxon verbs and nouns that do not generally appear on our pages or website.
This is different. This is about the written word, something I revere that maybe I should merely respect. But so be it.
I will never –— ever — use “they” or their” in reference to a singular antecedent, any more than I will use “impact” as a verb. And I don’t care what the damn stylebook says.
Dusty Nix, 706-571-8528; firstname.lastname@example.org.