Thursday, 16 November 2006

Enough to make a woman bash their own head upon their desk

I'm in the tomb world, marking essays.

Some are quite good, others we shall simply pass over in silence.

As a group, however, they make me feel even more bitter towards the anti-humanities-education slags at The Australian than usual. As I've noted here recently, one of the unfounded slanders emanating from those people is that unionised and left-voting teachers don't care about spelling and grammar. In our mad Stalinist scramble to instil political correctness into innocent minds, it seems, we encourage students to seditiously mangle the Queen's English (Queen Victoria's) and to express themselves through creative spellings.

This is a very hurtful accusation. I care more about spelling and grammar mistakes than about almost any of the other kinds of lapses students make. Also, I would happily spend our pitifully limited class time on teaching my students how not to go on making the same mistakes they made last time, if it was allowed, but because students must be taught what the university handbook says they'll be taught, it is not allowed.

My particular bugbear today is born of a mixture of vague PC intentions with a limited grasp of basic grammar. The post title is one example. Here are some more:

Mr Xyz has no awareness of what is owing from a man to their offspring, and they consequently suffer from his mistakes well into their adulthood.

A young lady in that society was expected to find a husband for they had no other way of providing for themselves.

If a naval officer captured an enemy ship, they were given prize money from the King.

In each of those sentences the subject is a member of a class whose gender is already a given and so it's natural and correct to use a gender-specific pronoun, but the writer thinks it's a good idea to use "singular they" in place of any gendered pronoun which doesn't apply directly and immediately to a single personalised individual. The writer thinks the gender neutrality imperative always trumps any other rule which might be governing the formation of a sentence. It doesn't. Gender neutrality is a positive nuisance in a sentence where gender is already established.

The range of formal writing situations where "singular they" is the best option is very small. A good half of all cases can be resolved by rewriting the sentence to pluralise the subject, or, even better, to individualise the subject. Writing that randomly patters on about what "the reader" might deduce from a page of prose if "they" are awake and reading, is just not as interesting or convincing to read as writing which isn't afraid to own some of those deductions, or to at least attribute them to a plausible person. If I'm writing about readerly responses which are in fact largely my own, I use the feminine, since I'm a lady. If I'm writing about the general cast of critical opinion in a time & place when expressing such opinion was largely the prerogative of men, I'll use masculine pronouns. At other times, I find "he or she" or even "s/he" works well enough. It may be a bit ugly-loooking but at least it's precise.

None of this is to say that I abhor and eschew the use of singular they. I only dislike seeing it used as the default. If you're an artist with language and you know what you're doing, you can use whatever pronouns you jolly well like, and I'll look on admiringly while you do it.

(On the other hand, the snaggy deployment of "she" instead of "he" as the universal pronoun can and does backfire quite badly especially when it's done in a piece of writing that's hostile to the stance which the he or the she is being made to adopt. The [unintended?] effect is of condescension.)

My hunch is that people over-apply this 'rule' because it is has a clear and accessible rationale - don't be sexist - and because it's one of the few positive rules to do with grammar they've ever been given. If more people understood what subject-verb agreement was, or indeed knew that sentences require both subjects and verbs, there would be much less of this sort of writerly imprecision, and my head would not have so many bumps nor my desk so many gashes.


dogpossum said...

I'm a complete grammar nazi when I'm marking. My general rule is to do a full-on grammar-mark on the first assignment, and to tell them as I hand them back 'don't cry if your paper is covered in pencil. I've just done a really thorough mark'. I take time in class to go over common errors (we spent far too much time on apostrophes this semester).

I know Galaxy is a grammar nut as well, so I have hope. In fact, most of the tutors I know (who are also, incidentally, female and keen readers) are keen on this stuff.

... I really hate it when the students use 'female' and 'woman', and 'male' and 'men' interchangeably.

lucy tartan said...

I only correct the first two or three repeats of chronic errors.

kate said...

It might be worth suggesting generally to the class that they catch up on some grammar in their own time. They've made it to uni, they should be able to approach a Learning Skills Unit, or grammar books for the DIY types, and pay attention to the way other writers write.

I know it's not in the handbook, but teaching undergrads how to construct more elegant sentences has always been on the agenda.

Galaxy said...

I was just thinking about the disjuncture between The Oz's criticisms of left leaning teachers and lecturers and my own frustration with students' poor grammar and expression too. I'll have to do a blog post on the subject myself, because I know I'll enter into a fully fledged diatribe.

I often suggest to students that they might improve if they consult a grammar guide, dictionary or referencing style guide. Whether they act on that suggestion is a different matter. I do think there is a noticeable difference between students who have done academic writing subjects as part of their degree and those who haven't.

Of course it would be ideal if they were competent with grammar when they arrived at university.

It's a strange thing, because students have learnt not to value the arts and humanities. They often take the subjects, some because they think learning about what might be considered leisure activities, ie reading books and watching film and television, will be easy, and then they discover otherwise... I suppose it would be a difficult transition, to realise you're not good at something that you believed required no thought or skill. Often the response to that realisation is to denigrate the arts and humanities; then it doesn't matter that you can't read and write to an advanced level. And so it goes.

Hmmm, did I say I was going to have a rant on my own blog? Ahem. Sorry.

tigtog said...

That makes sense, Galaxy. If any idiot can "do" arts/humanities, but Marvellous Student Whose Effulgence Casts Reflected Glory On The Campus can't "do" the work, that must be incontrovertible evidence that arts/humanities is so awash with Sullying Mediocrity that MSWECRGOTC's Magnificence simply cannot stoop to wasting precious time in dazzling such unworthy surroundings.

On to pastures where people really appreciate the effort that goes into all that dazzling, stat!