Friday, May 10, 2013

Elegant Solutions for Mythical Fussbudgetry

Close to a year ago I wrote at length about three instances of grammatical "rules" I describe as "mythical fussbudgetry":
  • Myth 1: Don't Start Sentences with Ands or Buts
  • Myth 2: Don't End Sentences with Prepositions
  • Myth 3: Don't Use They as a Singular Pronoun

Today in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Anne Curzan addresses Myth 3 with her blog post "Singular 'They': A Footnote."

Curzan offers a solid solution for people who want to use they as a singular pronoun: "I tell students that they are welcome to use singular they  in writing for my class, but they should footnote it the first time they use it and in the footnote explain their rationale for using singular they. And students do, both in my class and in other classes (for other classes, I tell them they’re allowed to end the footnote with an invitation for the instructor to contact me with any questions). This footnote accomplishes at least three things: It shows readers that the author is consciously making a choice to use singular they; it informs readers about legitimate reasons for using singular they, even if they disagree with its use in this context; and most importantly, it asks students to be careful, self-conscious writers, reflecting on and explaining their choices in their writing."

Curzan's proposal reminds me of a recommendation from one of my mentors in graduate school, Dr. Ralph F. Voss. In class one day, he told us that if students want to create intentional fragments in their papers for whatever reason, to indicate they did this consciously, students can just put "fi" in parentheses after the intentional fragment (like in a citation system), which stands for "fragment intended."

If you're someone like me who wants to get rid of the silly "rules" above, you and your students can use footnotes to signal these word choices and constructions were conscious choices.

Elegant solutions from Voss and Curzan (fi). 


  1. Interesting subversion. Both of these make the most sense in an academic environment but I can see the singular "they" footnote making a good point in other contexts too. Marking "if" seems a little different because it is not an explanation but a response to mistrust of the writer on the reader's part. So that one is only appropriate in an academic context, which is a little sad. But in a writing-centered class in which consciousness about choices is a focus, I can see its pedagogical usefulness.

  2. Thanks for the comment. Both the footnote and "fi" indicate looking beyond the surface, indicating that the "breach" was intentional.

  3. This is awesome. Thank you.
    Go, Bama!

  4. I wholeheartedly disagree with all of your stances, especially the parts concerning starting sentences with conjunction and ending sentences with prepositions. What you and other like-minded individuals are doing is allowing the language to deteriorate and corrode to where anything goes. There is a reason why grammatical rules should be followed - because it keeps the language standards. Allowing colloquial usage to enter into and become a part of the manner in which we write is a disservice to all who communicate well. If a sentence - written properly - sounds cumbersome to you, it is because you have allowed yourself to become unfamiliar with proper language usage and not the fault of the way it was constructed. Just because it has become commonplace for writers to use sloppy language construction does not make it acceptable. I, for one, will continue to teach my students how to write well in spite of people like you.

  5. As I detailed in the original post about those myths, there is strong debate about using they as a singular pronoun. We like-minded individuals are fine with the language changing because that is what languages do. You can paint people like me as someone who is fine with deteriorating and corroding the English language and imply that I'm "unfamiliar with proper language use" all you want. That's a gambit people have used for centuries by correlating "proper" language use with breeding, intelligence, culture, and refinement--even race and class. However, the point is that languages change. On this myth, I'm siding with Curzan, who is a linguist the Co-Director of the Joint Ph.D. program in English and Education at the University of Michigan.

    The origin of the "rule" about not ending sentences with prepositions is much like the misguided rule about not splitting infinitives because both directives derive from Latin grammar. In Latin, it's impossible to split an infinitive because an infinitive is one word. In English, an infinitive is comprised of two words.

    As the video from one of the editors of Merriam-Webster relates in the original post, Dryden created that rule because in Latin you can't end a sentence with a preposition. Terminal prepositions have been around since Old English, and the Latinate rule was foisted upon the language and written into grammar books. As the subtitle of the video says, it's "an old-fashioned rule we can no longer put up with." Or as Churchill said, "This is just the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put." On this myth, I'm siding with the Merriam-Webster, the OED, Grammar Girl, Churchill, and historians of the English language.

    In the case of these two "rules," I see the English language personified as a German clothed in a toga and drunk on French wine.

    As for the point about starting sentences with prepositions, I am not advocating that writers use that move willy-nilly. Rather, beginning a sentence with a preposition can create a powerful rhetorical signpost for the reader just like "However" and "In addition" and "Conversely" can. Like those adverbial conjunctions or conjunctive adverbs, writers can certainly overuse "or," "but," or "and" at the start of sentences. Just imagine a writer overusing "Moreover," at the start of sentences. The same advice applies to "and", "but," and "or" at the start of sentences. Don't overuse them. Instead, use them for rhetorical effect. On this myth, I'm siding with Catherine Soanes, the OED, and Dr. Mark Womack.

    But I guess we'll just have to disagree.