So, if you're a grammar Nazi, then feats of form and usage that strike you as "wrong" (or inferior, or jarring) fairly leap off the page or screen at you in just the same way that my use of "so" at the start of this sentence irks all who are by now fed up with hearing that word abused that way.

The French have an expression for obvious things and especially for things obviously wrong: ça saute aux yeux! That leaps out at the eyes! Like an eye-attacking deathfrog of death. Or blindness. Or blinding obviousness.

Many folks notice deviations from canonical grammar and usage; the Nazi is the one who sees most or all, all the time, until she's fed up. She feels welling up within her an urgent, primal cry in behalf of the norms she has embraced, the quirky irrationales of the tongues to which she's wedded. The Nazi is the one for whom, involuntarily, cela saute aux yeux. Finally, with eggshell sensitivity to the descriptivists and positivists, she pipes up: "perhaps you should reconsider using 'begs the question' in that way." Then she ducks. Continue reading…


Last 5 posts by David Byron


  1. says

    You quote Holmes as saying: "Do you research! A high-functioning sociopath!"

    It's actually do "your" research.

    I don't normally correct grammar or spelling . . . but this time I just couldn't help myself.


  2. says

    I always proof these in the moments after posting them. I'm a quick typist but not a perfect one. ;)

    To put it differently: Probably knows the difference between "you" and "your". Writes and speaks improvisationally. Is quoting. Must be a typo– a mechanical error in execution– rather than a fault of grammer, orthogrify, or usij.

  3. says

    I keep trying to cast those who oppose all criticism of other people's writing as Grammar Commies, but the term isn't catching on.

  4. Garrett says

    @Patterico: Given that the topic was grammar Nazis, I'd be worried that I fell into a trap.

  5. mud man says

    People should stop using ‘Nazi’ when they mean ‘martinet’ (NOT ‘martinette’!) … shows historical insensitivity.

    Also, unless you can get in on the first hundred or so comments, don’t bother no matter the quip.

  6. NI says

    Typos and grammatical screw ups are so common that anyone who tries to correct them is on a fool's errand. What follow are a few of my favorites; ones I have actually seen.

    First, a "Motion to Dismiss Cunts I and III."

    Second, an "Agreement to Medicate" (as opposed to mediate).

    And finally, a tone-deaf paralegal who wrote a letter to a client on death row that began, "Dear Mr. X, please find enclosed the following documents for your execution."

  7. stavro375 says

    Eh, I never really enjoyed "Sherlock". I'm annoyed by how unaware the writers are at times… like in the third episode, when the main villain mocks how Sherlock looks so obsessively for key details and hidden patterns where there are none, only for Sherlock to turn around and exclaim that a single pronoun in the villain's monologue revealed a key detail of the villian's plan. Or the first episode, where the main villain's plan is blatantly copied from the Princess Bride, but without the obvious twist that existed in the book and which Sherlock must have expected.

  8. Albert says

    Must… resist… mentioning… that in French, exclamation points must be preceded by an espace fine

  9. says

    Re l'espace fine: When wrapping French in English, its omission is normal. But well done in metadisplaying restraint!

  10. says

    Do you research?

    In The Hound of the Baskervilles, the first of the Rathbone-Bruce movies, Watson is smart and decisive but only in Holmes's absence.

  11. sorrykb says

    Grammar! Sherlock! Galadriel! All in a single article!
    (Please pardon my overabundance of exclamatory enthusiasm, but I very much enjoyed reading this.)

  12. albert says

    I wouldn't call myself a Nazi-anything, but grammar and spelling problems irk me. I often type 'you' for 'your', and spel-chek won't help you there :) What really sticks in my craw is the fact there are a lot of folks who don't know the difference between 'your' and 'you're'.

    Writers are judged on how they write, as well as what they write. Read some letters from common folk of the 1800s and early 1900s. You'll never see such errors.

    When did style disappear from writing? When we stopped reading newspapers? Plus, how much blame should be put on advertising copywriters? How about TV and movie script writers? Does anyone read novels anymore? Does Winston taste good like a cigarette should? Enquiring minds want to know.

    After our first round of papers, my Advanced Comp teacher gave an automatic E for ANY punctuation error. Contractions were not allowed. This is expository writing. We learned the art of _careful_ proofreading.

    I've enjoyed almost all of the actors in the Sherlock role: Rathbone, Brett, Cumberbatch, Miller; but NOT Downey. Sherlock is character of some depth, and good actors can always extract a good portrayal from that depth. Let's not forget the writers; that's where it all starts.

