So you think you can write?

How its and it’s, the singular they, subject-verb disagreements, inconsistent tenses, and other elements of bad English drive us crazy

Mind your language.

And I don’t mean it as an idiom, meaning to speak politely. But if you must pepper your language with invectives, the more you need to mind. Mind your tenses, your subject-verb agreement, your noun-pronoun agreement, your spelling, or else the expletive you hurl out will bounce right back at you.

I once witnessed an altercation between two co-workers. And one of them, the feistier of the two, hissed, “Peace off!” The other used it as an opportunity to hit back, “It’s piss off, stupid!” That was just pronunciation.

Of course, it was a verbal tiff. Imagine if it were a Facebook squabble, where many discussions about politics or personalities or current events do turn into bickerings over grammar.

Language is tricky. And it does have the power to overwhelm us when its most basic function is to provide us with tools with which to express ourselves clearly, concisely, and effectively. There are just too many rules to mind, too many irregularities, too many exceptions, too many exceptions to the exceptions, and not all of them are based on logic. Plus, they change over time, guided by popular usage. I mean, irregardless is a word now, duly acknowledged by Merriam-Webster.

Take the singular they and its inflected or derivative forms them, their, and theirs. As an editor, I’ve just about given up changing their to its when it’s a pronoun used to stand in for a singular noun.

The restaurant has released their new menu.

The restaurant has released its new menu.

I don’t mind so much if it appears following an unspecified antecedent like someone, somebody, anybody, or everybody, although Strunk & White objects to it. I am aware that this debate over the singular they has persisted since 1375 when in the medieval poem William and the Werewolf it appeared in the following sentence.

Everybody hurried… till they drew near…where William and his darling were lying together.

In a letter she wrote in 1881, Emily Dickinson also used the singular they in this sentence that follows.

Almost anyone under the circumstances would have doubted if [the letter] were theirs.

We now live in the time of the gender-sensitive pronoun and the generic he or its derivative him, I concur, is guilty of gender bias. I have yet to put to use the singular they as the preferred pronoun of those of us who are nonbinary or who identify as neither male nor female. My only justifiable reason is that, without the other genders involved, it is common for writers to confuse he with she, him with her, and I don’t want to compound the problem with yet another pronoun, the more controversial, gender-neutral singular they. I have a feeling that soon I will acquiesce, but for now, when writing about named members of the transgender, genderqueer, and gender nonconforming community, I avoid referring to them in pronouns in formal writing. If it proves too difficult, then I do a Q&A.

Language, whether written or spoken, does have the power to take us from place to place and on a grand tour of time, sometimes all the way to the limits of possibility. In the universe of language, grammar is the suns or the stars or the constellations or the planets that guide us through the vastness of human expressions, observations, emotions, or thoughts, as represented by words and the sentences and paragraphs they form. Without grammar, defined as “the set of structural rules governing composition,” we will be lost in the multitudes.

And that is exactly what happens, for instance, when the grammatical tense is not taken seriously. In one sentence, you can go from the past to the present in exactly three words and then to the future three words later.

There was nowhere I can go that won’t be you.

Of course, the inconsistent verb tenses were all mine. I took a sentence from Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex and mangled it to give you an example. In his epic novel, one of my favorites, the sentence, flawless, is as follows.

There was nowhere I could go that wouldn’t be you.

There are many other ways wrong grammar can drive you crazy. Sometimes it drives you arithmophobic. We have learned from grade school grammar about countable and uncountable nouns and yet we are still confused with less and few, much and many.

Aristotle maintained that women had less teeth than men.

It was I who replaced the correct fewer with the dyscalculic less to turn this sentence into an example. The sentence is from Bertrand Russell’s The Impact of Science on Society, but of course the author was a master of mathematical logic. At the very least he could count and he knew teeth were countable.

Aristotle maintained that women had fewer teeth than men.

COUNTING WITH Bertrand Russell British polymath, philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, writer, social critic, political activist, and Nobel laureate. To my three-year-old nephew, I share a very simple hack: If you can count it (balls, planets, people, books), use few. If you can’t count it (sugar, sand, light, water), use less.

And, of course, I cannot write about grammar gone bad without mentioning the many minor irritations in writing, such as our tendency to mistake it’s for its, your for you’re, lie for lay, who for whom, that for which, between for among, and I for me and vice versa. I say minor because they are easy enough to correct, but it’s lamentable anyway because I see them too often not so much in some seventh-graders’ essays but in professional writers’ drafts or even published works.

Often, I tell my writers to go back to their pre-school teachers because, as Robert Fulghum has put it in one of his books, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. But I understand that grammar, even among the “professional” writers, may no longer seem that important now that anybody can write, even for the papers, even for mainstream websites, as long as they have algorithm on their side. Nowadays, even editors, burdened by multitasking, skip the fundamentals of grammar without compunction in the pursuit of scoops and breaking news and reader engagement. And so, following that lead, even in our efforts to improve our craft, we are now sacrificing sentence-level mechanics should they get in the way of algorithmic reads, likes, and shares, not to mention deadlines.

No wonder Madonna, in her 1994 hit “Bedtime Stories,” lamented, “Today is the last day / That I’m using words, They’ve gone out, lost their meaning / Don’t function anymore.”

By AA Patawaran, first published September 7, 2020