The Oxford Dictionaries Web site says the use of the plural third person pronoun as an alternative to the “he or she” construction is actually a throwback to 16th century English and is gaining in popularity and acceptance. But I can’t help it. It sounds ignorant or just plain lazy, especially when editors, whose job is to help writers be precise and effective in their use of the language, are the ones advocating it.
Correctness in the use of language isn’t about blindly following rules. It’s about meaning and clarity. It’s about being understood. Consider this:
If your child wants good grades they need to pay attention in school and study.
Who are they? And exactly how are they going to help my child?
An editor recently told me her company (I could have said their company but chose not to) are moving toward making the use of the plural pronoun part of the house style. When I pointed out that the use of they in the sentence above is open to misinterpretation and gets in the way of effective and efficient communication, her explanation was that the copy editor had pointed out that Shakespeare had used the construction, so it is ok to use it now.
I didn’t really have an answer other than to point out that Shakespeare also used “thou” and “hath,” which didn’t impress the editor very much. But then I got to thinking that citing Shakespeare’s use as a justification for unorthodox constructions could solve some problems a lot of people worry about. Here’s a sampling of Shakespearean constructions you can point to when someone tells you you don’t speak good:
|If you want to use one part of speech for another (for instance you want to google something) Shakespeare said:
If you want to alter the meaning of an adjective here’s how Shakespeare did it:
If you don’t want to bother checking for subject-verb agreement:
If you’re tired of determining whether it’s he or him or it’s who or whom:
If you’re not sure of how to form the comparative or superlative and it’s just too hard to look it up:
If you need to cut insignificant words (such as to or for) to stay within an arbitrary word limit:
I found these examples — and there’s more to see — at the Shakespeare Resource Center Web site.
Before you check it out, though, why not join the fray below…