If it looks wrong..

Subject: If it looks wrong..
From: geoff-h -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA
Date: Thu, 14 Aug 1997 13:00:01 -0500

Tim Covil, responding to my statement that <<"they" has a
long tradition of being used as a singular, so it's not
"wrong">>, noted <<I can't argue with your premise.
However, I can argue that your premise fails to lead to
your conclusion. You don't really believe that "a long
tradition" lends a practice justification, I'm sure.>>

In editing, there's an ongoing battle between "editing by
the book" and recognizing that languages change and leave
the books out of date. Because of this recognition, the
practice of bending the rules to follow usage is a
long-accepted editorial stragegy. That's not to say that
you should adopt "Wired" style just because they're trendy.
My favorite quote on this matter: "In words, as fashions,
the same rule will hold,//Alike fantastic if too new or
old://Be not the first by whom the new are tried, Nor yet
the last to lay the old aside."--Alexander Pope

"They" has been accepted as singular by the users of the
English language, and there's a long history of this
acceptance. (Check out the Oxford English Dictionary or any
dictionary of contemporary usage if you want an authority
for this statement.) Ignoring this usage because the more
familiar use is "they = only plural" is like King Canute
trying to hold back the sea. My original statement still
stands: It's a legitimate usage, but it still looks odd
enough to many readers that I try to avoid it.

<<What does "wrong" mean, anyway? You said that "they"
looks wrong to the reader. If it "looks wrong" and is
therefore inadvisable to use, then what is the
differentiation between it and something that is "REALLY

I put "wrong" in quotes in my original message to indicate
that I'm not using the word in its absolute sense; a more
correct way to say this would have been "less correct".
It's obvious to me from following the discussion on this
issue here and (regularly) in the copyediting-l list that
there's considerable difference in opinion over this issue
among language professionals. The difference you've asked
me to clarify comes down to the following: you should
generally avoid something that _looks_ wrong because some
readers will see it as _being_ wrong, but you should always
avoid something that _is_ wrong.

--Geoff Hart @8^{)} geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
Disclaimer: Speaking for myself, not FERIC.

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