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The Art of Writing Improperly: Placating the P.C. Police

C’mon. You know you do it. Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it…. I’m speaking, of course, of improperly using the English language. We shorten the word when it becomes too exhausting to pronounce in its entirety, we eschew any phrase that might impinge on gender equality, we are drawn to the path of least resistance and use bad grammar because speaking correctly just requires too much effort. Of course, I don’t think anyone ever called WiFi ‘wireless fidelity’—nor would I recommend it—and we certainly don’t say “I work at the manufactory” as they did a century ago. The word factory is a perfectly reasonable shortcut that has been accepted as bona fide English. At least it has been that way in America. Who knows how they feel across the pond, but it’s hard to take seriously a country famous for bangers and mash, soccer hooliganism and celebrating archaic practices better left to the dustbin of history.

Of all the quirks and misnomers and misuse of English, however, one of the saddest and most easily avoided, is the battle raging against gender-specific terms. If they could pull it off while abiding by the rules of grammar, then God bless ‘em, it’s their business. But when they cross the line and choose political correctness over grammatical correctness, then it becomes my business, as well. In fact, as a writer and editor of the English language, this is, quite literally, my business.

One of the saddest trends today is to omit any reference to gender in writing, grammar be damned. Take the phrase Everyone should bring their lunch. Though grammatically incorrect, it is nonetheless commonly used today in deference to (or in fear of) the P.C. police, coming soon to a neighborhood near you, if it isn’t there already.

As even the most uninspired 8th-grade language arts student can tell you, ‘everyone’ (as well as no one, someone, everybody, each, none, etc) is singular, and ‘their’ is plural. Is it unfortunate that we have no singular gender-neutral term? Well, sure. But we don’t. And please don’t say that ‘their’ was used as a singular pronoun as far back as the Middle Ages. 500 years ago, they also were quite into plastering patients’ bodies with leeches to suck out bad blood, but that doesn’t mean we need to embrace the practice!

So what’s the alternative?

How about Everyone should bring his or her lunch? Grammatical? Mmm, yes…. But far too awkward, and really counterproductive as it calls attention to the awkward phrasing rather than the content of the sentence.

Okay, so how about Everyone brough her lunch? Okay, grammatically correct, but as she and her have not traditionally been used to describe all humankind (and don’t kill me, I’m only the messenger here), you may be giving your reader the false impression that women are the only ones eating lunch that day. And if your purpose is not to refer to gender, you have failed in your mission anyway.

Everyone brought his lunch? This is, of course, the traditional ‘correct’ phrasing, though lately frowned upon by the P.C. police, who find it less important to be grammatical than to be P.C. Even APA, that quintessential organization of academia, now not only allows, but insists that graduate students use language incorrectly by turning the plural ‘their’ and ‘them’ into singular pronouns. It’s a travesty worse than listening to Miley Cyrus on your ear pods at a volume louder than ‘mute.’

My point in all of this is not to plead with anyone to come over from the dark side. You should, however, be aware of the reasoning behind the movement to denigrate the language and then make a conscious choice of which side you wish to be on. Politics and Grammar are strange bedfellows, for sure (or should I say, bed ladies?). I mean, really. You never know who may be listening!

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