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Adventures of a 21st-Century Grammarian

When I was team leader of the Communications Team at the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance, I published a weekly or so "advice column" for the mostly technical and planning-oriented writers in the office about the scintillating topics of grammar, punctuation, spelling and how to avoid overuse of passive voice. I've decided to revive that practice here, just for fun. Let the grammar adventures continue!

I'm Betsy, and my pronouns are she/her.
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Pronouns are more important than they used to be. As more and more people in public and private life do not see themselves as existing at either end of the gender binary, and request to be referred to with a neutral pronoun instead of “he/him” or “she/her,” the use of “they/them” for singular subjects is showing up more frequently in writing and in conversation. In fact, "they" is Merriam-Webster's word of the year for 2019 because it has been looked up more times than any other word this year. This growing interest follows M-W’s addition this year of definitions for “they” that include uses for non-gendered singular subjects and for subjects with non-binary gender identities. 

This reflects a significant shift on two fronts: grammar and gender. The use of a plural pronoun with a singular non-gendered subject has been considered a no-no by grammarians for a long time, since about the beginning of the 19th century, even though this usage was common and accepted for centuries before that. Jane Austen herself argued against the grammar police of her day who, for their own reasons, decided it was wrong to use a plural pronoun in a sentence like this: “Each student should bring their notebook to class.”


In Austen’s time, this was just starting to be considered ungrammatical. In today’s world, we are so indoctrinated with the wrongness of this that even though we are hearing it much more often these days, it may still sound off to our ears.

But in the middle of the 20th century, the feminist and LGBTIQ movements started to question the masculine bias of language—the use of “man” to mean “human, for example, and male pronouns as the default for any subject not specifically feminine. It was easy enough to start saying “human” or “person” instead of “man,” but the pronoun switch has been more difficult. We started to see “he/she” or s/he” as efforts to be inclusive, but that can get quite cumbersome when it needs to be done two or three times in the same sentence.

Now, in more recent years, thanks to rejection by many Millennials and Gen Z’ers of the gender binary itself, the plural pronoun is finally recovering its former place as a legitimate way to refer to a singular subject, and is going further as it becomes a term that grammatically acknowledges the existence of non-binary gender identities. This is new and, in my view, welcome.

At many meetings that I attend now, people introduce themselves with their name and their pronouns—e.g., "My name is Betsy, and I use she/her pronouns,” or just “Betsy, she/her.” I notice that some folks at these meetings don’t quite grasp the purpose of this, saying, for example, “My name is Jeff, and you can just call me Jeff.” The thing about pronouns is that they are not words we use in talking to another person, but in talking about them—and also in thinking about them and understanding them.


In the world I grew up in, and until very recently, everyone was either male or female, whether they really were or not. And we felt we had to know a person’s binary gender in order to know how to relate to them.

Now, with younger generations leading the way, we are being challenged to see that gender is not binary, and so it is actually possible to relate to another human being as a human being rather than as a male or a female. I’m so grateful for this opening of awareness and what it makes possible for human relating.

As a lifelong lover of language and reading, an English major for 50 years, I have evolved in my view of this change: for a long time I agreed with the grammar police and insisted on the “purity” of number agreement (singular pronouns for singular subjects only); now I passionately embrace this grammatical expansion.


And the more younger people I meet who assert a non-binary identity, the more deeply I appreciate the versatility of “they/them” and celebrate the shift in grammatical understanding signified by the Merriam-Webster announcement and its own changes of definition.

Published December 12, 2019

Place names are words that matter

As a former writing teacher, I have been part of the effort to help students learn to think critically. I know we work against a cultural bias in the US that decidedly opposes being critical. You can see it in the news media every single day.

I can barely watch the TV news anymore, where new products, shopping days till Christmas, and sports events are news while actual news like the mayor’s failure to respond to an open letter from survivors of the Drake Hotel fire isn’t mentioned, and presidential midnight Tweets are dutifully reported with no critical context nor even a hint of irony.


Even when extreme weather leads the newscast, which is frequently, the climate crisis is rarely mentioned and if so, it is only the words unaccompanied by any context or deeper exploration. (And don’t even get me started on the bad grammar and mispronunciation errors committed by these highly trained communicators!)

Now, I have to give up listening to Classical Minnesota Public Radio, too.

Classical MPR used to be my constant companion, background sound for my days. In the kitchen I had it on the stereo; while working at my computer I streamed it.

I’ve always been unhappy about their choice never to provide a hint of critical context of, for example, the intimate relationship of classical music, which is almost solely European, to empire, colonialism, and white privilege, or even to the class system that required composers now considered timeless geniuses like Bach, Beethoven and Haydn to write their tails off for some rich patron, often to stroke that wealthy person’s ego, in order to (often barely) pay their bills and be able to create transcendent, sometimes sublime, music. (It was the same for most visual artists.)

To say nothing of the fact that European classical music has survived so long to be enjoyed by so many because of the cultural dominance of Europe in the world, and its imposition on other cultures. Including the ignoring, burying, labeling as “primitive,” or complete erasure of indigenous music in the dominated lands, which is to say, most of the globe.

Critical commentary would be too much to expect from a radio service that relies heavily on corporate sponsorship and large donations from wealthy people. But a couple of days ago Classical MPR stepped up (or down?) its game from simply ignoring the imperial history of its music to actively celebrating that cultural violence.

