Category Archives: language and linguistics

But what about plural “they”?

This article originally appeared on The Editors’ Weekly, the official blog of Canada’s national editorial association.

Singular “they” is here to stay, and that’s a good thing. There is no decent reason to require that third-person singular pronouns—and only third-person singular pronouns—always specify gender. “He” has never truly covered men and women equally, though starting in the 1800s some people tried to insist that it did, and constructions such as “he or she” or “s/he” are clunky at best. So it’s natural to accept officially what has been an informal workaround for centuries: extending the plural pronoun to cover the singular.

It’s not the first time that English has done this. As early as the 1200s, we started using the plural “you” for individuals of higher status, and by the 1800s, rather than continuing to specify respect—or lack of it—in pronouns, we had almost entirely stopped using the lower-status singular “thou.” If we can use a plural form in place of a singular to erase a status-based distinction, we can certainly do it to erase a gender-based distinction.

But there is one problem that we run into with singular “they,” a problem we have already encountered with singular “you”: how do you make clear when it’s plural?

That’s still a useful distinction, and it’s not always obvious from context. Consider a sentence such as “The CEO met the VPs at a bar, but they drank too much and started singing karaoke, so they left.” If specifying the gender of the CEO is out of the question, to clarify who “they” refers to you’ll need to rewrite it to avoid the pronouns—and if it’s a longer narration, that gets clunkier and clunkier. So what do we do?

Well, what did we do with “you”? For a time—quite a while, in fact, from the late 1600s through the late 1700s—singular “you” got singular verbs: “you was,” “you is,” “you does.” It was so common, Robert Lowth inveighed against it in his 1762 Short Introduction to English Grammar. Even Doctor Johnson used “you was.” Will we try the same kind of thing with “they”—saying “they is” and “they was”? A few people have tried it, but such usages are already strongly associated with “uneducated” English, and so they’re unlikely to become commonplace. And “you was” didn’t last, after all—Doctor Johnson and everyone else ultimately switched to “you were” even for the singular.

So how do we specify plural “you”? You know how: we add further plural specification to it. In the US South, “y’all” or “you-all” is very common, and it’s spreading; in other places, “yous,” “youse,” “you ’uns,” “yiz,” and “yinz” are local favourites. In many other places, we say “you guys” or something similar when we need to make the distinction. And I’ll wager we’ll end up doing the same kind of thing with plural “they.” “They-all” seems readily available; “those ones” and “those guys” are likely to show up; differential usages of “themselves” and “themself” are already in use and may be extended; and others may appear—I’ll be watching eagerly. And in some contexts, for added clarity, something like “the one” might be used for the singular.

What do we do as editors, here and now? We keep an eye on how popular use is changing. When we can, we use our positions to influence it a little. And, as always, we use our judgement to find what’s clearest and most effective for the audience of the text we’re working on. 


Socially, language functions in many ways like a scaffold.

I’ll explain. But first I’ll talk briefly about this word scaffold and where it comes from and what it is used to mean now. Because of course I will.

Scaffold has to do with neither folds nor scafs, nor for that matter with holds. It’s yet another word that came to English from French, and came to French from Latin (and Greek), and changed quite a lot en route. The modern French reflex of it is échafaud; both words came from a word that went through quite a few forms, but had the early form escadafaut, which was es- (from Latin ex-, ‘out’) plus cadafaut, which, like modern French catafalque, comes from later Latin catafalcum (‘viewing platform’), which in its turn was probably made from cata-, from Greek κατα- (‘back, against’) and Latin falicum, in turn from fala (‘wooden gallery; siege tower’).

So it started with a siege tower and then became a viewing platform and then became a… oh, yes, I didn’t say: escadafaut generally referred to a platform for viewing a tournament.

But of course that’s not what scaffold (or scaffolding) is usually used for now. It’s that structure of metal supports and wooden platforms you may see in front of a building. Sometimes the building is being built; sometimes it’s being restored or preserved; sometimes it’s just being kept standing. And, less commonly these days, scaffold can also refer to a platform for viewing something, or for a theatrical performance, or for public executions, or, in some cultures, for disposal of dead bodies. (And let us not forget its cousin catafalque, which in modern English usage is a temporary ornamental platform for a coffin to go on in funerary rites.)

