We Interrupt This Blog…

… for a bit of shameless self-promotion. Today marks the publication of my new book, How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them. You can buy it here, and I wish you would!

Partly to assuage my sheepishness at said self-promotion, I have set up a deal where I will donate copies of the book to a worthy organization, Mighty Writers, based on how well the books sells today on Amazon. So go ahead and order a copy. It’s popularity popularly priced at $10.20, and you’ll be helping a good cause. (Full details of the scheme at my website.)

As for the book, the title pretty much sums up the idea. Most writing books are about “How to Write Well” (as one of the best of them, by William Zinsser, is titled). But based on my experience of more than two decades teaching writing at a pretty selective American university, that’s not the most appropriate goal. Before that, students and other people who want their writing to be read (either by the public or in a business setting) need to address a fairly small list of common errors and problems. How to Not Write Bad is a handbook designed to help with that task.

The book is primarily designed for an American audience, since it’s based on my experience, but I’m pretty sure it would be useful to British students and aspiring writers as well. A couple of things would need to be changed in a British edition, of course; the whole section on logical punctuation would have to be eliminated. The other passage that comes immediately to mind is the one about the use of they or related words as a singular pronoun (otherwise known as epicene pronoun, or EP), for example in a sentence such as “Any student who wants to attend the game should bring their ID card to the ticket window.” In the book, I write:

Replacing their with his or her would sound sexist; her would sound like you’re trying too hard not to be sexist; and his or her is a bit stilted. Consequently, the EP is perfectly fine in conversation. I predict that it will be acceptable in formal writing in ten years, fifteen at the maximum. However, it’s not acceptable now, so you’ll have to make adjustments.

I am well aware that the EP has been used in days of yore by all sorts of great writers, including Henry Fielding, Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, and Henry James. And my sense is that things are currently very different in the U.K.–that the EP is standard in formal and even academic writing.

So, if there ever is to be a British edition of How to Not Write Bad, I will need your thoughts on this matter. But first buy the book.

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14 responses to “We Interrupt This Blog…

  1. They is correct. His/her is cumbersome. This is one instance where the Brits are more succinct than the Yanks.

  2. “It’s popularity priced”? Popularly, Shirley?

  3. My post to my Facebook page: This is a new book, published today, by the the author of a blog to which I subscribe. He’s an English professor at the University of Delaware, and I’m interested to see what he has to say, whether confirming or countermanding principles of grammar I learned in school.

    I just bought: ‘How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them’ by Ben Yagoda
    http://www.amazon.com
    Ben Yagoda’s How to Not Write Bad illustrates how we can all write better, more clearly, and for a wider readership. He offers advice on what he calls “not-writing-badly,” which consists of the ability, first, to craft sentences that are correct in terms of spelling, diction (word choice), punctuation, and grammar, and that also display clarity, precision, and grace. Then he focuses on crafting whole…
    Like · · Share · Buy on Amazon · about a minute ago via Amazon ·

  4. Thank you Ben, I have ordered my copy and will read it with interest. If you (or anyone else) is looking for something to go with it, I can highly recommend Bill Bryson’s excellent and extremely readable ‘Troublesome Words’. As an American who lives in the UK he has the perfect view of our common language,

    And for what it’s worth, in UK English you wouldn’t think twice about using ‘their’.

  5. My intuition is that, although the British are, of course, infinitely superior to everyone else, we may still have some silly hesitation about singular ‘they’ in formal writing (even if we are more welcoming to that form than are our cousins). I’d like to be proved wrong. As is often the case, I may simply be marked still by he prejudices of my distant youth.

  6. In your EP example, you could avoid the issue by writing the sentence in the plural, eg. “Students who want to attend….”. This also reflects Brit convention with collective nouns which we generally treat as plural.

  7. In British TEFL course books for foreign learners, singular they is taught as standard after indefinite pronouns like someone, anyone etc. I’ve also noticed it being used to refer to a child in the British passport application form.
    @Phoebus – using a plural is not always possible – ‘If anyone calls while I’m out, could you take their number and details?
    In any case, many of us wouldn’t even see it as ‘an issue’. And in relation to our attitude to group nouns, e.g. “The government are introducing a new bill” or “The family are coming for the weekend” – I see singular they as rather similar. I would suggest that both show an attitude to grammar that is more notional and less formal.

  8. Stan Carey just wrote a very good summary of the singular “they” issue on his blog, Sentence First: http://stancarey.wordpress.com/2013/01/29/singular-they-you-and-a-senseless-way-of-speaking/ He doesn’t mention a possible difference between U.S. and U.K./Irish custom on the point, but I still think there is one.

  9. Hi Ben- Do you have any knowledge of the term “left-footer”? I heard the Earl of Grantheim speak the phrase during last night’s episode of DOWNTON ABBEY. He was referencing and berating Catholics when he learned that one of his sons-in-law was an Irish Catholic. The scene was set around the period 1925-1930. Thanks in advance for any light you are able to shine on this British phrase. Joe Dominguez

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