    I gotta go…

  13. rmd says

    I feel I must object strongly to the flinging of lemurs. What? "Femurs?" Well, OK then, I guess. Carry on.

  14. Ancel De Lambert says

    I'm a Math major, have pity with your witchcraft and incantations. Sorcery, sorcery I say!!

  15. Niall says

    Albert @ 9:50: I grew up in French, we did not have quite those rules, and at times, I feel the newfangled obsession with putting spaces before colons and exclamation points and such stems from "we must stop doing as the English do!" since to me, it makes all punctuation float in a void , with words strangely spaced ; reading gets more staccato and rhythm is lost ! Let that exclamation point kiss that word, smack into it! It's no quiet guest in the sentence!

    albert @11:11: It took me a minute to read "Advanced Comp" as composition, when my mind substituted computers – and if I were a computer teacher, I would also put an automatic E for any misspellings. The change, loss or addition of any single term in code, especially a parenthesis/bracket, results in non-working software. Maybe this is where Grammar Obsessed Individuals could go for a proper channelling of their skills. (slogan: GOIs for Good GUIs! GGG! ..and I'm aware of the Dan Savage connotation, thank you.)

  16. Sheriff Fathead says

    I enjoyed the Holmes stories as a child but wasn't passionate about them. I enjoyed them again as an adult with the same result, but with an admixture of pity and contempt for the racism, sexism, inconsistency, and lack of complexity.

    Care to offer any examples? I haven't read all the original stories, but I've read a lot, and the only one I remember where race was mentioned at all was The Adventure of the Yellow Face, where Doyle displayed what seem like very progressive attitudes for a man of his time.

    Maybe my memory's being selective.

  17. Roger says

    I find that I really like Jonny Lee Miller's Sherlock on Elementary. Same positives — Watson is brilliant in her own right (Lucy Liu), and the foibles we came expect from dealing with being a "freak" (heroin addiction) show the price these gifts are likely to come with.

  18. rmd says

    @CJK Fossman

    One flings lemurs at ponies.

    And then we wonder why they assault our precious children. Truly the shame is ours.

    @Sheriff Fathead

    Care to offer any examples?

    I think you could argue that the depiction of Tonga in The Sign of the Four is rather racist. And I don't know if it would count as racism per se, but A Study in Scarlet is blatantly anti-Mormon.

  19. says

    Elementary is a procedural with mostly mediocre writing. Most of the mysteries aren't that interesting; a step below what the books give you. Johnny Lee Miller is pretty awesome, though (no surprise to anyone who noticed him in Hackers!). And the supporting players (outside of the cops, who are decent) have all been good to great (Watson, Mycroft, Moriarty). When the larger story arcs come out to play (we called these mythology eps back when X-files was on; fascinatingly enough the show quickly lost it's touch with those), I've found the show worth watching (to my surprise, I assure you). I like Miller enough that I'm happy to sit through the rest.

    The second greatest non-cannon Sherlock Holmes of all time is Daryl Zero from The Zero Effect. It's a strange and IMO underrated movie that at times pokes fun at the whole idea – and invites the viewer to mock the main character whilest various others are doing so – and at times plays it faithfully. Downey's supposed cannon character was fun to watch the first time but not really very cannon (and the film ultimately mediocre); Holmes is not petulant or prone to mood swings the way a teenager is. Daryl Zero *is* these things, but with good reason. It's all part of the fun. Downey's Holmes is a worse Holmes than Veronica Mars (who is just a modern Nancy Drew).

    The greatest non-cannon Sherlock Holmes was written by Neil Gaiman in A Study in Emerald.

    Holmes was just Doyle trying to make a version of The Doctor that people of the time could relate to.

  20. says

    Bad grammar and spelling errors are just litter. There are people in reality whose job it is to solve that problem.

    I tend to treat those who do so with the written word with the same regard.

  21. Carl 'SAI' Mitchell says

    I correct grammar and spelling, but only as private messages and the like, never in public. Praise in public, punish in private. I also think that there is room for stylistic choices, especially in English. There are also subcultural norms, and I myself tend to use 'Hacker writing style'. See for a somewhat outdated guide.

    A significant point of language is to unambiguously communicate ideas. Where grammar rules cause ambiguity they should be ruthlessly ignored, where their absence creates ambiguity their use must be enforced.

  22. Rich Rostrom says

    Spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors do indeed "jump at my eyes". However, it doesn't make me a full-out grammar Nazi, because I'm not compelled to correct other people, nor do I get off on it.

    I think GN-ism is more how the person reacts to the errors than how much he perceives them. (The latter may also have an effect, to be sure.)