OK, then. So how does language function socially like a scaffold?

To start with, we use language to mediate the development and maintenance of social structures and interactions. Language is an essential social tool; our social structures may not be made of it (though some arguably are, but that doesn’t work with the current metaphor, so let it slide), but they are made with it. You want to add a glorious new tower or wing to the edifice of our culture? You scaffold it with language: new words, new ways of using old words, new turns of phrase, sometimes even new grammar.

But we also use language to shore up, maintain, and refresh existing social structures. Turns of phrase, common idioms, colloquialisms, and metaphors can embed biases and presuppositions (as just one example, are you familiar with the term Indian giver?). Even basic grammatical details can function this way, as for instance insistence on he as the default pronoun (which it never was, though some people starting in the 1800s tried to claim it was in places where that would mean not having to explicitly recognize women, but somehow not in places where it might entail giving women completely equal rights – see Dennis Baron’s great book What’s Your Pronoun? for extensive details on this). And peeving about “new” usages reinforces an ideology of “old” as better – adherence to “tradition,” which always turns out to be just what the speaker remembers having learned in youth, plus some additions that reinforce their prejudices: the linguistic façade of the social structures and hierarchies that the person has learned and participated in and is quite comfortable with, thank you.

Not that all “old” words are acceptable in such a perspective, of course. Social stratification is maintained through ideas of “good” English (as opposed to the kind that people from the wrong region or socioeconomic level speak – by the way, “good” English is just as weird and arbitrary as many kinds of “bad” English, and in fact some things are “bad” because they’re not quite weird and arbitrary enough: just watch someone correct a kid who says “goed” instead of “went”). It is also maintained through taboos based on ideas of purity and sexual propriety. You display your conformity to these social structures by treating “bad” words as “bad” and at the same time by rejecting changes in usage that try to undo social subordination of certain groups of people. A person may argue “politely” that we needn’t change the names of any sports teams, for example, while at the same time objecting to the “bad English” or “bad words” uttered by people on the other side of the debate who are upset at being treated as stereotypes. 

Well. All good buildings have basements, dears, and they will collapse without them, but we don’t go down into them ourselves, do we? Oh, no, dears, we do not. A nice, tidy scaffold helps maintain decorum. And when we focus on the scaffold, we also don’t necessarily notice the structure that it’s there to maintain. We get stuck on the words and ignore the tilting tower of crumbling bricks behind it.

But the language has its own ostensive value too. With it, as on a scaffold (next sense), we can perform our identities and our attitudes – and we can watch others perform theirs. In fact, that’s a central function of language: words are known by the company they keep. We always use our language to let others know things about ourselves, our attitudes, and where we stand. Some of us, for example, will make sure to use some terms and avoid using others so as not to perpetuate social injustices, while others will make sure it’s understood they don’t brook “woke” “politically correct” “virtue signalling” and will stand for “family values” (which assume very specific kinds of families and exclude families that don’t meet the model).

And, of course, with language, as with scaffolds, we can view the tournaments of our societies, we can conduct – and display – executions, and we can show off the resulting corpses and expose them for the carrion birds. Choices of words and phrasing let you know who’s been cut dead, and they help keep it that way.

But at least, unlike (most) real-life scaffolds, language is here to stay – and it is deserving of aesthetic appreciation in its own right. And is an essential part of culture, not just an accessory. Metaphors have their limits… but language wouldn’t exist without them.

Global English?

This article originally appeared on the blog of ACES: The Society for Editing.

English is not one language and never has been. Even Old English had different dialects. Global English is a family of varieties, mostly mutually comprehensible but loaded with traps and surprises. And even when you can easily understand English from another part of the world, you will most likely recognize that it’s from somewhere you aren’t… and you’ll eventually get confused by something.

