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The Washington Post Style Guide Now Accepts Singular They

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What do you do when you run into your friend on their birthday? You wish them a happy birthday, of course!

Or wait—you wish … him or her a happy birthday? When you run into your friend on … his or her birthday? That's how you’re supposed to say it if you want to avoid using they to refer to one person, but it’s a bit wordy and awkward. You could use just him or her alone, but what if you don’t want to be specific about the sex of the referent? You could make it plural—“what do you do when you run into friends on their birthdays”—but that sounds a bit strange, like there’s a whole group of friends having their birthdays at once. Anyone who writes for a living runs into this situation all the time, and must go through all kinds of contortions to avoid the easiest solution: singular they.

In everyday speech, singular they, the use of they/them to refer to one person, feels completely natural. But in more formal contexts, and in writing, that usage has long been frowned upon. And not just frowned upon, but banned as ungrammatical. However, it is not ungrammatical in the same way as “I didn’t knowed that” or “what are you cook for dinner tonight?” Those sentences don’t sound natural in any context.

Proponents of singular they have long argued that the prohibition makes no sense. Not only is it natural, it has been used in English for centuries. It’s in the King James Bible. Authors like Chaucer, Shakespeare, Swift, Austen, Thackeray, and Shaw used it. Before the production of school textbooks for grammar in the 19th century, no one complained about it or even noticed it. Avoiding it is awkward or necessitates sexist language.

Now, in the most recent update to The Washington Post style guide, singular they has been given official approval. Post copy editor Bill Walsh explains that he personally accepted singular they many years ago, but had stopped short of allowing it in the paper. He finally decided to endorse it in house style after coming to the conclusion that it is “the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun.”

Other institutions are sure to follow suit. Professional associations of copy editors have been chafing at the restriction against it for years, and now that a major publication has approved it, it won’t be long before more do the same. The news of the acceptance of singular they may cause a little stir, but nobody will notice the change in action, as Walsh says, “I suspect that the singular they will go largely unnoticed even by those who oppose it on principle. We’ve used it before, if inadvertently, and I’ve never heard a complaint.”

A grammar “mistake”? In a newspaper? That no one complained about? Unthinkable! That’s the final and perhaps most convincing sign that singular they really isn’t a mistake at all.

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9 Grammatically Correct Gifts for Language Lovers
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Have a friend or relative who's quick to correct your typos? Give them a gift that celebrates their love of (grammatically correct) language.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of sales. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck gift hunting!

1. THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE ILLUSTRATED; $12

William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White's extensive—and sometimes snarky—guide to grammar was published in 1920, but it's still considered a go-to for writing purists who are wary of change. The bookshelf staple, with a foreword by Roger Angell and updated with 57 colorful illustrations by Maira Kalman, is sure to offer up hours of education (which is entertainment to the language lover in your life).

Find It: Amazon

2. PENCILS; $9

These pencils will help keep common homophones straight. The retro sets of five are decorated with gold foil letters hand-pressed onto the sides. The Etsy store also offers up a set of red pencils that feature short, grammar-positive statements.

Find It: Etsy

3. QUOTE EARRINGS; $9

High marks: The delicate metal earrings are about a half-inch tall, making them a subtle but charming choice for any punctuation lover.

Find It: ModCloth

4. *YOU'RE NECKLACE; $24 AND UP

*You're necklace
Etsy

The pendant, which comes in the material of your choice, is dedicated to a well-known pet peeve amongst the literate.

Find It: Etsy

5. PUNCTUATION POSTER; $36

Everyone knows about the question mark and the semicolon, but what about the interrobang? This simple poster, available in three different sizes and 60 different colors, celebrates the punctuation that really helps writers get their point across. It's printed on satin luster paper with ChromaLife 100 inks, creating a long-lasting piece of artwork.

Find It: Etsy

6. SHADY CHARACTERS; $12

Keith Houston's book offers up a thorough look at the history of the written word. Readers can learn about the rich stories behind punctuation marks, including tales that cover everything from Ancient Roman graffiti to George W. Bush.

Find It: Amazon

7. AMPERSAND MARQUEE; $19

The ampersand is a divisive punctuation mark in writing, but it's widely loved in design; the attractive logogram can be found everywhere from wedding invitations to tattoos. This metal light stands at almost 10 inches, making it a nice statement piece in any home.

Find It: Amazon

8. POP CULTURE PARTS OF SPEECH; $29

Grammar is even more accessible with the help of beloved pop culture characters. ET, Robocop, Holly Golightly, Walter White, and more all come together to help teach tricky grammar terms. The poster is broken down into seven basic parts: nouns, verbs, adjectives, pronouns, adverbs, prepositions, and conjunctions.

Find It: Pop Chart Lab

9. OWL SHIRT; $15

Do you have a friend who's always correcting everyone with a stern "whom"? With the help of two owls, this shirt pokes light fun at two counterparts to the oft-neglected word. The lightweight, cotton shirt comes in a classic white with sizes for men, women, and children.

Find It: Amazon

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

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How to Properly Use 'Who' vs. 'Whom'
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by Reader's Digest

“Who” gets to have all the fun. Who gets to be on first. Who is responsible for letting the dogs out. Meanwhile, “whom” is sitting in the corner, being perceived as pretentious by plenty of English speakers.

But whom isn’t neglected due to any flaw—not at all. Whom is neglected because plenty of people just aren’t quite sure when the time is right to use it in a sentence, kind of like figuring out when it is seasonally acceptable to start wearing boots. It’s important to know, though. Now, with some help from Grammarly, we clarify the official who vs. whom rules.

In plain terms, whom is meant to be used to refer to the object of preposition or verb, while who should refer to the subject of the sentence. Here are two examples of proper usages:

  • To whom should the letter on the importance of grammar be addressed?
  • Who is responsible for making this delightful crockpot lasagna?

 
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A useful trick to make sure that you’re using each one properly requires you to do a quick substitution: Slide in he or him or she or her into the place of the who or whom. Now, let’s review the above-listed examples with the added in substitutions.

  • I should address the letter on the importance of grammar to him. (Whom was properly used.)
  • He is responsible for making this delightful crockpot lasagna. (Who was properly used.)

Now you can go out into the world and impress every grammarian you encounter. Sadly for whom, who will always play first fiddle, always relating to the subject.

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