Grammar is technically a pretty narrow term. It includes the categories we put words in—that is, whether a word is a noun or an adjective; inflections—like what the past tense form of a particular verb is; and syntax—why we say “I left it there” instead of “I it there left.”
But in the wild revelry that typically accompanies National Grammar Day celebrations, amid all the fireworks with their shimmering punctuation raining down, the term grammar turns into a giant carnival tent celebrating word choice, spelling, punctuation, and pretty much anything else you can think of that’s language-related.
And by “celebrate” we mostly mean bemoan the grammar crimes we commonly see and hear all around us—the misplaced apostrophes, the their where there is wanted, the hyperbolic use of literally. Rather than join in on the bemoaning, we thought we’d offer a little perspective on the tirades that may be volleying about during the holiday. What follows are some word uses that, while perfectly common and acceptable today, were all at one point considered “bad English”:
Both the adjective in “the above explanation” and the noun in “the above is an explanation” annoyed plenty of folks in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The “to rouse to displeasure or anger by usually persistent and often petty goading” meaning aggravated critics from the late 1800s through much of the 20th century—despite the fact that the meaning dates to the early 1600s.
It was new in 1938 and disliked until it proved too useful.
The verb, as in “crafting a poem,” wasn’t common until the late 20th century, when people spurned it as an upstart. But it actually dates to the 15th century.
The verb in our above (ahem) sentence “National Grammar Day debuted in 2008” was frowned upon throughout the 20th century, and a transitive version like “Martha Brockenbrough debuted National Grammar Day in 2008” was considered even worse.
It was common in Australia and New Zealand in the 1920s, but an object of derision in the U.S. for a long time.
This word as used to mean “mode or way of thought” or “outlook” bothered some folks of a stodgy mentality in the early 20th century.
For much of the 20th century, you’d be criticized for reporting that something was said “out loud” rather than “aloud.”
Using this to mean “to happen” a hundred years ago was a big no-no.
The word was new in the 1940s and condemned by some as “journalese.”
It was described as “absolutely vulgar” (along with ain’t) in an 1846 address to high school students—criticism that was piled onto more than a century of previous objections.
We won’t presume to predict what pet peeves today will become common use in short time, but feel free to share your own peeves in the comments below.
In February 2009, a Twitter user called @popelizbet issued an apparently historic challenge to someone called Colin: she asked if he could “mansplain” a concept to her. History has not recorded if he did, indeed, proceed to mansplain. But the lexicographer Bernadette Paton, who excavated this exchange last summer, believed it was the first time anyone had used the word in recorded form. “It’s been deleted since, but we caught it,” Paton told me, with quiet satisfaction.
In her office at Oxford University Press, Paton was drafting a brand new entry for the Oxford English Dictionary. Also in her in-tray when I visited were the millennial-tinged usage of “snowflake”, which she had hunted down to a Christian text from 1983 (“You are a snowflake. There are no two of you alike”), and new shadings of the compound “self-made woman”. Around 30,000 such items are on the OED master list; another 7,000 more pile up annually. “Everyone thinks we’re very slow, but it’s actually rather fast,” Paton said. “Though admittedly a colleague did spend a year revising ‘go’”.
It’s been decades since I was a copyeditor, but I haven’t given up my long, trusting relationship with the Chicago Manual of Style. So when I learned that Chicago, along with the Associated Press (AP) had accepted the use of ‘they’ as a singular pronoun last year, I was ready to go along. Not everyone was, though. As gender-neutral pronouns gained wider currency, accounts of a ‘war over pronouns’ struck a weirdly familiar note, and I realised: I’ve been here before – twice.
In 1968, as a young copyeditor at the Encyclopaedia Britannica, I was trained on Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged (1961), which had broken from the dignified, impeccable second edition by jettisoning refined ‘literary’ language in favour of the colloquial language that people actually spoke. This dictionary’s publication had created a sensation, literally evoking prophecies of calamity and the end of the world. Quoting William Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, the critic Dwight Macdonald wrote in TheNew Yorker in 1962 that Webster’s had ‘untuned the string’ of harmony and order in the universe, and chaos would follow. But I loved the dictionary’s dismissal of inflated, pompous language, and happily followed its practice of removing hyphens and lowercasing everything within sight.
