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Which is the appropriate word for the blank space in this sentence?
The baby skunk loved _____ mother.
If you chose A., you might have cause to sue your third grade teacher.
If you chose B., the correct answer, you are among a dwindling minority of Americans.
If you chose C, you also may be correct, according to the latest edition of the Associated Press Style Guide.
The old AP style guide, a reference used in most newsrooms, used to say this:
Their is a plural possessive pronoun and must agree in number with the antecedent.
Wrong: Everyone raised their hands.
Right: They raised their hands.
(Most people seem to have forgotten this, but “everyone” is in fact a singular pronoun.)
In the example at top, the antecedent, “baby skunk,” is singular and typically would require a singular possessive — its. (An animal that is not a family pet or a Disney character is generally called “it” on second reference.)
Here is the new AP advisory.
They, them, their In most cases, a plural pronoun should
agree with the antecedent. They/them/their is acceptable
in limited cases where a singular and/or gender neutral
pronoun is overly clumsy. However, rewording usually is
possible and always is preferable.
What the AP copy editors seem to be saying is this: Please try really, really hard not to write that “The baby skunk loved their mother.”
Here is the unspoken message: The Philistines have breached the battlements.
Lore has it that a grammarian in the mid 18th century declared that “man” should be used to speak of a person of indeterminate sex and that “he” should be the pronoun on subsequent references.
This rule was adopted broadly. You can see it several decades later in the Declaration of Independence.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men
are created equal, …. That to secure these rights,
Governments are instituted among men, deriving their
just powers from the consent of the governed ….
This sort of thing riled first-wave American feminists 100 years later. To be fair, the women and black and Asian people had reasons to be riled. None could vote or own property, and even after the Civil War, African Americans were effectively denied the vote in many areas. Women had to wait until 1920 to be trusted with voting rights.
Still, tradition prevailed. During most of the 20th century, the indefinite “man” and “mankind” were used commonly. One popular typing-class sentence, falsely attributed to Patrick Henry, was this:
Now is the time for all good men to come to the defense of their country.
This continued for many years, and nobody seemed to get his panties in a twist about it.
Then came another wave of feminism, and this time the feminists meant business. Academics and serious writers began using “she” instead of “he” for the indefinite individual.
We began to read sentences like these:
Ask your doctor if she recommends taking the purple pill.
Even the worst axe murderer deserves her day in court.
I speak only for myself here, but the generic “he” never bothered me. One general pronoun was needed for speech about a theoretical human, after all, and people had been using “he” for more than two centuries. Those who had completed elementary school understood that “he” referred to a person of any gender.
Substituting the word “she,” on the other hand, bothers me a great deal. It sounds labored and more than a little twee. I generally think of myself as a feminist, but this is not a battle I would have chosen.
Another reaction to the “she” revolution in pronouns has been confusion. Now broad swaths of our increasingly ill-educated population have taken up not “she” but “they” as the go-to pronoun for all nouns, singular or plural, especially in speech but also in writing.
This can be discerned by the rise of unintelligible sentences in ostensibly serious publications.
“Robin Williams’s appearance on ‘Inside the Actors Studio’ made an audience member laugh so hard they gave themselves a hernia.”
If the writer or editor had looked on the internet, he or she could have learned in a flash that the hernia patient was man. I’d also quibble that it wasn’t the comedian’s appearance but rather his humor that made the unfortunate fellow laugh.
“As online shopping sales continue to increase, Bebe is the latest brick-and-mortar store to slash their physical locations.”
Where to start here? Bebe is not a store; it is Bebe Stores, Inc. Either way, it is a singular entity, an “it” and not a “they.” Plus Bebe did not “slash its physical locations,” which sets up the unintentionally hilarious image of a girl gone wild with a machete. The company closed some of its stores.
“The python is believed to have been approximately four and a half feet long and it’s not unusual for them to eat things seven times as big as their heads.”
As the AP style mavens noted earlier, a workaround is simple.
“The python was between four and five feet long. Such snakes can eat prey seven times as large as their heads.”
Yes, the syntax still sucks, but you work with what you have.
“Ng hired Koenig as a co-creator largely because, as a free agent, they could work without incurring mountains of legal paperwork.”
I’m not sure what this sentence means, but the writer could have expressed himself/herself/themselves more coherently.
Ng hired Koenig as co-creator largely because
a) as a free agent, he could work without …
b) as a free agent, she could work without …
c) as free agents, they could work without …
“The researchers defined the queen wasps’ behavior as “obstinate” if they refused to fly away after repeated poking. Since they couldn’t poke each worker wasp simultaneously when they hatched, they vibrated colonies and introduced a semblance of a moving predator in the form of a ticking metronome, instead.”
There are at least three possible antecedents in this mess — researchers, queen wasps’ behavior and each worker wasp. The casual use of one pronoun, “they,” for all of them renders the whole thing unintelligible.
Ideally, a passage like this would come with a special decoder ring. Because it does not, let me take a whack:
“The researchers defined a queen wasp’s behavior as obstinate if she/it refused to fly away after repeated poking. Since the scientists couldn’t poke each worker wasp simultaneously after a batch had hatched, they vibrated the wasp colonies and introduced a semblance of a moving predator in the form of a ticking metronome.”
Still not deathless prose, but better than before.
“The apartment, in a 1923 building, was relieved of it’s molding, baseboards and worn hardwood flooring.”
Back to where we started. “It’s molding” is wrong. It’s means “it is” and only that. “Its” is the correct possessive.
This sentence appeared in a daily newspaper that takes itself rather seriously. It is unfortunate that a writer was unable to differentiate between it’s and its; it is worse that the error got past a copy editor and a news editor.
Here is an omen: Facebook announced last year that it had expanded its roster of emojis to 1,080 characters. Emojis are pictures, good for expressing emotions but not good for sharing ideas or conducting discussions or thinking conceptually.
We are drifting back to the times before people communicated in words. We use sophisticated hardware and software, but we are losing the capacity to converse in a common language that is the product of thousands of years of human development.
If Descartes lived in the 21st century, he might have said, “I feel, therefore I am.”
We might as well be making cave paintings. We are the new primitives.