Beware of style guides. Ok – follow them slavishly of course, if you have to. But if you’re in the glorious position of deciding afresh what grammatical course you will take in your essay, or your organisation, or your life, don’t just believe everything you read in a style guide.
Who am I to say this? A former student of linguistics, that’s all. Of all the lessons I learnt at university in the ’80s, one that drove me craziest is that many of our dafter grammatical rules are based on rather casually-written grammar books from the eighteenth century. Here’s an example, to whet your appetite. If you already know why split infinitives are a non-issue, skip ahead.
In Latin, the infinitive of a verb is one word. In English, it’s two words:
English: to see
Bishop Lowth is famous in linguistic circles for deciding that, since Latin was practically perfect, if its infinitive couldn’t be split, neither could English infinitives. It’s difficult to credit, but this contributed to all sorts of strange somersaults in English for more than two centuries afterwards. People were, in all seriousness, told to write “boldly to go where no-one has before”, simply in order to avoid splitting the infinitive. It doesn’t sound like English to me!
Today I looked in the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), no less, and this is what it has to say, in a footnote, about the split infinitive:
“The thirteenth edition of this manual included split infinitives among the examples of “errors and infelicities” but tempered the inclusion by adding, in parentheses, that they are “debatable ‘error’”. The item has been dropped from the fourteenth edition because the Press now regards the intelligent and discriminating use of the construction as a legitimate form of expression and nothing writers or editors need feel uneasy about.”
Hmm. Good for the CMS. However, the CMS editor is still surprisingly squeamish about the use of “they” and its variants in sentences such as:
Each teacher must design their own study plan.
Unless you’re writing informally, the CMS would have you rewrite the sentence to avoid having a plural pronoun “their” refer to a singular antecedent “each teacher”. Of course there are lots of ways you can practise avoidance of this so-called gaffe. Each teacher must design his own study plan. Don’t. Even. Go. There. Each teacher must design his/her own study plan. Yuck. All teachers must design their own study plan. Yes, you could, but…
…Why are we so confident that “they” is purely plural? We have no reason to believe it, if it weren’t for the eighteenth century prescriptivists – the Bishop Lowths of this world – who decided that English could not achieve perfection unless it conveniently expunged the usage – that Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen and many other illustrious writers were happy to use – of “they” with singular antecedents.
In her book British Pronoun Use, Prescription, and Processing: Linguistic and Social Influences Affecting ‘They’ and ‘He’, Dr Laura Paterson of Sheffield Hallam University gives a compelling argument that the reason people use “they” and its variants in spoken language, and increasingly in written language, is that it is entirely grammatical; that “they”, like “you”, can be both singular and plural; and that gender-neutral language is easily within our grasp if we just cast aside the spurious ideas of the eighteenth century grammarians. It’s time to stop this nonsense that the style guides are perpetuating. You don’t need to rewrite the sentence. Just rewrite the style guide.