A few years later, as a manuscript editor at the New York branch of Oxford University Press, I helped engineer the next contentious usage shift. Feminism was acquiring legitimacy (much like non-binary gender identities today), and feminists pushed for nonsexist language, including alternatives to ‘man’ and ‘he’ as generics. In 1974, the McGraw-Hill Book Company – to my knowledge the first publisher to tackle the nuts and bolts of accomplishing this change – created the 11-page document ‘Guidelines for Equal Treatment of the Sexes’.
One day, my boss handed me this guide. I was known as ‘the feminist’, and I imagine she saw me as a guinea pig to test how it would go over. In any case, I jumped on it. The workarounds that McGraw proposed to avoid man and he – make the verb plural, ‘reword to eliminate unnecessary gender pronouns’, use ‘he or she, her or his’ (though I rarely had the nerve to put the female pronoun first) – were hedged with cautions to avoid producing ‘an awkward or artificial construction’. So I did my utmost to introduce these changes without damaging my authors’ prose, but it was a stretch. Even to me, ‘he or she’ seemed awkward and downright weird. The responses from my recalcitrant (almost entirely male) authors ranged from bursts of fury, to erudite lectures on English usage and the importance of tradition, to kindly pointing out how much more felicitous was their original phrasing. Feminism was weird and outlandish, too, and to most of these academics didn’t seem important enough to justify mauling their prose. I was pushing these innovations on my own; there was no policy at Oxford, as at McGraw. I got away with it because despite being young, female and without a PhD, in their eyes I incarnated 500 years of literary authority.
Today, it’s hard to remember the degree of resistance that nonsexist language evoked at the time. A long excerpt from the McGraw guide that ran in The New York Times Magazine elicited anguished responses: ‘A conspiracy is afoot to reform society by purging the language … innocent children [are] to be cast adrift from the security of traditional roles’ through the machinations of ‘Orwellian editors’, warned one letter. The honorific Ms, which had been around since the turn of the century but spread particularly after the launch of Ms. magazine in 1971, met with resistance for years. Sonia Jaffe Robbins, a copyeditor, then copy chief, at The Village Voicebetween 1975 and 1986, recalls encountering resistance even at this Leftist publication, for example from a theatre critic who insisted on referring to actresses as ‘Miss’.
Now comes ‘they’, and I admit it’s a tough one. Paula Froke, the AP Stylebooklead editor, gives two reasons for embracing ‘they’: ‘recognition that the spoken language uses they as singular’ and ‘the need for a pronoun for people who don’t identify as a he or a she’. The first ‘they’, as in ‘Everyone can decide which personal pronoun best matches their identity’, is what people have been doing for centuries anyway; most of us already use it without thinking. But the second usage, which raises fundamental questions about identity, society and the nature of reality itself, has met furious resistance.
A sentence like ‘Carey makes themself coffee every morning – they hate tea’ violate deeply engrained rules of grammar. Saying ‘Lisa told me they love gardening’ calls into question basic categories of being. For many people, ‘they’ is the untuned string that portends discord and chaos.
Yet Webster’s third edition and nonsexist language did not cause the sky to fall. In fact, their innovations became normalised surprisingly soon. Diane Aronson, who began as a copy and production editor at Simon & Schuster in 1989, reports that most authors and editors of the self-help books she worked on there and at other publishers wanted to use nonsexist language. Authors, editors and publishers considered such language ‘important to create a welcoming environment for readers’, she explains.
Language evolves, and no amount of fulminating, or imposition of rules, can stop it. But more importantly, justice demands that we make the effort to accept ‘they’, ‘themself’ or any new gender-neutral pronouns that achieve widespread use. A language that collapses male and female into ‘man’ reflects a society that strips women of their separate being. And a language that collapses the spectrum of gender identities into male and female reflects a society that refuses to acknowledge the identity and very existence of a significant segment of its population. In the Trans Allyship Workbook (2017),Davey Shlasko writes:
The rule against using singular they is enforced neither because it preserves some consistent, objective grammatical standard, nor because it serves our communication needs. It is enforced because enforcing language norms is a way of enforcing power structures.