  23. says

    BTW, in truth I am, and have always been, a descriptivist. But I do privately mourn the waning past perfect in English. The sequence of tenses, an elegant weapon for a more civilized age….

  24. albert says

    @mud man
    Wouldn't a 'martinette' just be a small martinet?
    It didn't even occur to me that 'Comp' could be taken as 'computer', else I would have spelled it out. I am a computer guy, but, for example, I don't use 'app' for application program. I fear a generation of kids who grow up not knowing what an 'app' is. There may also be the concept of 'let the compiler catch it', similar to the reliance on those ubiquitous spell-checkers.
    Four errors in eight words; well done!

    I recently viewed a documentary on A.C. Doyles contribution to criminal forensic science. As Holmes 'observation of trifles' methodology entered the culture, a host of other Holmesian characters appeared. The Gold Standard for detectives is established. I'd like to cite some references, but…

    I gotta go…

  25. says

    Once in a while someone whines "Language is for communicating, not for fussing about with rules!", failing to understand that his bad grammar makes his meaning obscure.

    Albert, no, a martinette is a feminine martinet, or a small martine, just as a martinet is a small martin.

  26. says

    @Devil's Advocate: It's going the way of the future semiconditionally modified subinverted plagal past subjunctive intentional.

  27. Carl says

    My eyes are leapt at by errors which aren't merely less than 100% correct, but actually don't make any sense. It's tolerable when someone is ranting about movies, but it can be annoying and troublesome if readers must guess at your meaning on a serious or complex topic.
    If the errors are too frequent, I feel as though the author doesn't care whether or not anyone reads the text.

  28. albert says

    @Anton Sherwood

    Well, after looking up all of those words (the urban dictionary has an interesting definition for 'martinette': "The kind of girl you take home to your family. Smart, hard working, beautiful, usually has red hair, but that is a bonus."), I see the joke wasn't worth the effort :)

    I certainly agree about grammar and communication. I DO cut a lot of slack to speakers for whom English is a second or third language; It is devilishly difficult to get it right, and as longer as the communication is there, I'm not critical. Most of those folks apologize for their English, to which I say, "Don't worry, you're doing fine; I can understand you". Sadly, many have better English skills than native speakers:)

    I'm a tech guy, I speak neither Japanese nor German, but I had an interesting experience 'translating' for a Japanese engineer and a German engineer. They just couldn't get it together. I was employed by a Japanese company at the time.
    It's funny, but engineers seem to get the tech terms, even with the language barrier.

    I gotta go…

  29. pharniel says

    @Grandy – HURRAH! Someone else has seen The Zero Effect! I still quote Ben Stiller's rant to this day.

    I tend to think that Elementary is asking different questions and examining different aspects than the BBC version as well as doing it in a format more in keeping with the original – A series of (sometimes interconnected) 'shorts' each with a 'mystery' but mostly playing to the interaction between Holmes, Watson and the environment.

    Elementary has more in common with Person of Interest with the interaction between Holmes and everyone else: Holmes sees no problems just diving directly into everyone else's life and placing it all for public view yet when the tables are turned and people examine him it's an affront to privacy and a personal insult. The show, because it is a traditional 24 episode a season format, can dribble these interactions out over an entire season in 2-3 minute doses that strung together create something more than the whole. Elementary asks (as one of it's core questions) what happens when everyone else is an open book and how should we deal with the person who can access damn near everything and how does that change relationships.
    This is something the transhuman sci-fi table top RPG Eclipse Phase also looks at.

  30. GeoffreyK says

    I can't sight the source, but I've heard the cite of Lee's surrender is a heckuva site to see.

  31. CJK Fossman says


    My interest was peaked by the sited source so I took a pique at the peek myself. I hope never to loose the sight of that cite.

  32. mcinsand says

    Anyone else play Kingdom of Loathing? A cute and relevant tidbit is the literacy test required before a player can have chat privileges. Our netnanny won't let me get to a site for cut/paste, but searches should give some results. Like everything else in KoL, it's more about silliness than anything else.

  33. 205guy says

    So how is "collaborative working" grammatically incorrect? It might be stylishly grating, it might mix language roots, but it seems grammatically correct to me. So we are not talking about grammar nazis here, but rather style ayatollahs. Methinks this is more of an affectation, quite like using too many Frech idioms.

  34. says

    @205guy, You've almost discerned half the ironies in the post, but not quite. So I'll give you a boost.