All of that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, but some people seem to think it’s possible to produce a neutral, non-regional, truly global English. I will grant that it’s possible to produce an English that seems at least slightly foreign to anyone anywhere – the famous “mid-Atlantic” English you hear in some movies is a spoken version – but it is not possible to produce a variety of English that is taken as unremarkably local by every English speaker everywhere. There are several reasons for this.


The most obvious difference is in pronunciation. Get someone from Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, someone from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and someone from Newcastle upon Tyne, England, to have a pleasant chat and see if they can understand each other at all. 

Pronunciation is less of an issue when dealing with the written word – you probably won’t have a person from Buffalo writing “hot” and a person from Toronto thinking it’s “hat,” as you may when it’s spoken. But text is, in fundamental ways, a representation of the spoken word, and it often relies on reference to the spoken word. 

Not just jokes but advertisements and catchphrases rely on rhymes and wordplays that are particular to just some varieties of English – “caught” and “court” sounding the same, or “quarter” and “border” rhyming for instance. These differences also help ensure the impossibility of English spelling reform: you can’t make a phonetic spelling of one variety of English that won’t be incomprehensible to users of many other varieties.


Not that English spelling is the same everywhere of course. Canadians are used to American-style spellings but can be very patriotic about colour and centre in some contexts; if a Canadian book expects a largely American audience, however, you can count on those Canadian spellings to alienate them. And on the other hand, if you just go with British-style spellings in Canada, you’ll soon realise it doesn’t always suit. And there are more striking differences, such as gaol versus jail, oestrogen versus estrogen, and arse versus ass – though that last case is arguably a difference of which word is used, not just which spelling.

Same thing, different word

There are many, many things that have different names in different countries. It’s well known that British cars have boots and bonnets instead of trunks and hoods and that a British lorry is an American truck (of a specific kind); it’s generally famous that what Americans call a barbecue Australians call a barbie. Fewer people will know that South Africans call the same thing a braai, or that instead of saying bro or buddy they say boet (which sounds like “boot”) – while in India, they say yaar.

For that matter, there are regional differences even in America, some of them quite celebrated. Is a Pepsi a pop, a soda, or a Coke (used in defiance of trademarks)? Do children on playgrounds ride see-saws or teeter-totters? Such regional differences – which don’t always divide on the same lines – are what linguists call isoglosses, and maps showing the isoglosses are some of linguists’ favorite things.

Same word, different thing

Americans occasionally run up against the fact that pants and fanny mean less publicly acceptable things in British English, and Americans are likely to know that in England and Australia mate refers to a friend rather than a romantic partner.

They’re less likely to know that hotel can mean a restaurant in India; that South Africans call a traffic light a robot; that in India you don’t graduate, you pass out; that tea can be a full meal in England; that a torchlight in Nigeria is a torch in England and a flashlight in the US; that I understand you in the US is I hear you in Nigeria; or that South Africans say shame when they are shown a cute baby or told of happy news such as an engagement.

Americans may not even know what someone from a different part of the US means by boulevard (a grassy strip between sidewalk and street or a wide avenue with a green strip in the middle?).

Turns of phrase

The lexical differences also extend to idiomatic turns of phrase. Where an American might write Main Street on Friday is different from a suburb on the weekend, a Brit would have The High Street on Friday is different to a suburb at the weekend.

A person from England might say I’ll knock you up to mean I’ll drop by and might tell you to keep your chin up by saying Keep your pecker up, but if the hearer is from North America, the results could be… awkward.

Some differences are points of pride: New Yorkers make waiting on line rather than waiting in line a kind of local shibboleth, and for New Zealanders, a phrase like Kiwi as (as in This food is Kiwi as) is, well, as Kiwi as… as what? They expect you to fill in the blank.

Grammatical niceties

There is also the matter of things that are correct usage in one variety but terrible errors in another. I dreamed I dove into a lake may be fine in the US, but I dreamt I dived into a lake is necessary in England. I casted my vote yesterday is terrible in some countries but absolutely correct in Nigeria. I’ll call you when I reach is normal in India rather than I’ll call you when I arrive.

