An American Editor

December 23, 2013

Faux Controversies and the Singular Plural

On another forum it was asked whether authors should “push the grammar envelope” and embrace the singular plural. I think the wrong question is being asked when you ask whether authors should push the grammar envelope for two reasons: First, because it ignores the purpose of grammar, which is to ensure that there is communication between author and reader. Second, because to push the grammar envelope assumes that there are firm rules to be pushed. The first reason far outweighs the second, but neither is ignorable.

Regarding the singular plural, it is neither pushing the envelope to use it nor a violation of a firm rule nor a distraction from communication (in most cases; there are cases in which it is clearly wrong because its use is confusing). In other words, I think that editors, writers, grammarians, usage gurus, etc., make the proverbial mountain out of the molehill when they oppose the singular plural.

Consider what makes a great editor. A great editor is someone who ensures that a reader understands the editor’s author; that is, ensures that the reader does not leave the book thinking the author is in favor of, for example, genocide, when the author intends the contrary. An average editor can cite chapter and verse of why x is not to be done, but cannot explain why doing x makes the author’s point unintelligible. The amateur editor either blindly accepts the singular plural or remembers having been taught that the singular plural is incorrect and thus blindly changes it.

However, if the singular plural is incorrect, it is incorrect because it makes the author’s point unintelligible, not because a group of self-appointed grammarians have written that it is wrong.

English is difficult enough without making it impossible. Editors constantly twist and turn to apply “rules” of grammar in the mistaken belief that there are rules of grammar. What are too often called rules are really current conventions.

Be clear that I am not referring to spelling and whether the correct choice in context is “rain,” “reign,” or “rein.” Equating spelling with grammar is another common mistake; spelling and grammar are companions, not a single entity.

English lacks the singular plural pronoun. In my schooldays, it was easy to lose points on an otherwise brilliant essay by using the plural pronoun as a singular pronoun. The convention (i.e., “rule”) was that the singular plural was forbidden. Instead, you were expected to rewrite the sentence to avoid the singular plural, even if it meant twisting and turning an otherwise coherent statement into a convoluted mess. Style was more important than substance.

Today’s argument between propluralists and antipluralists amounts to both a faux argument and making style more important than substance. This is not to say that the singular plural is always correct or that a particular sentence could not be made better by avoiding the singular plural. Rather, it is to say that when arguing over the singular plural, we lose sight of what really is important: How well does the sentence communicate to the reader?

The difference between editors, especially between the professional editor and the nonprofessional editor, is the emphasis each places on evaluating each word and sentence on their ability to communicate the point accurately to the reader. Because we use the singular plural in common speech and understand it in context, there should not be a problem in using it in writing when its use eases communication.

I suppose this controversy is just another in the grammar wars between traditionalists and modernists. Bryan Garner (Modern American Usage 3rd ed.) falls into the traditionalist camp. He sees the rise of the singular plural as an attempt to avoid sexism (which it is). As he writes, “It is the most convenient solution to the single biggest problem in sexist language — the generic masculine [also, I would say, feminine] pronoun” (p. 179). His answer is to avoid it whenever possible.

Modernists tend to think in unisexual terms; that is, if it can be applied to both males and females, we need to avoid picking one as the example. Thus the use of the singular plural. Over the past 50 years, as a result of the cultural war on sexism, English speakers have become so accustomed to the singular plural as a “normal” part of speech, it seems foolish to make all possible effort to avoid the construction.

In many ways, this faux controversy reminds me of the split infinitive “rule” and the twisting and turning we had to put language through to avoid splitting the infinitive. Had we instead focused on the communication aspects, we would have recognized that rigid application of the splitting rule was wasteful and illogical. That same recognition should be extended to the singular plural. We should recognize the limitations of English as a language and compensate for those limitations in the most logical manner, as long as clear communication is not jeopardized.

Which brings us back to what I consider the fundamental rule, the fundamental arbiter of grammar: Does use of the singular plural detract from clear communication to the reader? If it doesn’t detract from clear communication, then leave it be as long as it is otherwise properly used.