This issue of power is central to all three of these usage shifts. In each case, the shift gave a voice to a marginalised group: the non-educated non-elite; women; and those with non-binary gender identities. ‘They’ might not be particularly felicitous, but until we find something better, we need it. After years of working with ‘he or she’, I don’t think it’s clunky if used well, but I believe that we must drop it now, simply because it leaves out other gender identities.
Macdonald accused Webster’s third edition of impoverishing the language, coarsening it, and destroying its beauty. But people still write beautiful prose, and we will get comfortable with singular ‘they’, much as, centuries ago, people adapted to singular ‘you’ as ‘thee’ fell out of use. Once a copyeditor, always a grammar nerd, and I confess that ‘Carey makes themself coffee every morning’ makes me wince. But I’m willing to wince for as long as it takes – most likely, not very long.
Linguists call it collocation: the likelihood of two words occurring together. If I say “pop”, your mental rolodex will begin whirring away, coming up with candidates for what might follow. “Music”, “song” or “star”, are highly likely. “Sensation” or “diva” a little less so. “Snorkel” very unlikely indeed.
What do you think of when I say the word “rabid”? One option, according to the dictionary publisher Oxford Dictionaries, is “feminist”. The publisher has been criticised for a sexist bias in its illustrations of how certain words are used. “Nagging” is followed by “wife”. “Grating” and “shrill” appear in sentences describing women’s voices, not men’s.
One of the points of Oxford Dictionaries, part of Oxford University Press (OUP), is to show how words are used in the real world. And that is their response to allegations of sexism. “The example sentences we use are taken from a huge variety of different sources and do not represent the views or opinions of Oxford University Press,” they said in a statement.
In other words, it’s not the dictionary that’s sexist, it’s the English-speaking world. Why choose “feminist” over, say, “rightwinger”, “communist” or “fan”, though? As if not quite convinced by its own explanation, the OUP is now “reviewing the example sentence for ‘rabid’ to ensure that it reflects current usage”.
That can only be a good thing. But a word of warning: it might not deliver the answer you’d hope for. Perhaps “rabid” is collocated with “feminist” more often than with those other words (if the data the OUP uses includes online discussions, I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the case). Sexist assumptions find their way into speech and writing for the simple reason that society is still sexist.
Language, as the medium through which we conduct almost all relationships, public and private, bears the precise imprint of our cultural attitudes. The history of language, then, is like a fossil record of how those attitudes have evolved, or how stubbornly they have stayed the same.
When it comes to women, the message is a depressing one. The denigration of half of the population has embedded itself in the language in ways you may not even be aware of. Often this takes the form of “pejoration”: when the meaning of the word “gets worse” over time. Linguists have long observed that words referring to women undergo this process more often than those referring to men. Here are eight examples:
The female equivalent of “master”, and thus, “a woman having control or authority” – in particular one who employs servants or attendants. It came into English with this meaning from French after the Norman conquest. From the 17th century onwards, it was used to mean “a woman other than his wife with whom a man has a long-lasting sexual relationship”.
This once neutral term meant the female head of a household. Hussy is a contraction of 13th-century husewif – a word cognate with modern “housewife”. From the 17th century onwards, however, it began to mean “a disreputable woman of improper behaviour”. That’s now its only meaning.
The female equivalent of “sir”, a woman of high rank, is still used in formal contexts as a mode of address. From the late 18th century it was also used to mean “a conceited or precocious girl or young woman; a hussy, a minx”, alternatively, a kept mistress or prostitute, and finally, from the late 19th century, the female manager of a brothel.
From the 15th century onwards, “a woman who holds or exercises authority over a place, institution, or group of people”. Compare it with “governor”. Over time it drastically narrowed in scope and fell in status, coming to mean “a woman responsible for the care, supervision, or direction of a person, typically a child or young lady”.