Cultural references

Words and grammar aren’t the only things that vary from place to place though. English-speaking culture is obviously far from uniform, and some baseline assumptions just don’t work the moment you cross a border. Food is different, and passing references can quickly be opaque: not everywhere has food trucks or pretzel carts or chaiwallahs; not everyone can order poutine or grinders or bangers.

And while any Canadian will know what another Canadian means by toque and parka, most other people in the world won’t.

Americanizing and Canadianizing texts is a large and expensive business, and the spellings are the least of the issue. I remember one time a Canadian colleague working on a converted document discovered a number of instances of underprovinciald in a document; it turned out that someone had done a replace-all from state to provincial without checking. But when a guide to a health care topic starts talking about insurance, no amount of word replacement will fix the disparity between the US and Canada – or, really, between the US and anywhere else.

Houses and other buildings can be different, including what’s called the first floor (ground floor in the US and Canada, the floor above ground in most of the rest of the world).

There are also regional differences. In Canada, for instance, if you talk about a condo in Ontario, you probably mean a high-rise apartment; in Alberta, a condo is more likely to mean a townhouse, possibly a vacation property. What you mean by the word bungalow can vary quite a bit depending on where you are in the US. And in some cities, a duplex is typically side-by-side residences with one common wall, while in others, it’s a house with one residence on the upper level and the other on the lower – meaning that a reference to the people in the other half banging on the wall may be confusing.

Global varieties

How many kinds of English are there? Hmm, get a book of paint colors from a hardware store and tell me how many kinds of white, or blue, or black there are. Get another book and count again. English has national standard varieties, regional varieties within countries, local variants, socially divided varieties (often people from the same social group in different cities will sound more like each other than like people from other social groups in their respective cities). 

And don’t forget that the status of English is not the same in every country where it’s spoken – it’s the historical main language in some, the language of a colonizing class in others, and a lingua franca in still others. 

But in every country where texts are published in English, someone needs to make sure that that English doesn’t seem strange. And that someone may be you. The one thing you can be sure of is that while one variety of English may be comprehensible to speakers of another, it may alienate them – and may give rise to significant misunderstandings.

No exceptions?

Do I see a hand in the back? …Yes? …Labels on boxes? And short warnings and things like that? Yes, it’s true that you can produce some short passages that look local to anyone anywhere. But that’s not a global variety of English; it’s a snippet, and many other similar snippets will not seem so universal. 

It’s like going up to a rail ticket office in a European country and knowing enough of the local language to buy a ticket without their noticing that you’re not a native speaker: it doesn’t mean you’re fluent. You couldn’t carry on a conversation without being smoked out. You sure couldn’t write an article – let alone a book – that would be smoothly idiomatic. 

The same is true with using English from one part of the world in another part of the world. Oh, they’ll understand you, probably. But they’ll know you’re not from there, and there will be extra friction and effort in the communication and comprehension. You may not realise it, but the little differences to what you’re expecting colour your reception. And editing means understanding, appreciating, and working with these subtleties.

In effect, localizing English is like translating from one language into another, just subtler. You should only localize into a variety you have native fluency in – if you try to adapt a text into the English of a country you’re not from, you will eventually make an embarrassing mistake. But you also need to know the variety you’re converting from well enough to understand the local points of usage and cultural assumptions, so you don’t think a Canadian’s toque is a chef’s hat, don’t believe that a South African at a robot is watching an android, or don’t get what the big deal is about jumping out a first-floor window.

Which, in my view, seems like an excellent excuse to do some international traveling… when you can.

Authority? What authority?

Look, I know what I’m talking about.

Have you ever said that? And has anyone ever said that to you? It’s an appeal to authority, and, according to some people, it’s an instant fail: the argumentum ab auctoritate (argument from authority) – a famous logical fallacy!

Except when it’s not. Because if appeals to authority were always fallacious, our entire legal and educational systems would be voided. Among many other things. 

I’ll explain.

Continue reading

andor, tai

In English, we have a bit of a disjunction in our conjunctions. We can navigate them in speech, but in writing we have a problem. Consider this sentence:

Do you want food or drink?

