Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
This past week, the AP style guide announced changes for the next edition. One big change getting a lot of attention is its official approval of using “they” to refer to singular rather than plural people. As great as the move is for including people with non-binary gender identities, their endorsement of “they” is limited.
I want more.
Here’s what the AP blog describes as one of the key passages in the new guide:
In stories about people who identify as neither male nor female or ask not to be referred to as he/she/him/her: Use the person’s name in place of a pronoun, or otherwise reword the sentence, whenever possible. If they/them/their use is essential, explain in the text that the person prefers a gender-neutral pronoun. Be sure that the phrasing does not imply more than one person…”
In other words, do everything you can to avoid using “they” to refer to just one person. I can imagine how journalists will “explain in the text that the person prefers a gender-neutral pronoun.” Something like, “Alex argues that their (note that “their” here refers to just the one person, Alex, who prefers a gender-neutral pronoun) gender should not a factor.”
Elegant. And so much better than just writing, “Alex argues that their gender should not be a factor.” (Does sarcasm come across in writing? Not very well.)
The AP defends its position by saying we’re not used to singular “they,” that “gender-neutral use of a singular they is unfamiliar to many readers.”
Except that’s not true. We may not be used to singular “they” to refer to a specific individual like Riley, but we’re all used to using “they” for the singular without marking gender. And we may even be used to some uses of “they” to refer to a specific individual with a specific gender.
In fact, it has a long history:
From the 1526 Tyndale English version of the Bible (from Wayne Leman, Better Bibles blog)
So lyke wyse shall my hevenly father do vnto you except ye forgeve with youre hertes eache one to his
brother their treaspases. (Tyndale, 1526)
Notice that we’re forgiving a male “brother” their trespasses.
From Jane Austen’s Emma (from pemberley.com)
Emma Woodhouse to Mr. Knightley [discussing Harriet Smith]:
"Who is in love with her? Who makes you their confidant?"
Since we know Emma assumes Harriet’s potential lover is male, “their” here too is used instead of the gender-specific “his.”
These passages are usually quoted to show the long history of using “they” to refer to singular nouns where the gender is not specific. Contemporary examples are everywhere:
If anyone has a question, they should step to the microphone.
Whoever spilled red wine on my white rug should clean up their mess.
Although it’s a favorite shibboleth of some grammar snobs, such use of “they” is so common in speech most people wouldn’t notice it. And I suspect it’s now more commonly used and less often noticed in writing as well as speech.
In the past few years, that singular use of “they” has received a flurry of endorsements—by the Washington Post in 2015 and the American Dialect Society in 2016, to name two biggies.
Several great language blogs have written about this use of “they” (you’ll find multiple entries on this use of “they” on language log)
And Geoff Nunberg has a nice summary of the issues and its history on npr.org, “Everyone Uses Singular 'They,' Whether They Realize It Or Not”
But until relatively recently, that use of “they” has been banned by style guides and handbooks. And it is still shunned in the new version of the AP style guide. Quoting from the key passages in their blog again,
“They/them/their is acceptable in limited cases as a singular and-or gender-neutral pronoun, when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy. However, rewording usually is possible and always is preferable. ”
That’s why I want more from them.
We now have two reasons we need the singular “they”:
And I might add a third reason--
I’d like to suggest we go even further and make it noticeable.
What if we just start using “they” as the singular pronoun in all cases—known gender or not, individual person or not, gender-specific preference or not?
I like how Jane Austen created their characters with strengths and flaws.
Tell Emma that they should stop meddling.
Tell your brother to put away their toys, now!
I know, I know, it sounds weird. Our ears aren’t used to it. And I’m enough of a linguist to know that this is not how language changes. We could all start campaigning against “he/him/his/himself” and “she/her/hers/herself” and those gender-specific words would remain dominant. And besides, those words work when we know the gender is male or female. And besides again, having just one form for both singular and plural would create some ambiguity, like there currently is for the singular and plural “you.” Why do you think we have the words “y’all” and “you guys” and “you’uns” and “you folks”?