    First, isn't it amusing that defenders of descriptivism cannot get over the fact that in common usage, the expression "grammar nazi" refers not only to sticklers in matters strictly grammatical, but also (more broadly) to pedants in points of diction, style, and related zones of possible violation? Case in point– one of the links offered in the comments consists of a series of rebuttals to a supposed grammar fascist whose complaints aren't up to snuff, but most of those rebuttals amount to declarations that, "Actually, that's not a grammatical issue." :D

    Second, a hint: "collaborative".substring(3,8);

  35. GeoffreyK says

    @CJK Fossman

    Further down the rabbit hole… in spite of my own jest, and your entertaining response, my brain saw "loose" and still assumed that you had made an unintentional spelling error. HA!

  36. CJK Fossman says


    A preference for good writing is an affectation? Perhaps you also think that a preference for first class over coach is an affectation, or a preference for real beer over pale imitations.

  37. Devil's Advocate says


    @Devil's Advocate: It's going the way of the future semiconditionally modified subinverted plagal past subjunctive intentional.

    I have hated it when that will happen.

  38. CJK Fossman says

    @Devil's Advocate

    It should be, "I shall have hated it when that should have happened."

    You missed the subjunctive.

  39. JonC says

    This is the most enjoyable online reading (including the comments) I've had in a long time (William F. Buckely, R.I.P.).

    I like how you wove in the quote from Hillary.

  40. Devil's Advocate says

    @CJK Fossman:

    @Devil's Advocate

    It should be, "I shall have hated it when that should have happened."

    I will have to had been Devil's Advocate, and I would be going to have been approving that message.

  41. babaganusz says

    "It's will-have-going-to-have-happened-happened, but it hasn't actually happened-happened yet – hactually?"

    mcinsand – i did lose a few hours to that cheeky confection some years back. i'm often a sucker for deep piles of whimsy.

    these days (since the early '90s or so) i refrain from attacking or correcting others' speech/text as long as i detect no substantial margin of confusion, but my eyes, they are fairly frequently leapt at. which may say more about my haunts than about my perception.

    still, "irregardless" is just plain stoopud (in the sense of its ordinarily intended meaning as – le sigh – documented by [seriously, that was worth the effort?] Oxford).
    (though my pre-millennial tirades against it did eventually yield a far more nuanced – depreciation? – of the assertion "that's not a word.")

    also, i almost always wonder why it isn't "Law, Liberty, Leisure and Language" whenever David posts. (though i suppose these instances would also tend to call "complaint" into question…)
    (wonder x almost whenever?)

  42. babaganusz says

    Let's not forget the writers; that's where it all starts.

    damn right; Moffat strikes again! everyone, hunt down Jekyll if you haven't yet.

    But what about the giant rat of Sumatra?

    "Why, beneath your clothes, you're naked, Miss Dudley…"

  43. David C says

    Grammar can be important. Especially if you're writing laws.

    A person is guilty of reckless driving who fails to stop, when approaching from any direction, any school bus which is stopped on any highway, private road or school driveway for the purpose of taking on or discharging children.

    Someone managed to argue successfully that the wording of the law did not require them to stop at a stopped school bus, but instead required them to stop the bus. Since the bus was, of course, already stopped, they got the charge dismissed.

    And apparently even judges can become grammar Nazis if your brief is bad enough:

    Usually we do not comment on technical and grammatical errors, … but here the miscues are so egregious and obvious that an average fourth grader would have avoided most of them. For example, the word "principals" should have been "principles." The word "vacatur" is misspelled. The subject and verb are not in agreement in one of the sentences, which has a singular subject ("incompetence") and a plural verb ("are"). Magistrate Judge Stickney is referred to as "it" instead of "he" and is called a "magistrate" instead of a "magistrate judge." And finally, the sentence containing the word "incompetence" makes no sense, … so it is not reasonably possible to understand the thought, if any, that is being conveyed. It is ironic that the term "incompetence" is used here, because the only thing that is incompetent is the passage itself.

  44. says


    i almost always wonder why it isn't "Law, Liberty, Leisure and Language" whenever David posts.

    I can answer that one for you. I came up with our tagline, and I classify language stuff under "leisure"!

    (though i suppose these instances would also tend to call "complaint" into question…)

    A complaint (I chose the word because it comes with legal connotations) needn't be whiny, but I try to whine a little when I discuss languages, just in case.

  45. princessartemis says

    I am more inured to bad grammar than I used to be, but some things still leap at ye olde eyes. For those times, I content myself with making fun with my family, who will appreciate it, rather than with the offender, who will not.

