They Is Here to Stay

It used to be so simple. “He,” “she,” and “it” were singular pronouns, and “we,” and “they” were plural pronouns. Then, last year, The Washington Post incorporated a gender-neutral, singular “they” into its (or should I say “their”) style guide and, more recently, the American Dialect Society selected the singular “they” as its (their?) word of the year. (I should point out that the ridiculous two-word expression, “on fleek” was also a contender, so apparently this entire sentence could be up for consideration next year. Here’s hoping.)

I’ve had a number of conversations about this in recent weeks, and reactions have been mixed. Some people were dismayed by the announcement. Others were thrilled. (One woman in particular proclaimed, “You just made my day! If I had a happy jar, I’d deposit that into it.”)

I get it. It’s an awkward issue, to be sure. You end up with sentences like, “Each partner must then determine any additional tax that he or she would have owed.” It would be much easier to replace “he or she” with “they.” But just because something’s easier doesn’t necessarily mean we should change a rule that’s been around for centuries.

Except people have been ignoring it for centuries, too. The singular “they” has deep historical roots, from Shakespeare to Chaucer to Jane Austen. Someone at Pemberley.com even went so far as to tally up the instances of the singular “they/their/them” in Austen’s six novels—75, in case you’re curious—as part of a web page titled, “Jane Austen and Other Famous Authors Violate What Everyone Learned in Their English Class.” As someone who often takes a contrarian viewpoint when it comes to conventional wisdom and grammar, you’d think that would’ve been enough to sway me. But it wasn’t.

So what’s making me rethink my stance? Articles like this one from the Poynter Institute. “More recently, singular ‘they’ is being considered as an alternative to ‘he’ and ‘she’ for people who don’t identify as male or female or who don’t identify with any gender all,” it reads. “The Associated Press already recommends identifying someone by the pronoun that person prefers, but what if someone doesn’t prefer either?” The singular “they” has become the preferred go-to pronoun for this segment of the population, and failure to adopt it results in pronoun avoidance which only unnecessarily complicates things. That’s different than laziness; that’s cultural shift.

So when I came upon the sentence, “When someone steals your identity, they have the opportunity to file a fraudulent tax return,” earlier this week, I left it alone. And when we were describing the target persona for our new, executive-level video series yesterday afternoon and a colleague pointed out, “We keep saying ‘him’ instead of ‘him or her,’” I thought, “The all-inclusive, newly singular ‘they’ would come in pretty handy right about now.”

And if that allows others to put deposits into their happy jars while we’re at it, so be it.

What do you think? Can you embrace a singular “they”? And do you have a least favorite word? Last week’s blog was all about great underused words; now I’d like to explore annoying, overused ones. See you in two weeks.

Word of the Week: Eviscerate, because—believe it or not—3 separate people noted that it should have been included in last week’s blog.
Song of the Week:Fifteen,” by Taylor Swift, because it was attacked by the Princeton Review for its use of a singular “they.”

8 of My Favorite Underused Words

The other day, I came across this article on a friend’s Facebook page. It asks us to use fewer emojis this year in favor of a handful of words that deserve to be used more in conversation. It’s a magnificent list— I particularly like “anathema” and “rumpus”— and I also learned two new words: “absquatulate” (to leave a gathering discretely without informing the host—tell me that won’t come in handy) and “sockdolager” (something that settles a matter decisively).

But that made me think: if I were to compile my own list of words to use more often, what would it contain? Here are my top 8 contenders.