But there’s a reason to try, a reason to start raising awareness about those gender-specific usages--
equity and social justice.
So there’s a fourth reason we need singular “they.” So that we’re all “they.” No one stands out as the “they” in a room of “he"s and “she"s. If they want to stand out, they’ll have to do it in ways other than the pronouns we use to refer to them.
Let’s all be them.
According to Merriam-Webster dictionaries, they “have evidence in our files of the nonbinary they dating back to 1950, and it’s likely that there are earlier uses of the nonbinary pronoun they out there.” So isn't it about time we use the language we need?
Yep, it’s optimist Amy again, wanting us to try even if it’s pie in the sky, wanting us to strive to do the right thing, even if it wouldn’t work. If the AP style guide wants writers to insert an explanation whenever one of us prefers to be referred to as “they,” let’s go with it:
Amy wrote an idealistic blog post, but they prefer idealism to inequity (the use of “they” here permits
all people to be treated equitably, if only in this small way)
It’s March Madness time
in the USA
for basketball fans
college basketball fans
men’s college basketball fans
whose brackets haven’t been so thoroughly busted that they’ve given up watching the tournament
It’s March Madness time for some folks. (If you’re not one of those folks, I hope you enjoy this rhetorical analysis and genre play anyway.)
And that means it’s time for basketball fans and friends of fans to fill out their tournament brackets. Or, since I’m posting this just before the last weekend of the Final Four games, it’s time for almost all of us fans to mourn our busted brackets and scowl at the non-fan friends whose brackets are still intact after selecting their winners according to the cutest uniforms or funniest mascots.
Yep, expertise doesn’t win in this tournament. As Josh Jackson, a player for my school, the University of Kansas (KU), said
“Every team that makes a run in this tournament gets one crappy game where stuff just doesn’t go well for them”
and then that team loses, in spite of the stats and the odds and all the expert analysis.
You might have guessed—Saturday KU had its one crappy game. It lost its game to Oregon in the Elite Eight, a game KU should have won, according to the stats and the experts.
So much for brackets and expertise.
Out of my mourning for my busted bracket—and even more from my regret that the KU Seniors Landon Lucas, Frank Mason, and Tyler Self end their college careers in such a sad way—I thought I’d comment on the whole madness of tournament brackets. I'm leaving out the many, many, many other genres that surround the bracket--the selection shows on TV, stats, RPIs, online discussion groups, betting odds, and even busted bracket brackets. Not to mention the games themselves, the play-by-plays, color commentary, interviews, halftime shows, pregame shows, chants, cheers, and booing.
But sticking to the bracket . . .
Tournament brackets—a genre created by expertise and some marketing and a genre busted by talent and some luck.
Here’s a little rhetorical analysis from someone who’s relatively expert in rhetoric but not at all expert in tournament brackets.
What’s the purpose of the tournament bracket? Who’s its audience? What else from the context shapes or constrains it? And what does that tell us about this genre and about this game?
For the NCAA and its expert selection committee, the bracket
The bracket creates the games that teams will play, if they keep winning, and the games that we fans will watch, if the NCAA has done a good job of matching up teams we want to watch play.
Because there are other purposes to the bracket—like creating match-ups fans want to watch in order to increase TV ratings and NCAA revenues. Oh of course those aren’t stated purposes and I’m sure the tournament Selection Committee is fair and honest. But the procedures for creating the bracket specify things like not having teams play each other too soon if they’re in the same conference. Could that be partly to make more exciting match-ups with potential audiences from more parts of the country and wider markets? The procedures specify avoiding rematches of various kinds. Could that be partly because it’s generally more exciting to watch teams play that haven’t played each other before? That’s the great opportunity of the tournament, having great teams play each other who wouldn’t ordinarily meet. The primary purpose of the bracket may not be to market games to audiences, but some of those bracketing procedures sure don’t hurt TV ratings or NCAA revenues.
The primary audience already shows up in the purpose—the teams who will play, including players and coaches and their staffs, but also the fans. Then come all the secondary users of the bracket—ticket sellers, TV programmers, alumni associations and others who arrange watch parties or have their work lives affected by the tournament.
What’s the purpose of the tournament bracket for fans? It’s different enough that it might even be a different genre from the bracket created by the NCAA.
For basketball fans, the bracket takes on another purpose once it’s published: it gives the fans and their friends a fun game to play, guessing which team will win each game. (It also gives bookies a way to make money and offices a way to bond and avoid work, but that’s another topic.) When someone asks, “Do you have your bracket yet?” they aren’t wondering if you’ve seen the NCAA match-ups or pulled a copy of it out of the newspaper. They’re asking if you’ve created your own version of it, with your picks for each game. A different genre with a different purpose, audience, and context.
And it's all for fun. Or as James Corden says after spending the day picking his own bracket and then discovering he's not allowed to win money for it, "People do this for fun? Fill out a bracket? Insane."
And it's for competition. Just as the players compete on the court and the teams compete in the NCAA bracket, we fans can compete through our brackets in groups. My own sensational group on Yahoo Fantasy sports now has me in the middle of the pack, but even the top of our group has pitifully few points and I don’t stand a chance of winning (somehow I don’t think Kansas and Arizona are going to play in the championship game). Many upsets in the tournament this year, with lots of lower seeded teams beating higher ranked teams, leading to upsets in our fan brackets. So many upsets that our brackets have morphed into another version of the genre—busted brackets.
Maybe busted brackets are a different genre altogether, cuz they’re created by player talent and lots of luck instead of expertise and marketing. Just as any team can have a crappy game, as Jackson so eloquently put it, any team can have a spectacular game. In any given game any given team can beat any other team. Players with some talent play the games of their lives. Future NBA picks suddenly turn cold. The basket grows a lid on one end of the court. The refs call questionable fouls on one team’s players. The Nike 5-point advantage knocks out an Adidas-sponsored team—ok, not really that last one, but it’s tempting to find someone else to blame when your team loses unexpectedly, and blaming a bias toward the TV sponsor is as good a scapegoat as any.
Or maybe busted brackets are just a common variation on the bracket genre, a consequence of the genre rather than a violation of it. After all, busted brackets don’t have a different purpose—teams don’t bust brackets in order to make other fans sad or to mess up the match-up of the best games. Busted brackets don’t have a different audience—the same fans who fill out the brackets with great hope curse their busted brackets with frustration. And the contexts and constraints are the same, the online groups, office pools, and individual choices based on knowledge or whim. Busted brackets are so common that one wag DGiggity added a definition to Urban Dictionary for SBBD, Seasonal Busted Bracket Depression: "The annual depression that occurs mid-March and follows a #9 seed or lower trouncing a #4 or higher seed thereby destroying your NCAA bracket."
So if your bracket, like mine, is busted, remember that the bracket is a game—whether the game of the selection committee or the office pool.
And remember that it’s all a game, competitive though it might be—a game played by young men doing their best and trying their hardest, bringing enormous amounts of talent and energy and, yes, expertise and luck for our entertainment. If they can stand the pain of losing that last game--and every team but one loses that last game--then we can stand the pain of our busted bracket losing the office pool.
There are dark sides to it all, of course, and player exploitation, gambling addictions, gender discrimination, and even sometimes crimes and assault are potential results of the competitive nature of that game. I’d also be happy to trade big-time college athletics for big-time academic funding.
But today, when “my” team has just been upset and I’m seeing the sadness of senior players I’ve watched for four years, I’m just a fan with a busted bracket. Or really, today, I’m just a fan.
After a wonderful conference, I’m now sitting in a house on the Oregon coast looking out at an incredible expanse of ocean, waves, beach, and clouds. It’s quiet, and I’m quiet, and I’m thinking about the contrast between the two experiences and their genres/language/silence.
Much of the language I used at the conference came not from the formal genres that I wrote about last week as making the community. It came instead from the informal genres, the conversations before and after a presentation--chatting with a stranger sitting near me, greeting a slightly known colleague as we pass on the way to the next session, catching up warmly with a former student spotted outside a meeting room. And the longer conversations—a working breakfast with a co-author, lunch with old friends, drinks or dinner with colleagues and friends that range widely from sharing ideas heard in that day’s presentations to catching up with news of families to deeper reflections about careers and lives.
Those create community, too. Communities of colleagues in the field, networks of current and former students and alums of a program (shout-out to the incredible 33 KU folks who made our KU gathering so special), and families of friends who have known each other for twenty years or more.
And now I’m in a house with one other person, coming no closer to other people than the ones we can see walking on the beach. The separation from community is as intense as was the involvement in community. From 18 hours a day of presentations, discussions, and conversations to 15 hours a day of minimal talk and maximum watching or walking along the ocean (and, you may have noticed, many more hours of sleep).
There was some transition time. Driving to the coast, we listened to KU’s men’s basketball game in the NCAA tourney until we reached our town, where we stopped to watch the second half on TV with friendly locals in the perfect roadside tavern (thanks to the folks at Relief Pitcher). I chatted with the clerks in a grocery store and servers in a restaurant. And I sent a few early vacation photos to a few family members and friends.
But now we’re tucked in for a while for much needed rest and quiet. And I wonder—where did the genres go? Gone with the language? Oh, there were the formal genres to get us here—rental agreements and maps and such. But here, now, there’s quiet and non-busyness. Is a walk by the ocean a genre? Does reflection in my head count? Do tidal patterns make a genre if I don’t look them up to put a tidal chart to them?
I disrupt this non-languaged moment with this post—a reflection I found myself wanting to write in the moment instead of the vacation placeholder I had planned. But rather than intellectualize about it more or draw conclusions about language, genre, and community, I leave it as is. An observation. A contrast. A reflection.
Perhaps you’d like to continue this post for me, commenting with your own observations and reflections. (I'll add a photo later this week when I can work on my laptop. )
Until next week, may you enjoy both community and quiet in the proportions you most need.
I have colleagues I’ve never met. Friends I don’t know. Family I couldn’t pick out of a lineup. (Well, maybe I could. Both sides of my family have some pretty distinctive physical features.)
Colleagues, friends, families. All groups I’m a member of. All communities I’m a part of. I’m confident that you, too, share communities with people you’ve never met.
But how can we share a community if I haven’t met the colleagues, don’t know the friends, and wouldn’t recognize the family members?
One of the ways is discourse, genres, the shared ways we communicate.
I have family members I know only through the family stories told about them, and others I know are part of my family because of my cousin’s record of our family history on Ancestry. I know some family members only through a family Facebook page. But they’re all family.
I have friends I know only through social media. I know, I know, they aren’t truly “friends” in a BFF good friends for life way. Don’t count on Facebook friends to help load your moving truck or show up for your funeral. But there are people I know only through shared Facebook postings who I know friend-type stuff about, like their fondness for decorating cookies or bird-watching or skiing. And I feel friend-type feelings for them when they share successes or struggles. I don’t want to get into a debate about the declining nature of friendship (a cartoon: youngster says “I have hundreds of Facebook friends,” old man replies, “When I was young we called them imaginary friends.”). But I have a sense of community with friends on Facebook that comes only from our shared genre, Facebook posts.
And some of those Facebook friends I’ve never met are also colleagues I’ve never met.
I’ll be spending March 15-18 in Portland, Oregon, at the Conference on College Composition and Communication. I’m sure I’ll be seeing some of you there (say hi!). In fact, though, most of the people at this conference I don’t know, have never met, and will never meet. But they’re part of my community. That got me thinking about how communities are made. And of course that got me thinking about genre, because, well, because genre.
(I’ve been dying to use that new expression I learned from students--"Because ______." I hope I used it right. No more needs to be said, just because ____. I learned the expression a year ago, so it’s probably old hat now. As is the expression “old hat,” I bet.)
Genre scholars pay a lot of attention to the ways genres help to make communities, so I won’t begin to capture all they know about the topic. And certainly there's more to communities than only their genres. But I can sketch this one example and a few of the ways I find it interesting.
The conference I'll be attending gathers around 3,500 scholars and teachers of writing, mostly working in colleges or universities of all kinds. But we don’t work in the same schools. We don’t teach the same students. We share a common professional interest—writing and the teaching of writing. That’s all.
And we share this conference. Through the sponsoring organization we also share a journal, College Composition and Communication. And a website. And social media pages. These days, any organization has to have a media “presence.” You probably are part of similar communities, if not this one—maybe an online group or one that sends out a newsletter or magazine, alumni associations, non-profit organizations. You may never see many of your fellow members, but you form a community through those shared genres.
For my professional organization, just looking at the conference itself, I can see the ways we form a genuine community of colleagues, even if we only interact with a very few of the community’s members. We form a community through sharing genres.
Let’s start with the official conference genres (it’s a long list, so feel free to skip to the end of the bullets once you get the idea):
These genres help to create a community. Through the Call for Proposals, we define ourselves with some shared words and perspectives. (This year, it’s Cultivating Capacity, Creating Change.) Through giving us name badges with big first names, the organization tries to create a chummy community, where “big names” mean first names, not important people. (But those tiny last names on the name badges drive me crazy, not because I’m stalking Andrea Lunsford or Asao Inoue or other superstars but because I can’t remember the last name of that person I met last year and how can I introduce her to the graduate student I’m with if I can’t read her tiny last name on the stupid name badge?)
But one of the things that’s interesting to me is that these genres don’t necessarily create a community through all of us participating in them. Many of us attend the Opening General Session and hear the Chair’s Address, but not all of us. Most of us attend presentations, roundtables, and workshops, but not all of us and not the same ones. Most of us browse the books in the book exhibit, but not all of us.
Still, there’s the sense that this is us—the books and the talks and the speeches and the awards and even the business meeting. What all those genres do is declare us a group, a community.
Even if we don’t attend the Chair’s Address, we hear echoes of it all through the conference rooms and hallways conversations—and it’s later printed in that journal I mentioned. We don’t hear the same presentations, but we hear some presentation (or I expect most of us do). We’re experiencing the same conference.
There’s some thought that the conference has gotten too big. It’s hard to keep that community feeling going among 3,500 people. Smaller groups emerge through participating in shared genres—through attending special interest group meetings or just attending presentations on the same topic (like genre, history of women’s rhetoric) or type of school (two-year colleges, independent writing programs).
But as I finish up this (late) post, many colleagues are sharing the news that their flights out of the Northeast have been canceled by Storm Stella and they won’t be able to make it to the conference at all this year. And I’m sad for these people I mostly don’t know. I feel my community diminished. They are colleagues who will be missed, even by those of us who don’t know them. Because we’re a community.
As I head off to Portland (airlines willing), I'll be participating in many other genres--the informal, unstructured ones I share with closer friends and colleagues. Greetings, conversations over breakfasts, lunches, dinners, drinks. Accounts of our last year. Jokes. And stories. And more.
But those closer relationships don't diminish the relationships of the larger community. In fact, they exist precisely because of the genres that enable the larger community to exist. Those friends and colleagues are ones I met through our shared profession, our shared school or interests. We began as part of a larger community, then became colleagues, then became friends. And that larger community exists, and shows itself, through its genres.
So if you're reading this blog and you make it to Portland, please do stop me and say hello. After all, we're colleagues in a shared community. And hey, you've read my blog!
And if you're not part of this community, you're part of many others, and I bet some of them are communities whose members you don't know but whose genres you share--fellow gardeners, baseball fans, or caregivers. We may not know all the individual members of our communities, but we know something about them. They're us.