  46. albert says

    @David C:
    I love this part: "……… so it is not reasonably possible to understand the thought, if any, that is being conveyed….". Slam, dunk!
    @205guy: It should be 'collaboratively working together' !

    A lady while dozing one night,
    observed in the sky a strange light,
    She didn't distort,
    But in her report,
    Failed to cite the true site of the sight.

    (homage a Ogden Nash)

    I gotta go…

  47. melK says

    @David (@6:31am): I'm sorry, but
    generates a compile error in C++. (Actually, a good example of grammar differences between languages!)

    And I'll leave you with a comment drawn directly from a tee-shirt:

    Punctuation saves lives:
    "We're going to go eat Grandma"
    "We're going to go eat, Grandma"

  48. says

    @melK, I'm reminded of Alan Kay's quip:

    "I invented the term Object-Oriented, and I can tell you I did not have C++ in mind".

    Not that the Java snippet had anything to do with object-orientedness….

  49. 205guy says

    I'm still not convinced that grammar nazi is "commonly used" in a broader sense, and a link in a comment does not a strong argument make.

    CJK Fossman, no, a preference for 2000 word essays that start off on a broad tangent comparing various rehashes of 19th century pop culture in 21st century pop culture that tickles the intellect without making a strong and clear argument, while using a lot of French in italics along the way, is la définition of une affectation.

    But thanks to David's clue, I finally found the reference to the Nazis; unsurprisingly, they are of the treacherous French persuasion:


  50. says

    Mistakes in text tend to jump out at me, too, but only real mistakes – not the "authoritarian madness", as Peter Welch recently put it.

    Of course, I'm from New Zealand, and we learn to write by example rather than by studying rules. I still think that works better for most people, though professional writers are perhaps better off if they've done both.

  51. That Anonymous Coward says

    Heh, as a self proclaimed high functioning sociopath, I often encounter grammar nazis who like to attack my spelling, phrasing, abject murder of grammatical rules in the things I post. I find it telling that they focus more on how I conveyed the ideas, rather than the ideas. As a leet hacker terrorist member of an internet hate group, they don't understand I answer only to myself… (and my dyslexia).

    I've seen the BBC Sherlock and the CBS Sherlock, I enjoy each for their own unique takes on the characters. I am distressed that after much fanfare about CBS's Mrs. Hudson she all but vanished and only recently appears as a passing mention. :(

    They also function as an interesting case study of what works in each market. Where 1 spoonfeeds a bit more, and the other assumes everyone obviously understands what is happening as some sort of shared secret between the audience and Sherlock. I wonder if the British version of me feels the same…

  52. AlanF says

    To thwart grammar Nazis, my sig line reads:

    This e-mail is a natural hand made product. The slight
    variations in spelling and grammar enhance its individual
    character and beauty and in no way are to be considered
    flaws or defects.

  53. CJK Fossman says


    Since I prefer David's essays to, for example, sentences that aspire to Faulknerian length and complexity, I am forced to conclude that you have accused moi of having an affectation. Or perhaps more than one.

    Gentle person that I am, I will refrain from asking if you do not like to have your intellect tickled or if you have, like some post-menopausal persons, become numb in certain areas and would prefer not to be bothered.

  54. Another Grammar Nazi says

    Regarding the improper use of the feminine pronoun 'she' in the article, I would like to point out that the correct pronoun is the sex-indeterminate masculine pronoun.

    "…the Nazi is the one who sees most or all, all the time, until she's fed up. She feels welling up within her an urgent, primal cry in behalf of the norms she has embraced, the quirky irrationales of the tongues to which she's wedded."

    The implication there is that only women are Nazis. As a male grammar Nazi, I can attest to this being false.

    In English, the masculine pronoun is used when the sex is not determined. Unlike the feminine pronoun, the masculine pronoun does not definitively indicate sex unless the sex is already known.

    The masculine pronoun can ascribe sex to a known subject. e.g. "Lee was hungry. He decided to have an apple." Compare that to, "Lee was hungry. She decided to have an apple." You can substitute "Lee" with any name used for both males and females.

    For unknown subjects, sex is left indeterminate and the masculine pronoun is used. e.g. "In the author's latest novel, the reader is left to decide the moral of the story for himself."

    The moral of this story is, "Speak of the grammar Nazi, and who should appear?" :)

  55. albert says

    @Another Grammar Nazi

    You don't need: "..for himself." in that sentence. However, one can't always sidestep the issue.

