Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Word Nerd Alert

I have a confession to make. I am in love...with words, with language, with (gasp) grammar and usage. I've got it bad, and I have since I was a kid. I am what you might call a word nerd.

I can recall with great clarity two different times in my early childhood where I was actually moved by words--not for what they can do, but for their own sake.

I couldn't have been more than six when I realized I didn't know how to spell 'half.' My Grandma Smith happened to be in town for a visit, and being that she was the undisputed Scrabble Queen of the family, I thought she would be a good person to ask. I remember asking, "Grandma, how do you spell 'half?'

Her answer was one of those moments for me like where I was when President Reagan was shot, or where I was when the Space Shuttle or the Twin Towers exploded. "There are actually two ways to write it." She took my pencil from my hand and wrote on my paper. "You can do it this way, 'half,' or you can do it this way, '1/2.'"

I'd never had the thought that the same exact word could be written two different ways, both of them equally correct. And how could one of them contain an 'L?' I couldn't hear an 'L.' But most importantly, never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that a word could be written using numbers and symbols--and still be pronounceable. I remember thanking her and going back to my room quietly, lost in thought over the possibilities.

The other time was probably when I was about seven years old. I needed to know how to spell 'building,' and nothing I tried looked anywhere close to correct. I asked my mom, who shared with me the correct spelling. It had a 'u' after the 'b.' How could this be true? I remember actually protesting. Perhaps she had misheard me. Perhaps she thought I meant something else. But no. B-U-I-L-D-I-N-G. Then she told me another astounding fact--this same spelling could apply to the act of building, or the edifice itself! Again, I went to my room in quiet wonder. The world, for me, had suddenly grown.

I warned you that I was a word nerd, right?

I even have a favorite book about grammar. Eats, Shoots & Leaves, by Lynne Truss, is all about the history and usage of English punctuation. I don't know when I have laughed aloud so frequently as I did when I first read that book. I still pick it up now and then and re-read a page or two or a favorite passage when I need a good laugh.

So this panda walks into a bar. He orders a beer, chugs it down, then pulls out a gun and fires two shots into the air.

"Why in the world did you do that?" the startled bartender asks, as the panda nonchalantly makes his way toward the door. The panda pulls out a badly punctuated wildlife handbook and tosses it onto the bar.

"I'm a panda," he says, hesitating at the door. "Look it up."

The bartender turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation.

"PANDA. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves."

Now that is funny.

My love of words and all things written only intensified as I grew up. I moved away from my childhood home and left behind a dear friend, a soul-sister, the only one I'd ever known who loved words the way I did. We corresponded by hand-written letters, of course, quite regularly for a dozen or so years and I eventually asked her to be the maid-of-honor at my wedding. We are still in touch to this day, though we more often use e-mail or telephone to communicate. Much of our friendship is still based on our common love of language.

By the time I was in college, I had noted a problem with the English language, however. We lack a gender-neutral pronoun. In the nominative case, we have I, you, he, she, it, we and they. 'They' works fine as a gender-neutral third-person plural, but the only options for third person singular are 'he,' 'she' and 'it.' 'It' cannot be used with humans. This leaves us with only 'he' and 'she.'

Various solutions to this problem have come into vogue over the years. For centuries, English used the masculine 'he' to cover both masculine and ambiguous pronoun needs. Although I am a woman, I am not terribly feministic in my tendencies. Even so, I have never liked this usage much, and never felt a personal connection with the writer's intention when I was relegated to the general 'mankind-ish' use of 'he,' as in the following statement:

"If anyone wishes to receive an ice cream cone, he should step forward now."

Granted, when ice cream is on the line, I am not going to be picky about grammar, but when it is used all the time, I do tend to feel a little left out. Fortunately, English is a constantly evolving language and this particular usage has fallen out of style, so it is not so much of an issue today.

A more recent option, seen somewhat frequently even, is for the writer to simply alternate the use of 'he' and 'she,' either by sentences or by paragraphs. I personally find this terribly confusing. When the writer has been referring to 'he' and then suddenly shifts to 'she,' I find myself stopping to scan the previous paragraphs, looking for something I have missed--a new character who was introduced when my mind had momentarily wandered, perhaps. I suppose I could be alone in this reaction, but when this equality tactic is used for solving the third-person singular nominative pronoun crisis, I am generally just confused, then annoyed. An example of this solution is noted below:

"If anyone wishes to receive an ice cream cone, he should step forward now. If she does not step to the front of the room, the ice cream may run out before she can get some."

