Michaeline: Grammar Revolution

Everyone has her own opinion.

Everyone has their own opinion.

Everyone have their own opinions.

There’s at least one thing wrong with each of the above sentences. Can you identify the problem(s)? Think about it for a few seconds before reading on.

Diagram of the sentence, The very young elementary school children were misbehaving during the annual Christmas performance in the school's auditorium.

They were splitting infinitives and not agreeing in number all over the place, the rotten brats. (Via Wikimedia Commons)

The first is fairly standard, but could definitely be read as sexist. I could argue that “her” in this case is a generic possessive that includes both men and women, but we don’t read it like that. Replacing “her” with “him” in this sentence also feels exclusionary to me.

So, in the quest to include more people (because although everyone literally means “one”, in our minds we are thinking of a group of, well, everyone) people have begun using “their” as the possessive for everyone. This drives language traditionalists mad. We’ve “always” used a singular pronoun or possessive with everyone. It’s logic!

But as everyone knows, language changes and evolves (or very rarely backslides, or more often goes down deadends). You can read Anne of Green Gables (or more likely, her schoolmarm) ranting about slangy words that are part of our everyday language. “Groovy” has gone in and out of fashion and irony as it has moved through time and across contiments. And I have heard that some people are trying to bring “flapdoodle” back. I’d like them to be successful, but I’m afraid it’s one of those poor, deadend words that will only come back to life when someone sticks it on a viral app.

I am in favor of the everyone/their combo. Steven Pinker thinks so, too, and he’s a neurolinguist, so take that, you traditional prescriptionists who want credentials. (LOL)

However, if you take that usage to the logical ends . . . it complicates language. “Everyone have their own opinions” just sounds clunky. I think you can get by with “Everyone has their own opinions” but there’s a problem with grammatical person in there somewhere.

Anyway, one can fight all s/he likes, change is inevitable. And our language innovator may go down some dark cul de sacs, waving zir sword blindly. We need that, too. We need people brave enough to try new words and constructions, and somehow, we’ll find something elegant and more communicative and more precisely what we want to represent the ideas in our heads.

Steven Pinker has a new book out about writing. Since he’s an extremely seductive writer, I think we can learn something from him, even though I haven’t read the book yet. I have read some articles he’s done to promote the book, though, and I’d love to discuss in the comments our own experiences in the grammar wars.

9 thoughts on “Michaeline: Grammar Revolution

  1. Not strictly grammar, Michaeline, but I think in the spirit of your post – in 2013, citing the evolution of the language, the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary changed the definition of ‘literally’ and said the word can now be used to mean ‘metaphorically.’ That literally made my head explode 😉

  2. Steven Pinker might be a neurolinguist, but <begin rant> I’m an editor, and I dislike the “everyone…their” construction, precisely because, as you point out, “one” as in “everyone” means one, not a plural “their.” I’ve faced this problem at work many times, and here’s how I’d solve it: either you change the sentence to “Everyone has an opinion,” or “People have their own opinions,” although this second option has problems with clarity and brevity, as does the original option, “Everyone has her own opinion,” because naturally each individual has her or his “own” opinion. He or she wouldn’t have anybody else’s. And of course the “he or she” construction I just used is clunky, too. Don’t use that, either.

    What’s next? “I seen him”? “Me and him went”? I’ll wear out that delete key before I accept either of those. Grrr. 🙂
    <end rant>

    • This made me giggle. I drive the very rigid guy who sits across from me at work crazy by defaulting to she/her rather than he/him. He insists that using male pronouns is traditional and correct. I say that’s only because men have ruled the world (badly) for centuries due to their superior size and if it were the other way around, he wouldn’t like it any more than I do. It’s like a little tiny battle of the sexes played out at one midwestern community college research department.

      Along with my inclnation to be as annoying as possible, I really do think that in the romance writing world it’s reasonable to assume that most of us are female–and therefore perfectly legitimate to default to the female pronouns.

      • LOL, I am very tempted to do that. However, when it comes down to things, I’m not really a feminist but a humanist. I’d prefer inclusive structures. On the other hand, when you deal with someone who is using exclusive language and argues that it’s really inclusive, you sometimes have to turn the tables on them. (Sitting here, looking at this last sentence for the past two and a half minutes. It probably should be plural all the way through, because the problem isn’t limited to one person, and it isn’t limited to one gender. But if I go back and change it, this point is lost (-:.)

        (-: Keep making him think, Jeanne!

    • Do other languages have a singular masculine/feminine pronoun that they use in this case?

      I have a background in tech writing, too, and I’ll never forget what Professor Daniels (my grammar instructor) told us on the last day of class. “It may be grammatically wrong, but people go by what they hear. If it sounds right, it’ll be all right.”

      Kind of mind-blowing that our instructor, who’d nailed us all semester on proper grammar, would say that, but I guess she’s just admitting that language is a living, breathing thing.

      One of my pet peeves is the contraction for “is” when not used with anything but “he” or “she.” “The book’s on the table.” ARGH! Drives me crazy! Even if it’s technically correct (which, truly, I have no idea — I only know that I’m seeing this construct more and more), it drives me nuts. But perhaps that’s because I read/like/write historicals, which have a more stilted, formal language anyway.

  3. LOL, it looks like we’re all quite passionate here about language! And that’s as it should be.

    Kay has a great point that there are other options available. My journalism professor was a big fan of “writing around it”, and his recommendation for this problem was to change “everyone” to a plural construct of some sort. “Everyone” is a fuzzy word, after all, and rarely means “everyone in the world”. Better: “All (of) the students had their opinions.”

    (-: I wrestled a little bit with the inclusion of “own.” I finally came down on the side that we’re talking about a group of A through Z, and X might hold the same opinion as Y . . . or not. Therefore, “own”.

    Justine, Japanese does away with all pronouns, pretty much. Under the influence of English, they’ve started accepting she (kanojo) and he (kare), but there’s a strong nuance of “girlfriend/boyfriend” to them. (-: They also don’t have much truck with plurals, so the whole noun/verb/subject/object agreement thing is moot. (They do have their own grammar wars, though. For example, young people are using honorifics to describe their own actions, the ignorant young whippersnappers! Old people know they should be using humble words, grr, grr.)

    BTW, I know I’m using punctuation outside closed quotations. You can blame Pinker’s influence for this, I think. It looks messy to the American eye, but it’s so much more logical. I still have to stop and think to do it. Punctuation inside the closed quotations were drilled into me, but I’d like to see this “style” changed.

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