Category Archives: Language Police

Therapeutic Disclaimer: Not ungrammatical. Non-binary aware.

I need a therapeutic disclaimer in emails and other media that goes like this:

 . . .  [blah blah blah] they* [blah blah blah] them* [blah blah blah] their* . . .

*Non-binary-aware, not ungrammatical.

I need this because I was raised on grammatical correction.  It was how we expressed love in our family, just as many families express love by overfeeding one another, or teaching their young’uns to hunt or catch a spiral pass.

At a point slightly before I was able to consume solid food, my mother taught me — and corrected me — on the difference between “which” and “that.”  If you said something was “more unique” in our household, you got a quick lecture on how the thing could be unique or not, but could not be comparatively unique because that suggested there was more than one of whatever it was.  I believe my mother stopped drinking Pepsi for a while (actually, I don’t recall her ever drinking Pepsi; Fresca was her soft drink of choice) when they advertised it as “The Refreshingest!”  One year, she corrected a typo in my home-made holiday card.   That year was 2007.

Perhaps my favorite story, demonstrating the inter-generational quality to this bonding-through-grammar, was when — at the know-it-all age of approximately 12 — I wrote a letter to the editor of the Washington Post suggesting that some article or another was “male chauvinist.”  My grandfather read it and provided this encouraging comment for my early efforts at politico-journalistic participation:  “I believe the adjectival form is ‘chauvinistic.'”  Seriously.  I am not making that up.

I have to add, of course, that I love my mother and grandfather, and that they prepared me well for a world in which you are in fact judged on your grammar.  No one taught me how to dress fashionably or wear make-up — we just weren’t a fashion-forward family

Image: three white people leaning on the side of a ferry boat. The young girl, around 9 years old, is wearing red shorts, a blue shirt and knee socks, the woman (holding a small dog) is wearing blue pants and a red shirt, and the man (with a scruffy beard) is wearing a short-sleeve button-down shirt and brown work pants.

— but dammit I know how to sound edumacated.

As an act of rebellion, I became a linguistics major and basked in the glow of descriptive grammar.  As an adult, I relish hearing and constructing neologisms, making prefixes and suffixes go where they have never gone before, and generally observing the way our brains interact with language when left on their own.  For all of this linguistic liberation, however, I still have a very severe case of GIS:  Grammatical Insecurity Syndrome.

One of the things I was taught alongside “which,” “that,” and never, ever “most unique,” is that singular verbs take singular pronouns, and that “they, them, and their” are plural pronouns.  I learned to police my language for this possible mismatch, and either change the number — that is, rearrange the entire sentence to be plural rather than singular — or change the pronoun.   And of course since I was a good feminist, I balked at the generic “he” and used the hell out of “he or she,”  “his/hers,” etc.  The random use of the generic “she” — which become popular when I was in law school in the 1980s — always seemed sort of strained to me, especially when used by male professors whose approach was otherwise pretty chauvinist . . .  I mean, of course, chauvinistic.

It’s time to leave all that binary shit behind.  It’s time to embrace they/them/their as singular, non-binary, pronouns.  And most of all, it’s time not to care if many people think I’m just ungrammatical.  As always, XKCD says it best:

Image: 9 panel comic, two stick figures conversing. Person #1:

We need a Language Police.

Of which, of course, I’d be Chief.

Our jurisdiction would be broad:  grammar; punctuation; semantics.  But our most important task would be punishing language abuse.   Today’s perp:  The NYT.  The charges are based on a sentence fragment in today’s Times that is superficially just crappy writing, but is in fact stunningly offensive.  In an article discussing Michelle Obama’s white ancestors, the writer makes clear that the family of the First Lady’s white great-great-great-grandfather owned her great-great-great grandmother.  At the time their child — Mrs. Obama’s great-great-grandfather, Dolphus T. Shields — was conceived, the white slave-owner was 20; his slave only 15.  The article continues:

Such forbidden liaisons across the racial divide inevitably bring to mind the story of Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings. Mrs. Obama’s ancestors, however, lived in a world far removed from the elegance of Jefferson’s Monticello, his 5,000-acre mountain estate with 200 slaves. They were much more typical of the ordinary people who became entangled in America’s entrenched system of servitude.

Just a bunch of random, ordinary people of, you know, a couple of different skin colors, who — passive voice! — became entangled, you know, like you do when you are charging too many electrical devices and the cords end up on the floor, or your dog puts one too many rope toys in front of the back door and, you just, you know, become entangled.  No one’s fault.  That lethal system of violently-asserted racial superiority, oppression, and death was just lying around entangling ordinary people.

Rachel L. Swarns, you are under arrest for First Degree Language Abuse.

Ms. Swarns — who has apparently written a book about Ms. Obama’s multiracial ancestors — goes on to perpetrate this egregious sentence, which may form the basis of a referral to my colleagues with the Journalism Police or possibly the History Police.

[Ms. Obama’s great-great-great grandmother] had more biracial children after the Civil War, giving some of the white Shieldses hope that her relationship with [the white slave-owner] was consensual.

W.T.F.  There is no universe in which the sexual relationship between a master and a slave can be consensual.  Nor did the end of the Civil War magically turn former slaves and their former owners into free agents.

I get the motive for this:  we don’t want to offend the tender feelings of Mrs. Joan Tribble — “a retired bookkeeper who delights in her two grandchildren and her Sunday church mornings” — by suggesting that perhaps some of her distant ancestors were, um …. how can I say this delicately yet factually? … slaveowners.  Because of course “[s]ome of Mrs. Tribble’s relatives have declined to discuss the matter beyond the closed doors of their homes, fearful that they might be vilified as racists or forced to publicly atone for their forebears.”

How the hell can we teach history if we’re unwilling to just tell it like it is?