In speaking, there are two ways we can say it, and the meaning is distinct:

Do you want food or drink [even tone until “drink,” then rising]?

Do you want food [rising tone] [slight pause] or drink [falling tone]?

With the first one, it’s understood that you might want both food and drink (or you could say “neither” or “no thanks”). With the second, the implication is that you can have one or the other, but not both (and it’s assumed you’re going to have one of them).

But when you get into writing, you can’t make that distinction. And when it’s formal writing and ambiguity is a bad thing – especially if it’s a context where lawyers might be involved if things get awkward – the “both” option can’t necessarily be taken as implied:

Offer the participants food or drink.

Crumpets are available with butter or honey.

Imagine if I were in some tea room (probably, by the look of the text, one run by a disgruntled former office manager) and I saw that second sentence and I said “I would like a crumpet with butter and honey.” Imagine the server said “Can’t you read? One or the other.” Imagine I were a lawyer. Do you think I’d be able to argue that I should be able to have both?

Admittedly, there are many instances where an “or” is not problematic. But take it from a guy who’s worked on millions of words of information about human health and its care and treatment: sometimes you really need to be clear about this kind of thing. There’s a reason that the usage and/or has burbled up into the written language.

There’s also a reason that many style guides tell you to avoid it and many editors will, on seeing it, sneeze and swat half of it away, leaving either and or or. It’s ugly, it seems inelegant, it’s often unnecessary, and there’s a slash in the middle of it.

So what do we do?

Well, I mean, I know what we generally do. It prevails because people like it and it makes them feel safe, and meanwhile other people do their best to get rid of it wherever they see it in the same way as they get rid of irregardless: with a shiver. It becomes a make-work project for text workers.

But look. I’m an editor but I’m also a linguist. And I’m the kind of editor working on the kind of stuff where having and/or is sometimes very useful. So here’s the thing: what do you do when you see “and/or” on a page and you have to read it out loud?

You say “and or,” don’t you? Or, really, “andor”?

I propose that we just run up the white flag and get rid of the slash (slashes are for fan fiction anyway) and make it andor. Hey presto, it’s one word!

But I know that not everyone will like that. I know that some people will see in andor what Swedish speakers see in ändor (which is Swedish for ‘behinds’ or ‘ends’): a bummer. So if you don’t like ends, let me suggest some Finnish: tai.

Finnish has two words for ‘or’: vai and tai. Guess what the distinction between them is.

Yes, it’s this: where we say “Do you want food or drink” and mean “but not both,” it uses vai: “Haluatko ruokaa vai juomaa?”; where we say it and mean “Do you want food andor drink,” it uses tai: “Haluatko ruokaa tai juomaa?”

Isn’t that handy? Now, I know that it’s uncommon for grammatical particles to be borrowed from other languages, but it’s not altogether unheard of. And while it may seem a weakness that tai sounds like “tie,” I see it as an asset: if it’s a tie between food and drink, you can have both.

So take your pick: do you want andor or tai? Or… do you want andor andor tai? (Or do you want andor tai tai?) You may be inclined to say “neither” or “no, thanks.” But in this case you have to pick at least one, because otherwise you’re stuck with and/or – and even if you never use it, it’s not going away!

One of those questions that are often asked

A friend passed on to me one of those grammar questions that are often asked and often opined on:

In a sentence like “She is one of those people who are always late,” I learned to cross out prepositional phrases when linking subject to verb, so I would cross-out “of those people” and link “she” with “is” instead of “are.” Isn’t “of those people” modifying “one” (which acts as a complement to “she”) and not acting as the actual subject?

The problem with just crossing out preposition phrases is that you sometimes miss where the phrase ends – or doesn’t end! There are a few ways to look at it. The bracket way is short but benefits from further explanation:

She is one [of those people {who are always late}].

What that means is that there are people who are always late, and she is one of them. Yes, “of those people” is modifying “one,” but “who are always late” is modifying “of those people.”

A person could object (as many do) that it could equally be

She is one [of those people] [who is always late].