Other attempts have been made. I have seen many writers, certainly believing themselves to be clever, resort to using the hybrid 's/he' as a solution to this problem. I admit, it is clever and I have even used it myself a time or two. But really, it does a poor job at addressing the real issue. It is not pronounceable, so it does nothing to help oral language or reading aloud. Beyond that, it is just ugly, to be blunt. To me, 's/he' is akin to writing "1/2 of the ice cream was mocha chocolate chip" when really you should have written "half of the ice cream was mocha chocolate chip." As a side note, 'twould be better if all ice cream were mocha chocolate chip, thus avoiding the dilemma altogether and making me a happier person in general.

If 's/he' was your creation, please accept my apologies. I do not mean to insult you personally. I'm sure you were just doing the best you could with the limited options you had.

There is one more method of compensation in common usage. For lack of a better idea, and wishing to do away with the awkwardness, many have opted to use 'they' as a substitute, as in the following:

"If anyone wishes to receive an ice cream cone, they should step forward now."

'They,' however, is inherently plural. It should not be used as a singular pronoun. Unfortunately, it has become so common to see and hear 'they' used thus, that people have begun to accept it as standard. Kids growing up nowadays will be in for a shock if they ever have an English teacher who is a stickler for these sorts of things and informs them that it is simply not proper English. Then again, my dear Mrs. Schellenberg died a number of years ago now, and I don't know if there are any other English teachers like her still in service. The non-standard use of 'they' as a third-person singular pronoun is likely to go unchecked in this current day.

Again, if you are an excellent English teacher who does indeed care about grammatical issues such as these, please do not be offended. I used to be an English teacher myself, but I know that there are many battles to fight and one can only choose so many.

I examined all of the above options as a college student, so many years ago now, and found them all lacking. I concluded that, until the English language gains a gender-neutral third person pronoun, I would be stuck writing out "he or she," every time the need for ambiguity arose. I predicted that within my lifetime, a new pronoun would be added to the language to solve this problem once and for all.

Actually, two new words would be needed; heretofore, I have only dealt with the nominative case and haven't even addressed the objective case. If you can recite off the objective pronouns and pick out which ones are the third-person singular, good for you. I'll put the answer at the bottom of this article for you to confirm your own word nerd status.

You may be surprised to know that I have thought of this particular crisis of language often through the years. If you have read this far, though, you are probably not surprised after all. This week, it came up again. My husband and I were discussing it and mentioned it to my children, ages 10 and 13, who are becoming little junior word nerds of their own right--the poor dears. My husband noted that a college professor of his had predicted that a new set of third-person pronouns would be added to the language within ten years. A fellow believer!

Ten years has more than passed. The crisis is not going away and the most popularly used solution is just to ignore the laws of singular and plural and use the non-standard 'they,' with young people growing up not even realizing it is non-standard! I fear for the future of word nerds everywhere. The very backbone of grammar and usage is under attack! It is time to act!

I spent some time this afternoon laying out on my children's trampoline in the yard. The sun was warm and I had been house painting all afternoon and the trampoline looked like the perfect place to take a short break. I figured I would lay there and nap until a child or a dog, or both, hopped up to join me. When I closed my eyes against the bright sun, however, my mind began racing to solve the pronoun problem. There would be no sleep.

Just before my daughter climbed up and bounced around next to me, I made my decision. For lack of any other options that I have seen so far (and if they exist, please inform me), I decided I would offer 'ze' as a new third-person singular pronoun for the nominative case. The wild-card nature of the letter 'z' appealed to me, as did the long 'e' sound, so familiar in the already existing 'he' and 'she.' I mulled over many options in my brain, but this one worked the best for me.

I had a harder time with the objective case, and am still not convinced of the validity of my choice, but finally decided on 'zem' to add to the list of current third-person singular objective pronouns, 'him,' 'her' and 'it.' The word 'zem' again uses the neutral and somewhat radical sounding 'z,' and combines it with the 'e' from 'her' and the 'm' from 'him.' Plus, it rhymes with 'them,' the popular, yet incorrect choice of so many. It's not as attractive as 'ze,' I don't think, but I could get used to it in time.

I have created a number of Facebook groups to help me present the ideas herein to the world. If you are of the Facebook persuasion and find any merit to what I have presented, I would appreciate it if you would be so kind as to join one or more of the groups, and perhaps even share this note on your own profile. Awareness must be raised if action is ever to be taken.

"If anyone wishes to receive an ice cream cone, ze should step forward now!"

NOTE: Am I really this serious about all of this, you might be wondering. Not really. But it is fun, isn't it, to consider playing a part in adding something to the English language? The need is valid, I truly believe, and if no one else is going to step forward and present a solution, I will. Plus, my entire family is out for the evening, leaving me with a quiet house and some time to kill.

I saw a great t-shirt a number of months ago. It read, "I am the grammarian about whom your mother warned you." Word nerds unite!

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