A Few Random Thoughts About Grammar
GRAMMAR, n. A system of pitfalls thoughtfully prepared for the feet for the self-made [writer], along the path by which he advances to distinction. –Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
This is going to sound like blasphemy to some, but I have no issue with using ‘they’ as a gender-undefined singular pronoun. ‘They’ has been used as gender-neutral singular for hundreds of years–it’s only by early twentieth-century convention that this has changed. At some point around the turn of the century, the uptight, sexist, and often ethnocentric grammar experts who make these decisions decided that since ‘they’ and ‘their’ can refer to a group, we should quit using these as singular pronouns and start using ‘he’ and ‘his’ whenever the gender of the subject is unknown. Toward the middle of the century the feminist movement took offense to the use of ‘he’ and ‘his’, since the subject could very well be a woman. Rather than going back to using ‘they’ and ‘their’, however, the feminists muddied the waters further by insisting on clumsy constructions like he/she, s/he, and his/her.*
Ain’t grammar history neat?
Ain’t is another very good example of a muddied grammar rule. Most have heard the rule ‘ain’t ain’t a word,’ right? Ain’t has been used for over three hundred years and can be found often throughout Georgian, Victorian, and early-American literature. The issue is that it was considered informal by those who considered themselves of the social elite. Grammar rules are kind of like table manners in that many of them are arbitrarily dictated by the upper classes in order to distinguish themselves from the lower classes (or in this case, probably the Irish). It’s kind of like a secret club handshake–if you use the same fork to eat your salad as you do your steak or end your sentence with a preposition, you clearly don’t belong (we don’t need your kind here).
Over the last century, however, we’ve seen a surge in a class of grammarian commonly referred to as the grammar-Nazi. Many of whom seem to take a certain amount of pride in the Nazi association. This bugs me because it turns grammar knowledge into a weapon, thus making grammar discussions combative, rather than informative.** To me, this is entirely the wrong attitude to take, and I feel like it turns many people off to the joys of writing and grammar. From my experiences as a teacher and tutor of composition, I’d estimate that more than 90% of students who struggle with grammar struggle simply because they are intimidated by it–because someone, at some point, has treated them as an inferior because they struggled with a hard-to-remember, arbitrary usage rule.
I’ll leave off with a few thoughts from the indomitable Stephen Fry, who says it a lot better than I ever could, and sounds cooler doing it:
*In a recent internet discussion on the use of ‘they’ as a singular pronoun, a user named Zillatian had this to say: “As for ‘they’, I use it all the time. Otherwise I would be using she/he/it all the time instead. Abbreviated of course to s/h/it.”
**Plus, it creates a negative stereotype of those of us who do like to write and play with language. I can’t begin to guess the number of times someone has replied “Oh, I guess I better watch my grammar” when I tell them I’m an English major.