American Grammar Checkup: Do you see (or hear) what I do?
Where do you get your ideas for articles? Do you see something, hear something, or react to something that stops you in your tracks? Something you could teach to others?
If you’re a musical artist, you probably occasionally hear riffs / chords / segues that the rest of us don’t – ones that cause you to mentally or physically wince.
If you’re a visual artist – you have likely visited art galleries or galleries of other artistic endeavors hoping to just enjoy the work others put so much into creating. Do you sometimes still see shapes, forms, or colors that just don't seem quite right?
Most of us don't hear or see what you do, because it’s not our area of expertise or focus. We just move on, happy to be surrounded with color, shapes, and sounds, but usually unaware of the details that make sense to you but don’t even cross our mind.
I know it happens to me – as it happens to a lot of other editors / copyeditors / proofreaders – when I read something that’s “off.” I wince. Sometimes it’s a wrong word (e.g., affect vs. effect). Sometimes it’s the punctuation or the lack thereof.
Sometimes it’s a sentence that could have been written so much better, as one I saw yesterday morning in a magazine.
Confession: My mind still rebels at the thought of using “they,” “their,” or “them” to refer to a singular subject. I know the idea is gaining traction, much as using just one space between sentences has done (although some still refuse to do it), but I am definitely not there yet. Why not? Probably because there’s an easy fix that eliminates the need to use “they” to refer to a singular subject at all.
Rewrite the sentence. Yes, sometimes it’s just that simple.
First, we can just reorganize the words. This is close to the sentence I read in the newspaper: “If the doctor wasn’t listening intently, they might have made errors.”
Doctor is singular; they is plural. For me, no. Shivers. Just plain wrong.
But it can easily be rewritten as: “A doctor who wasn’t listening intently might have made errors.”
Of course, if the sentence goes on to still use a pronoun that refers to the subject, a simple rewrite won’t work as well as this next idea will:
Rewrite it, making the subject plural. Then using plural pronouns to refer back to the subject will be proper, and no one will notice what you’ve done.
NO: “If the doctor wasn’t listening intently, they could have missed issues they could have addressed right then.”
YES: “Doctors who weren’t listening intently might have missed issues they could have addressed right then.”
NOTE: The above examples presume you’re writing about doctors in general, so you don’t know the genders involved. But if you’re writing about ONE person whom you know, always use the appropriate he or she, OK?
NO: “The doctor said they’d be with me in a moment.” If doctor refers to Dr. Mary Smith, then you know her gender and you have to use she. Of course, they might refer to another group who will be with you in a moment.
Another NO: “The mother should have picked up their child from school.” Since when are mothers not female? If you want to write it in the singular form, it has to be, “The mother should have picked up her child from school.”
Does this all make sense? Yes, I am fighting a battle I likely won’t win, but since there are ways around it ... I’ll continue to show and use those ways.
What are YOUR thoughts here?
And in the spirit of the upcoming holidays -- and given the words in the title of this song and article -- here’s your BONUS for this day! I wonder if anyone reading this will figure out what the song is before hearing it ... it suddenly appeared in my head as I wrote the title.
If you like FREEBIES – and who doesn’t, especially at this time of year – and you’re interested in learning a little more about American grammar and usage rules, click HERE for a FREE copy of my booklet Colons & Commas & Dashes, Oh, My!
And if you spot a typo, please let me know.
Sad to say, I’m not perfect.