In other words, of those people, she is one who is always late. The problem with that is only in part that “She is one who is always late” is a bit odd; after all, “She is one” is a bit odd by itself too, but we’re not saying it by itself. The issue is really with “of those people.” For one thing, if the “always late” isn’t there to describe the set of “those people” of which she’s a member, it’s not specified who “those people” are. Who are they? And why are we mentioning them at all? Let’s look at a similar structure:

She is an eater of those hot dogs that have fallen on the floor.

She is an eater of those hot dogs that has fallen on the floor.

The difference is plain enough: in the first, the hot dogs have fallen; in the second, she has. And we have to assume that which hot dogs “those hot dogs” are has been established or can be inferred contextually; if not, it may be perplexing.

She eats those hot dogs. She has fallen on the floor.

Umm… tell me which hot dogs.

Returning to the example in question, the “is” version means this:

She is one of those people. Specifically, she is one who is always late.

If you’re in a context where you know who “those people” are, OK; but otherwise you have to specify them, or why are you mentioning them? And if your answer to “Who are they?” is “People who are always late,” you have shown why you really want to say “those people who are always late.” If she is one of them, then yes, she is one who is always late (as are they all), but if you go with the “is” version then you haven’t actually specified who they are; in fact, you’ve implied they’re not all like her in this respect. It’s like saying

It’s one of those hot dogs that is delicious.

You can see that the implication is that not all of those hot dogs are delicious; otherwise, why would you be singling that one out? Or if you say

He’s an editor who is popular at parties.

you know that it implies that not all editors are! And likewise, if she is one of those people who is always late, by implication others of those people are not. On the other hand, if you say “one of those people who are” and she is one of them, then she is covered.

That’s the logical analysis, and it’s the one I go with as an editor. In casual speech, I admit that I sometimes say “who is” in similar instances before I can catch myself, just because the structure of the sentence is so analogous to others where “is” would be appropriate; “one of those people” is a noun phrase like “a member of the club,” and we would most likely say “She is a member of the club who is always late.” (Unless it’s a club of people who are always late. Which is, in fact, what we mean in this case!) But when I’m editing, it’s more important to make it stand up to analysis. And it sounds good to me.

Words that glitter and splash

I was to have been presenting on this at the ACES conference in Salt Lake City this year, but, for pandemic reasons, that was cancelled. So the nice people of ACES asked me if I would be interesting in contributing an article to their website on the topic, with a limit of 3000 words. I was happy to do so… and managed to keep it just under the limit! I’m presenting it here as well. This is a longer read than my usual, but on the other hand it’s much shorter than my master’s thesis. Continue reading

gadzooks, zounds

Gadzooks! Zounds!

Be careful with those words. They’re ancient holy relics. They’re soaked with a divine spirit. They’re broken bits of oaths, pieces of sacred words of eternal commitment, now used as playthings. I’ll show you… but not quite yet.

We don’t utter oaths as exclamations and imprecations and expressions of emotional intensity much anymore. Most of us are more likely to call on sex and other bodily functions to express dismay at the arc of a crystal glass to a tile floor or a steel hammer to the wrong kind of nail. In general, we feel one of two ways about names for the divine: a few of us consider them so inviolable and sacred that we would never use them to express shock, anger, or other emotions of the edge; the remainder of us seldom consider them of enough account to be satisfactory for the purpose. But there were times when it was otherwise. Continue reading

censor, censer, censure

When is it sensible to censure – or censor – something incendiary? Can we not be candid without someone getting burned? At what point does inflammatory speech and the smoke of burning crosses make a more offensive incense than the scent of burning books? For that matter, what is and is not censorship? Continue reading

How to write gleefully

This article was first published on The Editors’ Weekly, the blog of Editors Canada.

There are times when you want to make your prose more lively – if not flagrantly flippant then at least glancingly gleeful. Your words could land with a thump or splash or flit by with a twirl, but they must be sprightly. You want to write like a child. Well, no, not like a child – children aren’t very good writers; their sense of sentence structure is a bit squishy and scrawny – but like a child would write if a child had the skill of an adult. You want to be extra expressive. Continue reading