Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Today's English lesson

From the American Heritage Book of English Usage:

Every Good Boy
Does Fine

Every is representative of a large class of English words and expressions that are singular in form but felt to be plural in sense. The class includes, for example, noun phrases introduced by every, any, and certain uses of some. These expressions invariably take a singular verb; we say
Every car has (not have) been tested.
Anyone is (not are) liable to fall ill.
But when a sentence contains a pronoun that refers to a previous noun phrase introduced by every, grammar and sense pull in different directions. The grammar of these expressions requires a singular pronoun, as in
Every car must have its brakes tested.
but the meaning often leads people to use the plural pronoun, as in
Every car must have their brakes tested.
The use of plural pronouns in such cases is common in speech, but it is still widely regarded as incorrect in writing.

The effort to adhere to the grammatical rule causes complications, however. The first is grammatical. When a pronoun refers to a phrase containing every or any that falls within a different independent clause, the pronoun cannot be singular. Thus it is simply not English to say
Every man left; he took his raincoat with him.
Nor can you say
No one could be seen, could he?
If you are unwilling to use plural forms in these examples, you must find another way of expressing your meaning, either by rephrasing the sentence so as to get the pronoun into the same clause -- as in
Every man left, taking his raincoat with him.
or by substituting another word for every or any -- as in
All the men left; they took their raincoats with them.

The second complication is political. When a phrase introduced by every or any refers to a group containing both men and women, what pronoun should you use? Consider the example
Every person in this office must keep track of his (her? his or her? their?) own expenses.
Many writers of English have traditionally used the pronouns he, him, and his as generic or gender-neutral singular pronouns in formal writing, as in
A novelist should write about what he knows best and No one seems to take any pride in his work anymore.
However, whether he really refers to both genders or can be considered gender-neutral is questionable, since many people feel that it can only designate a male who is supposed to be taken as the representative member of the group referred to. When many occupations and public offices were held exclusively by men, using he in this way was unremarkable. For example, the sentence
Each member of Congress is answerable to his constituents.
could raise no objections throughout most of U.S. history, as Congress was occupied exclusively by men, and there was scant possibility of women holding office. But the argument for the continued use of the so-called masculine generic in formal English gets more shaky every day, with women becoming more visible in all aspects of public life; instead the singular masculine pronouns now seem best used when referring to a group of men—and when used in this way they parallel the singular feminine pronouns.

Nonetheless, the use of the masculine pronoun as generic still has its advocates: in a series of sample sentences such as
A taxpayer who fails to disclose the source of _____ income can be prosecuted under the new law.
37 percent of the Usage Panel completed the sentences with the masculine pronoun.

But if you don’t like the traditional usage or feel it is sexist, you will want to avoid generic he.

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