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Pronoun-ced: Pedant in Pain

Published: 10th January 2016 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 09th January 2016 10:46 PM   |  A+A-

People of easy virtue are not difficult for me to ignore. But as a pedant, my teeth are set on edge by people who are promiscuous with their prepositions. Below and under may have similar meanings, but they are not the same, I feel like snapping at the neighbour who keeps telling me how her cat likes to ‘sleep below her blanket’. At work, I don’t know which colleague aggravates me more: the girl who asks me to ‘explain her again about copy structure’ or the boy who keeps planning to ‘propose his girlfriend’.

I get that we Indians are a rather verbose lot. But is that any excuse for loading every sentence with unnecessary words?  May I point out that both ‘revert’ and ‘reply’ work just fine without ‘back’, and ‘repeat’ need not be followed by ‘twice’. When you tell me you’re ‘eating’, I understand that you mean ‘food’, and not ‘crow’.

I also realise that the grammatical standards of text messaging are rather different—and strange. I read recently that ending a text message with a full-stop is considered rude and that using an exclamation mark—which I personally consider the last resort of the lazy, or people who don’t have the words to communicate what they really feel—makes you seem more sincere and engaged. I am also told that LOL is dead. People are still laughing out loud, but now they express their hilarity through Hahas and Hehes, and emojis, if they are youngsters or women (or both     ).

I don’t plan to stop frowning at the laxity of texting grammar and spelling (which thinks ‘your’ works just as well as ‘you’re’)  but, going forward, I may have to stop frowning at reporters playing leapfrog from singular to plural. Last week, the American Dialect Society selected ‘they’ as its Word of the Year, saying it should be used ‘as a gender-neutral singular pronoun’. In translation, that means individuals whose gender is a trifle hazy to others (intentionally or otherwise) should be called ‘they’ instead of ‘he or she’.

Truth be told, the singular ‘they’ is already used by many people in speech. But that is more by error more than design. The Dialect Society’s choice is aimed at making the usage more deliberate. It applies, of course, to transgenders who feel neither he nor she quite fits their personality, and want to transcend the gender binary. But it is also meant to be used by people in general. In other words, painful though it is for me to admit, ‘Everyone can now do what they want’, instead of ‘what he or she wants’. It may be grammatically incorrect, but it has the blessings of the politically-correct set.

For those who refuse to pander to this sort of American new-age thinking, here’s a news flash: linguists say the use of ‘they’ pre-dates ‘he’ and the switchover happened only because the British Parliament, believing that men were better than women, passed a law to that effect. Whatever was they thinking?

 shampa@newindianexpress.com



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