  1. Denizen. I’m not sure where I first encountered this word, but I do know when I began to love it—during a vampire-themed episode of “Beavis and Butthead” where Beavis proclaims, “I will be a denizen of the night!” Good stuff.
  2. Equipoise. I associate this word with my good friend, Stefanie, who uses it all the time. I think of it as “her word,” and maybe that’s why I don’t use it much—I typically just say “equilibrium.” But “equipoise” is vastly superior.
  3. Tchotchke. I’ve always liked the sound of “tchotchke,” but when I learned it started with a “t,” it rose to the top of my list. (Same thing with “segue”—I managed to go the first 20 years of my life thinking it was spelled like the self-balancing electric vehicle.) Sometimes the spelling makes all the difference.
  4. Gallimaufry. When my manager, Teresa, used this word to describe a marketing initiative that had gone a bit off the rails, I fell in love with it. It was my word of 2014, and I still use it all the time.
  5. Truculent. I was reminded of this great, underused word when my friend, Amanda, mentioned her dad used it recently, and she found it hilarious (apparently it’s not a word he pulls out often). But it should be. It’s a great word to describe excessively hostile people.
  6. Epitome. I’ve been using this word ever since I first encountered it in my “Wordly Wise” vocabulary book in eighth grade. I used it so much it even became part of a rather lengthy “nickname” I had back in high school: “the epitome of musical knowledge.” I may have lost that title once or twice over the years, but I always get it back.
  7. Extirpation. My husband is a phenomenal guitarist. He used to do a lot of instrumental writing, and he’d frequently consult a thesaurus for song titles. My favorite title of his: “The Extirpation of the Primrose.” Why “extirpation”? Why “primrose”? No one knows, but it sounds cool.
  8. Prodigious. I once received a performance appraisal from Plante Moran’s HR Director with the following comment: “Mindy is a prodigious doer.” I think that’s the most accurate statement anyone has ever made about me (at least professionally), and “prodigious” has been a favorite word of mine ever since.

How about you? What words do you think we should use more? And are you on board with Wayne State’s request that we use fewer emojis?

Contractions: They Can’t Take Them Away From Me

While an undergrad at Eastern, I took a class called “Writing About Controversies.” Our first assignment was to write an essay challenging conventional wisdom. Dr. Arrington—the best writing teacher I’ve ever had and the instructor of this particular course—showed us an example from his oeuvre called “In Praise of Contractions: Madam Grammar Vs. Dame Rhetoric.”

In one corner you had Madam Grammar—conservative, critical, nose haughtily and perpetually in the air. She would never use contractions—especially in writing!—due to fear of perceived impropriety and would scoff at anyone who did. In the other corner was Dame Rhetoric—relaxed, approachable, inclusive. Someone who’d contract readily and frequently because, after all, the whole point of writing is to communicate effectively.

And Dr. Arrington wasn’t alone. I didn’t have a single instructor in the English department—or any department, really—who objected to contractions. On the contrary, they were encouraged—so much so that I even used them in my master’s thesis.

So you can imagine my surprise when I came to Plante Moran and practice staff began editing away my contractions. Take this recent example: “I know one area where Mindy and I disagree is on the use of contractions. She put them in, and I have taken them out. The article may be more readable with contractions but more business professional without them; this is one of the few lessons I remember from my business writing professor in college.”

Sigh. And he didn’t even contract in his explanation about the contractions in the email! Why so formal, PMer?

One of my favorite exchanges about contractions occurred years ago while I was working with Jerry, a tax partner, on the firm’s year-end tax guide. Jerry, unsurprisingly, was not a fan. “When I read a contraction, I ascribe a southern drawl to the writing,” he explained. So to Jerry, a contraction in a tax article conjures up images of Larry the Cable Guy doing tax returns. (Possible new firm tagline: “Plante Moran. We get ‘er done.”) On the other hand, when I read articles without contractions, I find the formality off-putting. They sound robotic. Read the quote from the fourth paragraph again. To me, he sounds like Spock from “Star Trek.” He might as well add, “I find human illogic and foolish emotions a constant irritant.”

So who’s right? Well, let’s consult the Chicago manual of style, which has this to say: “A complete avoidance of contractions is common only in the most formal writing (think wedding invitations, or speeches before the queen). Even scholarly books freely use contractions in sentences that would sound stuffy and pompous otherwise.” Or, as Stephen King once wrote, “Language does not always have to wear a tie and lace-up shoes.”