    Unfortunately, feminism has tried, with some success, to eliminate masculine, sex-indeterminate pronouns. Now we have absurd and clumsy constructions like 'he/she' (or, for feminists, 'she/he':), because English has no third person singular, gender-neutral pronouns. I never thought 'he' as gender-neutral was a problem. We are expected to use 'they' for 3rd person singular, which sounds weird to me.

    " That person may appear to be a Nazi, but they might just be a douchebag. "

    Try substituting 'they' (or 'them', or 'their', etc.) for 'she' in:

    "…Many folks notice deviations from canonical grammar and usage; the Nazi is the one who sees most or all, all the time, until she's fed up. She feels welling up within her an urgent, primal cry in behalf of the norms she has embraced, the quirky irrationales of the tongues to which she's wedded. The Nazi is the one for whom, involuntarily, cela saute aux yeux. Finally, with eggshell sensitivity to the descriptivists and positivists, she pipes up: "perhaps you should reconsider using 'begs the question' in that way." Then she ducks…."

    I gotta go…

  56. GeoffreyK says

    I've always liked "they/them/their" for 3rd person gender-neutral singular, and that paragraph sounds perfect to me with the replacement. Far better than he, she, he/she, s/he, shim, hirs, and whatever other bastardizations up with which have been come. I always would've preferred that we had a real one instead of having to substitute gender-specific singular, or gender-neutral plural.

    As of my high-schooling, the "promoted" option was to preferentially, but not necessarily always, use 'she'. If I don't like denoting the masculine when I mean neutral, I'm not going to arbitrarily swap it and denote feminine when I mean neutral; treating it like some sort of cosmic balance fails to solve the root problem of ambiguous specificity in each instance. Plus, if I'm already being non-specific about the subject's gender, what does it hurt to maybe also be non-specific about the subject's quantity?

  57. says

    If one doesn't watch oneself, one may draw incorrect conclusions about the availability of gender-neutral shifters in one's native tongue.

    'Course, that sounds awfully stilted, eh what?

  58. The Wanderer says

    The trouble with pronouns and gender is that there are really quite a few types of third-person pronouns needed to fill all available "slots", and English only has words for some of them.

    At minimum, there are third-person-pronoun niches for:

    * Singular, gender specified male. (English has "he", "him", "his".)

    * Singular, gender specified female. (English has "she", "her", "hers".)

    * Singular, gender specified none. (English has "it", "its".)

    * Singular, gender nonspecified.

    * Plural, gender specified male.

    * Plural, gender specified female.

    * Plural, gender specified none.

    * Plural, gender nonspecified. (English has "they", "their".)

    That's eight slots minimum, and as far as I've been able to think of, English only has words that "naturally" fit into four of them. People continually attempt to extend / repurpose one or more of those words (most commonly "he" or "they") to fit the "singular, gender nonspecified" slot, but they never do really seem to fit right; people have repeatedly attempted to coin other words to fit into the empty slots, but have had little to no success in getting those words adopted.

    I'm not familiar with most languages other than English, but within my somewhat limited range of experience, none of the other languages are much better in this respect.

  59. says

    @The Wanderer: that's not quite true; "he" was universally accepted as the word for "singular, gender nonspecified" until relatively recently. (When, does anybody know, was the first time anyone publicly objected? I'm guessing about 50 years ago?)

  60. Papillon says

    @The Wanderer: From my limited understanding, it's even weirder in other languages.

    In French (and Spanish as well I believe) all nouns are gendered. One would say "le soleil" (the sun, masculine), but "la lune" (the moon, feminine).

    German has a neuter gender, but this doesn't stop non-living objects from being gendered. E.g. from my understanding, a lake is feminine, but an ocean is masculine (same word too, just different gender). And the if the gender of a person is unknown, they don't use the neuter gender; instead they resort to tricks similar to "(s)he".

    I've heard though that fewer (??? I can't remember the language) speakers get offended by using male pronouns for groups or people of unknown gender. I guess when every word is assigned a gender, pretty much at random, it's harder to get offended about that kind of thing.

  61. Xtifr says

    Actually, singular they has a long history in English. It's found in the King James Bible, which, as one linguist quipped, proves it's blessed by God himself. It's also found in the grammatically impeccable works of Jane Austen, as well as in Shakespeare, Chaucer, Swift, Dickens, Fitzgerald, Kipling, Orwell, Wilde, Auden, and many more. Criticism of singular they only dates back to the 19th century, has no known rational basis, and has proven thoroughly ineffective.