This occupational term originally meant simply someone, usually a woman but possibly a man, who spun yarn or thread. Since a woman without a husband might have to rely on spinning as a source of income, the term became associated with unmarried women, eventually becoming the legal way to refer to one. The more loaded use of it to refer to “a woman still unmarried; esp. one beyond the usual age for marriage, an old maid” begins in the early 18th century.
One of the most dramatic shifts in meaning, from the female equivalent of “courtier” – someone who attends the court of a monarch – to a form of prostitute, which is now its only meaning.
A 13th-century word meaning a female infant or a young unmarried woman quickly acquired negative connotations: from the late 14th century, in Langlandand Chaucer it is used to mean “a wanton woman; a mistress”.
Collins dictionary says that this is a 19th-century contraction of “sweetheart”, a term of endearment, particularly to women. From 1887, however, it is attested as meaning “a female of immoral character; a prostitute”.
Thinking about the male equivalents of some of these words throws their sexism into sharp relief. Master for mistress; sir for madam; governor for governess; bachelor for spinster; courtier for courtesan – whereas the male list speaks of power and high status, the female list has a very different set of connotations. These are of either subordinate status or sexual service to men. The crucial thing to remember is that at one time, they were simply equivalents.
These eight words show how social conditions leave their mark on the language. The process of pejoration may take place below the level of consciousness, but in historical perspective, the direction of travel is obvious. Have the achievements of the feminist movement percolated down through the many layers of our language? The Oxford Dictionaries controversy suggests not. Can the words we use to describe women avoid the fate of hussy, mistress and courtesan? There’s hope, but only time will tell.
Patriarchy is inventive. The minute a generation of women has figured out how to not be enslaved by Ideology A, some new cultural pressure arises in the form of Internalisation B, making sure they don’t get too far too fast. The latest example: the most empowered generation of women ever – today’s twentysomethings in North America and Britain – is being hobbled in some important ways by something as basic as a new fashion in how they use their voices.
This demographic of women tends to have a distinctive speech pattern. Many commentators have noticed it, often with dismay. Time magazine devoted a column to the mannerism called vocal fry, noting a study that found that this speech pattern makes young women who use it sound less competent, less trustworthy, less educated and less hireable: “Think Britney Spears and the Kardashians.”
“Vocal fry” is that guttural growl at the back of the throat, as a Valley girl might sound if she had been shouting herself hoarse at a rave all night. The less charitable refer to it privately as painfully nasal, and to young women in conversation sounding like ducks quacking. “Vocal fry” has joined more traditional young-women voice mannerisms such as run-ons, breathiness and the dreaded question marks in sentences (known by linguists as uptalk) to undermine these women’s authority in newly distinctive ways. Slate notes that older men (ie those in power over young women) find it intensely annoying. One study by a “deeply annoyed” professor, found that young women use “uptalk” to seek to hold the floor. But does cordially hating these speech patterns automatically mean you are anti-feminist?
Many devoted professors, employers who wish to move young women up the ranks and business owners who just want to evaluate personnel on merit flinch over the speech patterns of today’s young women. “Because of their run-on sentences, I can’t tell in a meeting when these young women have said what they have to say,” confided one law partner.
“Their constant uptalk means I am constantly having to reassure them: ‘uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh’. It’s exhausting.”
I myself have inadvertently flinched when a young woman barraging a group with uptalk ran a technology-based conference call: “We’ll use Ruby on Rails? It is an MVC framework to support databases?” Well, will we?
One 29-year-old woman working in engineering told me it was easier for gatekeepers in her male-dominated field to disregard running-on, softspoken, vocally frying and uptalking women. “It is difficult for young women to be heard or even responded to in many male-dominated fields if they don’t strengthen their voices, That kind of disregarding response from men made me feel even softer and even lesser – in a vicious circle of silencing.” she said.