But notice that Mr. King chose not to contract there—because “does not” emphasizes his point in a way that “doesn’t” cannot.

So my final point is this: there’s always room for compromise. While we may not choose to contract in every instance, we shouldn’t be afraid of contractions either. Contractions have personality; they humanize us and make us easier to understand. And at the end of the day, our goal is to write for our audience—to write for our readers. I know what my preference is. What’s yours?

Word of the Week: Oeuvre
Song of the Week: “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” by Lisa Stansfield

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year…For Holiday Card Grammar Mistakes

For many people, holiday cards are grammar and punctuation mistakes waiting to happen. For something so short—most cards are, what, 5–10 words max?—there’s a surprising number of areas where things can go awry. Here are the four most common.

  1. Seasons Greetings vs. Season’s Greetings. If you decide to use this phrase, you’re going to want to go with the one with the apostrophe. Why? Because you’re expressing greetings of one particular season—this holiday season. No apostrophe implies that you’re expressing greetings from multiple seasons.
  2. Pluralizing your last name. I have it easy. If I want to send a holiday card out from Steve and me, I simply say “The Krolls.” But what if your last name is Stevens? Then it becomes a bit trickier.Many people simply add an apostrophe—“The Stevens’”—and call it a day. But this is incorrect. Instead, you should make the name plural. So in this case, the card would be from “The Stevenses.”
  3. Capitalization. Proper nouns like “Christmas,” “Hanukkah,” Kwanzaa,” and the like should always be capitalized, but the adjectives “merry” and “happy” should only be capitalized if they’re the first word of the greeting. So “Merry Christmas” is correct, but “Wishing you a Merry Christmas” is not. (It should be “Wishing you a merry Christmas.”)
  4. Proofreading. I know it’s a busy time of year, but be sure to take that extra couple of minutes to proofread your cards or—even better—have someone proofread them in addition to you. It’s way too easy for a typo such as “Form Steve and Mindy” to creep in.

Speaking of Which…
It’s hard to believe, but it’s been a year since I launched this blog. After I wrote my first post, I was excited. I sent a link to several friends, family, and colleagues, and people were incredibly supportive. However, I also received the following email from Doug, a Plante Moran partner, gently pointing out a mistake he’d noticed:

Love it….and I am sure we will all learn
a ton from your prose. Fantastic idea!

Unfortunately, I found something in your narrative
that I have been trying to correct in one of our consultants for years.
Darn spell check does not catch it but, nonetheless, it may impact the piece:
The next day—without any prompting form me—he designed this site for me.”

Do not despair or discontinue your journey to make us all better writers.

Of course I despaired! A typo in a blog post about grammar is like a hair in an entrée at an otherwise delicious restaurant. (I’m talking to you Athens Souvlaki Greek salad.) And the thing is, I had proofread that blog—more than once. It just reinforced what I already knew yet chose to ignore—that we can’t be trusted to proofread our own writing unless significant time has transpired. Why? Because no matter how well-intentioned we are, odds are we’ll read what we intended to put on the page versus what’s actually there.

Two More Things
Last week, I was out on the Plante Moran intranet and happened onto the office administration page. While there, I found a link to my blog under the heading “Resources.” It said, “Mindy Kroll’s Blog: Check out this well-written blog on grammar and writing.” I can’t express how honored I am that someone thought highly enough of it to include it as a resource on that page. I don’t know who put it up there—Sarah? Sande?—but thank you so much. You totally made my month.

This will likely be my last post until 2016. I just want to thank everyone for reading this blog and for commenting on it. (Keep commenting!) Thanks also to the best frienditor on the planet, Alexis Zayed, for reviewing all of my subsequent posts after that first one. You rock.

So what should we cover in 2016? Anything in particular that perplexes/irritates/drives you insane? Have a wonderful holiday!

Word of the Week:  Christmahannukwanzadan
Songs of the Week: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” by Judy Garland; “The Christmas Waltz,” by Nancy Wilson; and “Christmas,” by Blues Traveler