  62. albert says

    @The Wander
    As Papillon pointed out, in many languages, all nouns are gendered (many as the result of the anthropomorphism of early mythologies) . English speakers find this strange and unnecessary. I must point out that there are many cases where 'no gender' (as opposed to 'either gender') forms are needed. We don't use 'it' to refer to a person, or something with gender, like an animal (though it's probably OK to reference an animal that way).

    @Harry Johnston, David, GeoffreyK, points taken.

    @Xtifr, this is the real issue. The English language has a rich history, written by authors who whose talent and skill are unlikely to be surpassed. English is a very expressive language. It is like those 64-color crayons we all wanted, when our younger siblings (gender neutral) had to make do with the 8-color ones. English is the world's technical language. It is fairly easy to learn the basics, at least well enough to communicate. The finer points are often a challenge.

    I submit, without proof, that folks (gender neutral) in other countries must have found the feminists 'he/she' stuff amusing. Language changes naturally through time, not by fiat. I would have fought the 'he/she' crowd to the courts, had I been in college at the time.

    It ain't broke, don't try to fix it.

    I can't speak for all of the Spelling & Grammar Police, but my feelings are stressed when I read stuff with dumb spelling errors and silly grammatical errors. I don't _want_ to think those authors are idiots, but it's really hard to fight the impression.

    We've got spel-chek now. Failing that, it takes all of 2 seconds to check a word:

    1. Double click your best guess.
    2. Control-c to copy.
    3. Control-t opens a new tab.
    4. Control-v pastes to address bar.
    5. 'Enter' does the search.
    6. Double click the correctly spelled word.
    7. Control-c to copy.
    8. Change tabs.
    9. Select (click/drag) best guess.
    10. Control-v pastes to your text.
    You may just go back and change the word, skipping 6 – 10.

    Viola! Bob's your uncle!

    Being criticized for not using 'he/she' is an irritation up with which I will not put,

    I gotta go…

  63. The Wanderer says


    The problem with replacing "she" with "their" in that paragraph is that it results in plurality mismatches in other words. For example, "the Nazi is the one who sees most or all, all the time, until she's fed up" becomes "the Nazi is the one who sees most or all, all the time, until they're fed up" – but "they're" is a contraction of "they are", and "are" is a plural verb, which mismatches with the singular "is" from earlier in the sentence. Using "they's" instead, as a contraction of "they is", would stand out immediately as incorrect.

    @Harry Johnston:

    I'm not so sure. I think there's room to argue that it's not so much that "he" was understood to be "gender nonspecified" as that the subject of discussion was assumed to be male unless otherwise specified.

    Regardless, that doesn't really work, because it introduces ambiguities for the reader/listener. If "he" is to be understood as specifying gender as male, then it cannot also be understood as failing to specify any gender, and vice versa.

    (Over the years, I've gradually dug out and put into words some of the foundational principles on which my philosophy is based and by which I, by preference, tend to live my life. One of those can be expressed as "Unintentional ambiguity is anathema.".)


    Those are nouns, though, not pronouns.

    Gendered nouns in other languages are an interesting and sometimes worthwhile subject for discussion and consideration on their own; it was thinking about them (in context of a discussion of their relationship, or lack thereof, to gender bias) that got me to the point of analyzing pronoun gender issues this far in the first place. The relevant question at the moment (barring another conversational fork), however, is about gendered pronouns – and I know less about that subject, for most non-English languages, than I do about gendered nouns.


    I must point out that there are many cases where 'no gender' (as opposed to 'either gender') forms are needed. We don't use 'it' to refer to a person, or something with gender, like an animal (though it's probably OK to reference an animal that way).

    Yes – that's why I included both "gender specified none" and "gender nonspecified" in my list of 'pronoun slots'. English does not have "gender nonspecified singular" (except insofar as "they" applies), or "gender specified none plural".

    I'm not really sure what you're trying to say here.

  64. albert says

    @The Wanderer

    I now see your 'gender specified none' is my 'no gender'.

    Ah, the vagaries of the language :)

    Because English lacks certain pronoun forms, that doesn't mean we should try to 'redefine' others.

    Thanks for pointing out the 'plurality mismatches'. Saved me a lot of typing, as well as explaining it better than I could have :)

    I gotta go…

  65. GeoffreyK says

    @albert and @The Wanderer
    The plurality mismatches don't bother me in the least, while using a gendered pronoun to indicate unspecified gender stabs me deeply in my feels. As is not uncommon with fascism, I'm clearly being overly fascistic with regard to one aspect, and letting another (in this case, plurality consistency) arbitrarily slide.

  66. Papillon says

    @The Wanderer: The implicit assumption is there's gender agreement between a pronoun and the noun it's replacing. This is certainly the case in French (which doesn't even have non-gendered third-person personal pronouns). I'm not a linguist so I can't speak to the general case.