Style is content, as any writing teacher knows. Run-ons and “non-committal-ness” dilute many young women’s advocacy powers and thus their written authority. Many young women have learned not to go too far out on a limb with their voiced opinions; but the dilution of “voice” and the muddying of logic caused by run-on sentences in speech can undermine the power of their written thought processes and weaken their marshalling of evidence in an argument. At Oxford University young women consistently get 5% to 10% fewer first-class degrees in English – and the exams are graded blindly. The reasons? Even the most brilliant tend to avoid strong declarative sentences and to organise their arguments less forcefully. Elleke Boehmer, an Oxford English professor, says: “I often observe my female students’ silence and lack of confidence in class with concern. How anxious they are about coming forward to express an opinion, to risk a point of view, so often letting the male students speak first and second and even third. And in this way they lose out in the discussions that are going to help them hone their pitch, write winning essays, secure the out-and-out firsts that male students in Humanities subjects still are securing in far greater numbers, proportionately, than they are.”
The problem of young women’s voices is gaining new cultural visibility. Recent books and plays have dealt with the suppression of young women’s voices: Boehmer’s own recent novel The Shouting in the Dark narrates the inner life of a young woman in South Africa in the 1970s – and shows how abuse breaks such a voice. The hit play Nirbhaya, in which Indian actresses narrate stories of their own rapes, also shows how young women’s voices are stifled by cultural silencing, even today.
Voice remains political at work as well. A Catalyst study found that self-advocacy skills correlate to workplace status and pay more directly than merit. In other words, speaking well is better for your career than working hard.
But Amy Giddon, director of corporate leadership at Barnard College’s Athena centre for leadership studies in New York, found in original research that “there is a disconnect between women’s confidence in their skills and abilities – which is often high – and their confidence in their ability to navigate the system to achieve the recognition and advancement they feel they deserve. Self-advocacy is a big part of this, and identified by many women in the study as the biggest barrier to their advancement.” In other words, today’s women know they can do great things; what they doubt – reasonably enough – is that they can speak well about those great things.
When you ask young women themselves what these destructive speech patterns mean to them, you get gender-political insights. “I know I use run-on sentences,” a 21-year-old intern at a university told me. “I do it because I am afraid of being interrupted.” No one has ever taught her techniques to refuse that inevitable interruption. “I am aware that I fill my sentences with question marks,” said a twentysomething who works in a research firm. “We do it when we speak to older people or people we see as authorities. It is to placate them. We don’t do it so much when we are by ourselves.” Surely we older feminists have not completed our tasks if no one has taught this young woman that it was not her job to placate her elders.
Ally Tubis, a 29-year-old star in the male-dominated data analysis field, explained that at first sounding far younger than her years helped her to feel safe. But finally: “Admitting that I had a voice problem and then having the guts to practice strengthening it gave me confidence, as that process took a lot of courage.” Tubis took voice training, and her career soared.
“Why was it scarier to have a strong voice rather than a very breathy voice?” I asked her. “I would purposely do things in the past to detract from getting even positive attention,” Tubis explained. The breathier voice camouflaged her.
What is heartbreaking about the current trend for undermining female voice is that this is the most transformational generation of young women ever. They have absorbed a feminist analysis, and are skilled at seeing intersectionality – the workings of race, class and gender. Unlike previous generations, they aren’t starting from zero. They know that they did not ask to be raped, that they can Slutwalk and Take Back the Night, Kickstarter their business ventures and shoot their own indie films on their phones – and that they deserve equal pay and access.
Which points to the deeper dynamic at play. It is because these young women are so empowered that our culture assigned them a socially appropriate mannerism that is certain to tangle their steps and trivialise their important messages to the world. We should not ask young women to put on fake voices or to alter essential parts of themselves. But in my experience of teaching voice to women for two decades, when a young woman is encouraged to own her power and is given basic skills in claiming her own voice then huge, good changes follow. “When my voice became stronger, people took me more seriously,” says Ally Tubis. “When people feel from your voice that you are confident, they will believe that you are smarter, and that you are better at what you do – even when you are saying the exact same thing.”