One of the announcers called place names like New Zealand and New York examples of “a grand tradition in geography.” Yes, he actually said that naming colonized places after cities and regions in the colonizers’ country, in the colonizers’ language—a practice of empires that (intentionally) erases indigenous place names, and by extension indigenous peoples, their histories, their cultures, their languages—is “a grand tradition in geography.”

My jaw dropped. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. But I was.

In Minneapolis during the past couple of years, we have been bringing back to a few places their indigenous names and abandoning the supremacist, imperial names they had been known by since settler culture took over. Lake Calhoun, named for a notorious and violent slave-owner and slavery advocate who has no particular connection to Minnesota, has been renamed Bde Maka Ska, what this lake in the middle of Minneapolis was called by the original Anishinabe inhabitants. There was pushback, of course, by people who presumably would have heard nothing wrong in the MPR announcer’s statement. But consciousness is changing, and this is one of the ways it changes.

I do despair of our media in this country, though, both commercial TV and radio and so-called “public” media like MPR. I wonder what would change if they took even a moment to apply a more critical lens to the news and information they are conveying.

In any case, I am learning what it’s like not to have music in the background all the time. I think I’ll get used to it.

Published January 3, 2020

Reading with and against the grain


In the highly polarized discourse of this historic moment, it seems we are more prone than ever to react to others' opinions and ideas and put each other into various boxes. We think we know what everyone else is saying, and we arm ourselves with our agreement or disagreement to make sure we know which side we are on.


As a writer and editor, a lover of words and of argument, this saddens me, and it also somewhat frightens me. I'm not sure how we will be able to solve our very serious problems, which we have to do together, when we have pushed each other to arm’s length with disagreement. But at the same time, I am convinced that the notion that we so totally disagree with each other is actually illusory.


I think most of us are doing what my freshman composition students did so readily, which is to let our opinions, as they assert themselves instantaneously when we hear or read someone else's ideas, obscure the deeper nuances, and especially the “whys,” of those ideas. And I think that the lessons of freshman composition can be of use in this situation.


When I taught college writing at the University of North Dakota, we used an approach that linked writing to reading and thinking. The idea was that writing well depends on being able to think and to read critically--to understand what a writer is saying and how they make their argument, before we respond to that argument with an argument of our own.


Most of us will have an immediate reaction to the ideas in anything we read or hear, usually "I like this" or "I don't like this;" "I agree with this" or "I don't agree with this." Maybe "I'm bored by this." Possibly these reactions will be phrased more colorfully.


While this is normal, these reactions tell us more about our own opinions than they do about the ideas we are reacting to--and they don’t give us any starting point for knowing whether we really do agree or disagree, and why. That's where a skill we taught freshman writers, “reading with and against the grain,” comes in.


The first part, reading with the grain, is when we try to be inside the mind of the author. As we follow their argument, holding our own reaction aside for the time being, we are more likely to be able to see where they are coming from—what, indeed, is their starting point? Why do they think their assertions are true? What are they saying to convince us to agree with them—what evidence do they present, what tone do they take? Most of all, can we try to understand why the argument they are making is important enough to them to write it down?


It is a discipline, definitely for college freshmen and probably for most adults of all ages, to honestly try to understand another person’s argument from their point of view. This is, of course, especially true if the writing rubs us entirely the wrong way, but it also holds if we enthusiastically agree with the author’s thoughts. Being in agreement might cause us to miss some of the evidence or argument, perhaps even places where the author is saying things we actually don’t agree with.


Only when we have read with the grain of the argument can we be sure we have truly understood what is being said, and not jumped over part of it because the argument sounds like something we've heard before (this is usually what is under both virulent disagreement and enthusiastic agreement). It may be very similar to something we know or have heard before--it may even be the same. But more likely what you are reading has some nuance and perhaps even a significant divergence from what you may think on first reading, and you will miss this if you do not read carefully as if you were the author.

Reading against the grain comes next--and this is what is often meant by “reading critically.” This doesn’t mean, if you initially disagreed, that you can now unleash your contempt and look for all the places the author is wrong! On the other hand, if your initial reaction was positive, put yourself in the position that you must be convinced. Is the argument clear? Is it complete? Where are the holes? Are there possible interpretations of the evidence presented that the writer has not addressed?


At the end of this process—which freshman writing students have several days to accomplish, not so easy in political discourse that comes at us thick and heavy—you will have a better, deeper, more complete grasp of what the author is arguing (as well as a deeper awareness of how and how not to craft an argument). And  you are somewhat likely to find, as many of my students did, that you actually don’t disagree as virulently as you thought at first. You may even find you agree with some points, or at least that you have a grudging respect for the writer’s point of view even if you still come down in a different place.


And if you initially liked, even loved, what you thought the writer was saying, you may find you still do, but with a deeper grasp of why you hold this view. This will, of course, help you in conversations you may have with family and friends about the topic.


The reality of public discourse, however, is that much of it is not written as well-crafted arguments, like the academic essays we used in class. Facebook posts are not usually written this way! But you can still practice reading with and against the grain, and perhaps be better able to spot the weaknesses in your own position as well as the places where you may actually agree with those you think are on “the opposite side of the issue.”


Mostly, what I hope we’ll all find is that listening more closely, and making an effort to see the deeper levels of others’ points of view, is a way for us to close the gap of polarization and find ways to come together on solving the very critical global problems of our day.

Published February 21, 2020

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