  67. CJK Fossman says


    How do you settle this?

    "Does everyone have their pencil?" What is that? One pencil shared by all?

    "Does everyone have their pencils?" Does everyone need multiple pencils?

  68. says

    @Xtifr: I'm unclear on how that would work, since it introduces another ambiguity – did the author mean one person or several people? Are you able to provide any examples from the authors you mentioned?

  69. htom says

    @ CJK Fossman , @ Geoffrey —
    "Does each have a pencil?"

    An attempt to use Spivak pronouns:

    Many folks notice deviations from canonical grammar and usage; the Nazi ise who sees most or all, all the time, until e's fed up. E feels welling up within eir an urgent, primal cry in behalf of the norms e has embraced, the quirky irrationales of the tongues to which e's wedded. The Nazi is e for whom, involuntarily, cela saute aux yeux. Finally, with eggshell sensitivity to the descriptivists and positivists, e pipes up: "perhaps you should reconsider using 'begs the question' in that way." Then e ducks.

  70. barry says

    In the case of the non-gendered personal pronoun being short of a pencil, did we ever find out who it was?

  71. says

    It seems to me that on the whole the best solution would be to drop the gendering of pronouns altogether; use "he" for everyone, whether male, female, or neither of the above. It would take some getting used to, but not only would it solve the problem of when the gender is unknown, it would also eliminate the assumption that everybody actually has a well-defined and permanent gender.

  72. GeoffreyK says

    @CJK Fossman
    I'm interpreting "settle" as "parse". I'd probably settle it with context; even "Does everyone have his pencil?" seems to have the exact same issue of ambiguity. Also, I'd say it is the job of the speaker to use the variation that best delivers their intent. The real rule is clarity; all others are merely guidelines in service thereof.

    Independent, but related (I'd never seen the JFK/Stalin bit, but found it greatly entertaining): FiveThirtyEight on the Oxford Comma [In case you're wondering, I am a proponent of the Oxford Comma!]

  73. albert says

    I like the "e" idea, but I like 'e == (sh)e or (h)e

    @Geoffrey K
    I didn't know there was Oxford Comma, let alone a major issue with it :)

    "She was here, there, and everywhere."

    Read that sentence aloud, pausing at each comma. Now read it again, but leave out the Oxford Comma. That does it for me.

    Je dois y aller…

  74. Sheriff Fathead says

    @The Wanderer

    "are" is a plural verb

    Not necessarily: "you are" can be singular or plural, depending on context. If it works for the second person (and it does), I don't see why it can't work for the third.

  75. GeoffreyK says

    @Sheriff Fathead
    Actually… *ahem*… "You are" is the singular. I believe the proper plural formulation is, of course, "Y'all are".

    Unless you're one of those northern heathens, with your "yinz" or your "youse".

  76. htom says

    Oxford comma: I leave my estate to be divided equally between A, and B, and C.

    Or non-Oxford: I leave my estate to be divided equally between A, and B and C.

    With a $12 estate, in the first, each gets $4; the latter, A receives $6, and B and C each receive $3.

    You has problems. If I write to M and W, I can refer to them as a couple as you, to M himself as you, and to W herself as you. The sentence "Could you please X" does not specify which of them is being addressed (both, either, him, or her.) I can invent youp (you plural), youa (you any), youm (you singular masculine), and youf (you singular feminine), but that doesn't help if I need to address other situations — you plural masculine, you indeterminate, ….

  77. Doctor X says

    It depends on the reason behind correction. If it is to enlighten the Great Unwashed on the proper usage of the verb "moot" then it proves a most noble endevour . . . endevor . . . work-thing.

    If it is to elevate oneself in a "Ha! HA!HA! HA! Chortle. Meep. You made a grammatical mistake SO MY ARGUMENT THAT THE IRS IS ILLEGAL BECAUSE OF ADMIRALTY COMMON LAW IS VALID AND IS IT NOT AWESOME I CAN HOLD DOWN THE SHIFT KEY?!!1!" then it is most unseemly.

    I enjoy the British Sherlocks. I expect to not like them, but found I did. All can quibble here and there but I have to respect they retained the fact Sherlock did not know the Earth revolves around the Sun because he finds such things unimportant to his work.

    I also liked how they handed the infamous fact that Conan Doyle mixed up where Watson was actually wounded.

  78. says

    Courtesy of my friend Ratner, a link to Stephen Fry's delightful rejection of prescriptivism and its discontents: