CMOS and the Singular They

The Chicago Manual of Style, one of the major academic style guides in the US, is inching their way toward acceptance of the singular they, that is the use of they to refer to a singular antecedent when the gender of the antecedent is unknown, generic, or non-binary. The University of Chicago Press is publishing the seventeenth edition of their widely used manual in September, and they’ve begun announcing what some of the changes will be, among them a shift toward using they for singular antecedents, but it is less han a full-throated acceptance.

CMOS 17 lays out two uses of the singular they. The first is using they to replace the generic he, that is the use of the masculine pronouns when the gender is unknown or generic. Use of he in this context is considered sexist by many and has fallen out of favor by most publishers and style guides, but agreement on what to replace it with has not been achieved until quite recently, when they started to gain rapid acceptance. CMOS 17 “accepts” the singular they in informal writing and “does not prohibit” its use in formal writing, although it recommends other strategies to avoid using it if possible.

This is a change from CMOS 16 (2010), which reads in section 5.222:

On the one hand, it is unacceptable to a great many reasonable readers to use the generic masculine pronoun (he in reference to no one in particular). On the other hand, it is unacceptable to a great many readers (often different readers) either to resort to nontraditional gimmicks to avoid the generic masculine (by using he/she or s/he, for example) or to use they as a kind of singular pronoun. Either way, credibility is lost with some readers.

CMOS 17 also advises editors to be flexible and take the book’s or article’s context into account when deciding what pronoun to use. It also says that the author’s wishes should be “always receive consideration.” In other words, unless there is a very good reason not to use it, editors using CMOS 17 shouldn’t dictate to their authors on whether or not to use the singular they in generic contexts.

The second use is a topic that went unaddressed in earlier editions of the manual, the use of they to refer to a specific person who does not identify as either male or female, someone who does not conform to the the traditional gender binary. For all contexts, formal and informal, CMOS 17 says that “a person’s stated preference for a specific pronoun should be respected.”

CMOS 17 says the singular they should take a plural verb, much like you does. (You was also originally a plural form, which took over from the singular thou.)

While its wording may not indicate it, this move toward accepting the singular they is a big shift. In practice, it means that most publishers who use CMOS will accept the singular they. By the time CMOS 18 hits the streets in another seven or so years, I predict that it will be a non-issue.

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Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles Online

The Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles, or DCHP-2, is an extremely valuable resource for studying any “word, expression, or meaning which is native to Canada or which is distinctively characteristic of Canadian usage though not necessarily exclusive to Canada.” And it’s available online for free.

The second edition went live in March 2017 and is an update of the first, 1967 edition. The new edition not only includes words that have appeared since 1967, the editors have also cleaned up questionable entries for older words—for example, the DCHP-1 had separate entries for toque and tuque, which are now combined into one. As well, many entries have full color, photo illustrations and charts showing the term’s use across the provinces or through time.

So now you can look up poutine (1956), toonie (1993) and garburator (1948), and Kraft dinner (1937).

Users of the DCHP must be aware, however, that the dictionary only includes citations from Canadian sources. So when a term is older in other dialects, the older citations will not appear. This editorial choice, while a valid and justifiable one, means that users cannot rely on the DCHP alone, but must use it conjunction with more comprehensive sources like the OED. Still, this isn’t going to be a serious limitation to most users. And the DCHP-2, unfortunately, continues a poor web-design choice from the first online edition, where users must click on each citation to see the bibliographic data, which is annoying and time consuming. One cannot take in the provenance of all the citations at a glance, as one can with the OED.

Still, even with these limitations, it’s a valuable addition to the lexicographic resources available on the web.

The first edition remains available online for those that want to compare how entries have changed.

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The Oxford Comma and the Law

The Oxford comma was in the news recently when a federal court interpreted a Maine statute regarding overtime pay for dairy truck drivers. In the case of O’Connor, et al. v. Oakhurst Dairy, the lack of a comma, or so the news stories would have it, resulted in a victory for workers’ rights. The Oxford comma (serial comma) is the comma after the penultimate item in a list, as in me, myself, and I; the Oxford comma is the one after myself.

The problem with the news reporting on this case is that the ambiguity does not rest solely with the lack of a comma. And, more importantly, the decision of the circuit court did not rest on the punctuation but rather relied on other methods to interpret the statute in question.

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Old English Dictionaries

Peter Buchanan, who teaches at New Mexico Highlands University, has assembled an excellent introduction to the three major Old English dictionaries: John Clark Hall’s Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (a.k.a., Clark Hall), Joseph Bosworth and T. Northcote Toller’s Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (Bosworth Toller), and Toronto’s Dictionary of Old English (DOE). Buchanan’s discussion can be found on his blog, Phenomenal Anglo-Saxons. Buchanan’s description is framed as a reference for students at NMHU, but it’s useful for anyone who wants an introduction to the dictionaries.

Clark Hall contains brief entries and is chiefly useful as a quick reference for translators or readers. There is a version available online for free, although it’s an image scan and unwieldy to use. Bosworth Toller is comprehensive, but it’s nineteenth-century scholarship. It’s also available online for free with a good, searchable user interface. The DOE is the gold standard, but it’s a work in progress: only A–H has been published, and it’s a subscription service, although limited access is available on a trial basis. Buchanan’s page details how to get temporary access.

(Disclosure: Peter is a friend from my time at Toronto. Despite that dubious association, he’s an excellent scholar and all-around good egg.)

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A Dialect Coach Critiques Actors’ Accents

The topic of actors’ accents has arisen from time to time on our discussion boards. In this sixteen-minute film from Wired magazine dialect coach Erik Singer examines some accents from big Hollywood productions. Yes, Kevin Costner’s English accent in Robin Hood is really that bad, but I was surprised at some of the accents Singer considered good, such as Renée Zellweger’s accent in Bridget Jones’s Diary. But I’ll accept Singer’s judgment as this is what he does for a living.

I do have a few quibbles. I wish they had grouped the clips by regional accent, so we could, for example, hear all the Russian accents at once to make it easier to compare. And the medievalist in me bristles at evaluating Mel Gibson’s Scottish accent in Braveheart by the standard of modern-day Scottish as opposed to how they spoke in the thirteenth century. (Singer does discuss historical accents to great effect when examining Daniel Day Lewis’s performances.)

Sixteen minutes is a bit long for many, but this film is well worth the time.

Tip o’ the hat to Languagehat.

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