Editors need to remember that language is fluid. They also need to remember that there really are no rigid rules of grammar except the rule of clarity. Grammar rules, with the clarity exception, are merely conventions or suggestions upon which a large group of society have agreed. They are not intended, except by the fanatical few, to be blindly adhered to and applied. Garner says to use the singular plural cautiously “because some people may doubt your literacy” (p. 179), but I think use of the singular plural is so common today that very few would raise the question. As long as the material is clear, I see little strength to the argument to studiously avoid the singular plural. If the material can be made clearer by avoiding the singular plural, then it is the obligation of the editor to do so. Otherwise, relax and flow with its use.


  1. I think the blogpost would be clearer if you defined “singular plural.” At first, I was mystified. I gather you’re referring to his/her vs their, but I’ve never heard it called singular plural before, and apparently Google hasn’t either. But then, I live in the boonies, where I don’t discuss grammer much. Them folks in town don’t either.


    Comment by Gretchen — December 23, 2013 @ 2:34 pm | Reply

  2. I’m with Gretchen. I had no idea what you were referring to (or, as the purists would say, to what you were referring)
    with “singular plural” and also went running to Google and Wikipedia (gasp!) for better understanding. I too am guessing it’s a reference to the common (annoying and incorrect, to me, from a grammatical perspective) of saying, “the child should be taught to put away their toys” to avoid the gender-based “his” or “her.”
    Usually this can be easily recast as “children/their” or restructured to avoid confusion.

    I really am not a believer in letting correct grammar and agreement of singular/plural get trampled for the sake of “everyone says it” or political correctness. If the above is what you meant, I agree the article would benefit from a clear example of what you were talking about. But then apart from us editors and grateful readers of your blog, as Gretchen notes “them folks” don’t talk “grammer” much — and when they do, most don’t know how to use it. I don’t want to be a collaborator aiding and abetting the “demize” of the wonderful English language! 🙂



    Comment by Patricia — December 23, 2013 @ 3:09 pm | Reply

  3. I agree with Patricia. I don’t want to kill perfectly good rules just because “everyone else does”. I don’t like the inherent sexism of the masculine pronoun, but I do prefer it to the clunky “he/she” or the clearly incorrect “they”. Some of the creative solutions, such as “zhe” are too obscure for every day use and only recognizable by a very small audience.

    We had a perfectly nice convention for a while that said you use the male pronoun for one paragraph and the female for the next. That worked out just fine, while it lasted, but one day nobody seemed to remember that was a rule, and I had to explain it every time I used it.

    All that said, I can believe that there may be instances where using “they” is less confusing and is the better option. I’d like to see some examples, though, because I can’t think of a single one right now.


    Comment by Veronica — December 28, 2013 @ 10:58 pm | Reply

  4. There’s always:

    “You wanted me, I know, to say `Yes,’ that you might have the pleasure of despising my taste; but I always delight in overthrowing those kind of schemes, and cheating a person of their premeditated contempt. I have therefore made up my mind to tell you that I do not want to dance a reel at all — and now despise me if you dare.”

    Or even:

    “There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me
    As if I were their well-acquainted friend”


    Comment by wimsey — December 29, 2013 @ 10:30 pm | Reply

  5. These general articles are no less important than the “ rules .” In fact, really bad writing is rarely a matter of broken rules — editors can clean these up with a few pencil marks. It’s more often the result of muddled thought. Bad writers consider long words more impressive than short ones, and use words like usage instead of use or methodologies instead of methods without knowing what they mean. They qualify everything with It has been noted after careful consideration, and the facts get buried under loads of useless words . They pay no attention to the literal sense of their words, and end up stringing stock phrases together without regard for meaning. They use clichés inappropriately and say the opposite of what they mean.


    Comment by Nita R. Cleveland — December 30, 2013 @ 12:07 pm | Reply

  6. […] By presenting ourselves as the Keepers of English, inc. Rules #1–783, we do ourselves a disservice. This attitude says to writers, “I know all the rules, and if your writing doesn’t follow them, you’ll get back an ocean of red ink.” How do you think this feels to the writer? If you answered scary, terrifying, embarrassing, or anything similar—you’re right. And all this does is prevent writers from getting the editing help that would make their art that much better. So then, if editors are not the umpires of language, what are we? The American Editor gives a fantastic answer: […]


    Pingback by Language Has No Rules - Case in Point | Writing & Editing Tips — February 4, 2014 @ 3:22 pm | Reply

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