Negotiating “Acceptable” Usage

Dr. Anne Curzan will present a keynote titled “Survey Says…: Determining What English Usage Is and Isn’t Acceptable,” at the TESOL 2016 International Convention & English Language Expo, 8 am, Friday, 8 April. 

Why can’t we end a sentence with a preposition? Why isn’t ain’t acceptable in formal writing? If we regularly use singular they in speech, why can’t we write it down in an essay or article? These are just the kinds of questions that I think we should be discussing in classrooms as students strive to master the conventions of standard edited English.

Admitting that usage questions rarely have “right” and “wrong” answers can seem unhelpfully destabilizing at first, but this approach has the power to make teaching the conventions of formal English an engaging, exploratory activity. Who first came up with the rules of what is acceptable in formal writing? And should we believe them? In many cases we can pinpoint the people behind the rules, which allows us then to more critically evaluate (yes, I just split that infinitive) the justification for and value of the advice. And suddenly usage rules—both their origins and their power to govern our choices—become a human enterprise.

In this blog post from the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Lingua Franca, I delve into just one example of how I talk with students about the use of singular they in formal writing. The directive that it is more proper or “correct” to use generic he, rather than singular generic they or another option, originates in the 18th century and was widely propagated in Lindley Murray’s English Grammar (1795). This usage rule started to be seriously challenged in the 1970s with second-wave feminism, and usage guides were slowly revised to recommend he or she rather than generic he or the revision of the sentence into the plural or into a form that does not require a pronoun at all. But what about singular they? Why can’t we also use that?

Singular ‘They’: a Footnote*

Over the past two decades, the use of they  as a singular generic pronoun has been defended often and eloquently by linguists in various venues, including here on Lingua Franca. Geoff Pullum has written about the topic twice in the past year and a half: “Dogma vs. Evidence,” and  “We Do Not Seek to Rule.” Pullum and others have written about the use of they  with a singular antecedent extensively on Language Log. The Lousy Linguist, in yet another defense of the construction, provides a useful list of Language Log posts on the topic, through 2008.

I myself have taken part in the effort to defend singular generic they  on numerous occasions. I happily climb on my soapbox about this construction because (a) they  is singular in common usage, so it doesn’t make sense to call it “ungrammatical” in the descriptive sense (it is completely meaningful to both speakers and listeners in their everyday speech); (b) singular they  is a very useful, efficient solution to the “generic pronoun problem”; and (c) writers have been using singular they  effectively and often unnoticeably for centuries, so I would like to see the current prohibition on its use in formal writing lifted. But I’m not going to rehash those arguments here, given how well they have been articulated already in other places. Instead, I want to address the teachers who have read all of these various justifications yet still find themselves reluctant to let students use singular generic they.

I had the opportunity to talk with one of these teachers in person about 10 days ago, in the Q&A after a talk I gave in Ann Arbor in honor of a former colleague, during which I had climbed on the singular they  soapbox. The woman identified herself as a high-school teacher and said that she heard all my justifications based on historical use and common spoken use, but that as a teacher, she did not feel comfortable letting students use singular they  in their writing. She then added: “Please take your best shot at persuading me. I’m deeply skeptical, but I’m open to being persuaded.”

How could I turn down this invitation?

As I said at the time, I appreciated her openness and truly understood her concern. As English teachers, one of our responsibilities is to ensure that students master the conventions of standard edited English, so that they will not be judged in negative ways based on their formal writing. Whether it is fair or not, others (including other teachers and future employers) may judge a construction like singular they as “wrong”—as evidence that a writer is not well trained and “does not know better.”

I then offered my pedagogical solution: I tell students that they are welcome to use singular they  in writing for my class, but they should footnote it the first time they use it and in the footnote explain their rationale for using singularthey. And students do, both in my class and in other classes (for other classes, I tell them they’re allowed to end the footnote with an invitation for the instructor to contact me with any questions). This footnote accomplishes at least three things: It shows readers that the author is consciously making a choice to use singular they; it informs readers about legitimate reasons for using singular they, even if they disagree with its use in this context; and most importantly, it asks students to be careful, self-conscious writers, reflecting on and explaining their choices in their writing.

A fundamental goal of writing instruction, including instruction in grammar and style, is to encourage students to be highly aware of the decisions they are making as writers, from the level of the word, phrase, and sentence to the terrain of the paragraph and essay as a whole. The usage footnote demonstrates just this kind of awareness, and it offers instructors and students a way to acknowledge prescriptive rules about usage while adhering to their own sense of effective writing, especially when it does not correspond with still-accepted prescriptivism on the issue.

*This blog post was originally published on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Website. Reprinted here with permission.


Anne CurzanDr. Anne Curzan is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education; she previously taught ESL at a university in Wuhan, China for 2 years. Her research focuses on the history of the English language, attitudes about language change, language and gender, lexicography, and pedagogy. Professor Curzan received the University’s Henry Russel Award for outstanding research and teaching in 2007, the Faculty Recognition Award in 2009, and the 2012 John Dewey Award for undergraduate teaching. She has published multiple books and dozens of articles, and she has created audio/video courses for The Great Courses. Her most recent book, Fixing English: Prescriptivism and Language History, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2014. Professor Curzan can be found talking about language on the blog Lingua Franca for TheChronicle of Higher Education and on the segment “That’s What They Say” on local NPR station Michigan Radio.

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