Reading and writing again, yay!

After two months of reading nothing but work-related [badly-written] texts and depressing news items, and writing nothing but work-related [hopefully well-crafted] texts, plus the occasional personal email and status update on Facebook, I am back to real reading and writing. Yay! I'll hold off with the pat on the back, though, until I make some noticeable progress.


Grahame Greene, again. This time: The Comedians. Though I'm supplying a link, it contains spoilers so I don't suggest you read it if you plan on reading the book. It was recommended and lent to me by the admirable Noam Sheizaf . Admirable for many reasons, not merely the fact that he's the father of Baby Momo [see pic at end of post], though that of course is a huge feather in his cap, not that he often wears one. "It's like all Grahame Greene novels," Noam warned me. And so it is. The preface itself, pages 5-6, is worth far-more-than its weight in gold. The first two pages had me already rushing to Google/Wikipedia three times, to look up The Tontons Macoute, "Exegi monumentum",  and pompes funebres, considerably broadening my general knowledge. And by page 23 I felt an overwhelming need to go back to page 1 and start over, in order to get the pieces of the puzzle straight in my mind, and make sure I was picking up on all the hints.
Okay, so it's going to have a heart-rending end – you know that as soon as you read that Jones is dead (Chapter 1, 5th line, not exactly a spoiler). What else is new. But it is oh-so-gooood!


He/she, or they?

I've been watching episodes of Steven Fry's fascinating series Planet Word . Highly recommend for people in love with language. Or with Fry. Or both. Fry, whose vocabulary is immense, and who must be one of the better users of the English language, seems quite open to change and willing to accept new words, new status of old words, and new usage of existing words, not to mention changes in grammatically accepted structures. In fact, to him, the vitality and constant evolution of language is a thrilling thing in itself.

Shouldn't we translators and editors be more like him? Less sticklers for stiff grammar-and-usage rules, and more open to creative use of language?

In our personal lives, yes, sure. In our daily work we can't always afford to. While you or I may approve of the way your client expresses herself – be she a university prof preparing a paper for publication or a shop owner preparing an ad for the weekend local magazine – you have to keep your target audience in mind. Not all readers will understand or appreciate your client's usage.

The other day my friend L. sent me the following question:

"…So I finally found the time to finish up this really interesting academic article, and something really bothers me. He [the client] keeps mixing "their" with the singular. E.g.:
"This naturally increases one’s commitment to their faith and the group."

I keep correcting him, and I have explained to him that social convention (gender consideration) aside, he can't bend the grammar rules. Am I right to insist? I told him it had to be 
"This naturally increases one’s commitment to his or her faith and the group." [you can also use either one of the pronouns, but it must be singular]  

Am I right?"

Grammatically, of course she's right. But usage-wise, we can't help it, things change. Attitudes change and the language changes with it.

As it happens, in a recent job I was grappling with the same question. I was translating a booklet from Hebrew to English, and it was full of general descriptions of things people say and do, which, in English, required the use of "he/she", or "they", or "one", or "people". Constantly having to choose between these solutions got really tiresome. So I was tempted to use "their", but my inner grammarian balked...

I recalled that the problem cropped up on the Chicago Manual of Style forum, and after some searching, found it online:
Q. I would swear that I saw a reference in your manual that approved of the use of “their” instead of a gender-biased singular pronoun. For example, “If the user has completed installing the program, they should put the CD-ROM back in the package,” instead of “If the user has completed installing the program, s/he should put the CD-ROM back in the package,” but on your Q&A, you dance around the answer to the question and suggest that you do NOT approve of the singular “their.” Can you tell us what is acceptable?
A. Yes, you saw it at 2.98 (note 9) in the fourteenth edition, but there was some regret at having written it, and we decided to abandon the idea for the fifteenth and sixteenth editions. Though some writers are comfortable with the occasional use of they as a singular pronoun, some are not, and it is better to do the necessary work to recast a sentence or, other options having been exhausted, use he or she. For a fuller discussion of this issue, see paragraph 5.223 in CMOS 16 and the entry for “he or she” under the “Glossary of Problematic Words and Phrases” at paragraph 5.220.
[Copyright: The Chicago Manual of Style]

Bottom line? Suit yourself...

 As promised, a pic of Noam with Baby Momo: