The Washington Post concedes on singular they

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Bill Walsh, the keeper of the Washington Post's style manual, buries the lede in "The Post drops the 'mike' — and the hyphen in 'e-mail'", 12/4/2015. After 16 paragraphs about mic, email, and Walmart, he finally gets to the most important part, namely the "cautious" adoption of singular they, both for "gender-nonconforming" people and for "those he or she situations that have troubled us for so many years":

I was a little surprised that the singular they has drawn stronger online reaction, both positive and negative, than the other style changes, especially because we are approaching it pretty cautiously. The stylebook entry retains the old advice to try to write around the problem, perhaps by changing singulars to plurals, before using the singular they as a last resort.

Mr. Walsh identifies himself as a (somewhat tepid) partisan of this change:

For many years, I've been rooting for — but stopping short of employing — what is known as the singular they as the only sensible solution to English's lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun.

But he makes it clear that the concessions to mic, email and Walmart are deeply troubling to him.



54 Comments

  1. Matt said,

    December 13, 2015 @ 11:50 pm

    The "Walmart" thing is interesting because it's a situation where there can be a "right" answer (assuming that you allow the referents of proper nouns to decide on their preferred spelling – and in most cases newspapers do). I mean, their webpage says "Walmart Stores" too, even in the copyright notice, so it seems reasonable to infer a preference and act accordingly.

  2. mike said,

    December 13, 2015 @ 11:56 pm

    Deeply troubled by "email"? I'm trying to think of the last time I say a hyphen in that word. It's been a while.

  3. Jason Cullen said,

    December 14, 2015 @ 12:23 am

    Since when does anyone 'say' a hyphen? A three-hour trip is a "three HYPHEN hour trip" in your dialect? ;-)

    About 15 years ago, I was what they called a 'communications specialist' at Microsoft in Shanghai, and our team had to decide on e-mail or email for usage. I have never seen such a ridiculous argument. In the end, an appeal to dictionary usage won out, and e-mail was adopted. As a way to end inhouse hostilities, I applauded the move. (Aquinas once observed that the appeal to authority is the weakest of arguments, but it does seem the easiest for people with very strong opinions!) However, I have been a 'partisan' of email without a hyphen for years. Glad to see it's finally winning in the USA. Oxford has spelled it without a hyphen for years.

  4. Rebecca said,

    December 14, 2015 @ 12:26 am

    Reading the comments on the article, I was reminded that "email" used to be the system, not the individual messages. Like the commenter, I started using email in the late 70s, and for the longest time, it was jarring to me to hear people calling a message "an email". But somewhere along the way, not only did that become non-jarring, but I switched to using it that way myself, now. No big deal, but it bugs me that I have absolutely no idea when that change took place for me. I imagine it's been quite awhile, judging by the fact that I'd completely forgotten about the prior usage until reading comments today.

    My disappointment in the article: that the defense of singular they makes no mention of the fact that it's usage in literate text predates the obsessive avoidance of it by centuries.

  5. Pat Barrett said,

    December 14, 2015 @ 12:54 am

    Anyone still not understanding how 'they' is used in English is just not paying attention or they [sic :-)] like to snare and snooker people and look superior when in fact they are no-nothings.

  6. Pat Barrett said,

    December 14, 2015 @ 12:55 am

    Like my double negative?

  7. Lazar said,

    December 14, 2015 @ 1:21 am

    I'm curious if they're also allowing themself. Often I see singular they used in conjunction with themselves.

  8. Guy said,

    December 14, 2015 @ 1:35 am

    Comparing email to x-ray and t-shirt seems to miss the point that "email" can correspond to the pronunciation /ˈiː.meɪ̯l/ in a way that is consistent with the orthographic patterns of written English, unlike "xray" and "tshirt", which don't correspond to the pronunciations of the words they would be spellings of in that way. That fact is likely one of the primary reasons why the "email" spelling became dominant but "xray" and "tshirt" did not.

  9. Stephen said,

    December 14, 2015 @ 4:28 am

    The Log seems to be a bit behind the Times here. Or at least behind the Washington Post. Shouldn't the second comment above be from Mic?

  10. Jenny Chu said,

    December 14, 2015 @ 4:45 am

    @Jason Cullen – Didn't Microsoft have a corporate style guide to answer questions like that? If not for the corporate style guide at my company, I'm sure we would all have come to blows long ago over the Oxford comma.

  11. Michael said,

    December 14, 2015 @ 6:12 am

    I have no problem with the spelling 'email'; however, I will never use 'an email' to refer to an 'email message'.

  12. He said, she said,

    December 14, 2015 @ 6:15 am

    @Jason Cullen: I immediately read @Mike's use of "say" as a typo for "saw" — a minor boo-boo at worst. Even if @mike did intend to refer to pronunciation rather than punctuation, other parts Of @mike's sentence would make us cast a critical eye on "say" because the sentence called for "said."

  13. John Chambers said,

    December 14, 2015 @ 9:06 am

    The "an email" usage is a bit odd, because it's predecessor "mail" doesn't seem to have been (much) used that way. You'd send "a message" or "a note" or "a "card", but "mail" always seems to be a collective noun. Are there English dialects in which "a mail" is regularly used?

    Of course, there's no reason that "email" should follow the same grammatical rules as any predecessor term.

    (FWIW, I did check with google ngrams, and it says "Ngrams not found: send me a mail". "Send me mail" is above the zero line only after 1980, while "send me a letter" is a zig-zag line across the whole graph,though dropping somewhat after the telephone system arose. If you omit the "me", "send a letter" has about the same frequency, "send mail" is rare before 1980, and "send a mail" is slightly above zero after 1985.)

  14. Keith Ivey said,

    December 14, 2015 @ 9:25 am

    Matt, the Walmart question is tricky because the official name of the company has continued to be Wal-Mart after the brand changed to Walmart. The Post was using Wal-Mart everywhere because it would seem inconsistent to talk about Walmart as the brand and Wal-Mart as the company, even though that's what the company does. Now they've decided to give up on spelling the name of the company the way the company does.

  15. David L said,

    December 14, 2015 @ 9:37 am

    @Matt: The problem with Walmart, as Walsh explains in his column, is that while the stores call themselves Walmart, the company still calls itself Wal-Mart Stores Inc, as here: http://quotes.wsj.com/WMT

    As someone who was an electronics hobbyist way back when, I agree with Walsh's assessment that 'mic' came into widespread use through a misunderstanding, when we already had 'mike' as a straightforward and perspicuous abbreviation. I understand that 'mic' has won but it still looks silly to me and I don't like it.

  16. David L said,

    December 14, 2015 @ 9:38 am

    @Keith Ivey: beaten to the punch!

  17. Robert Coren said,

    December 14, 2015 @ 10:48 am

    Maybe people who object to "email" are concerned about Francophone readers who think you're talking about enamel.

  18. Liz Coleman said,

    December 14, 2015 @ 10:53 am

    @John Chambers
    I'd say that people refer to a "note" or "card" instead of a "mail" because it's a physical object, which an email isn't.

  19. Matt said,

    December 14, 2015 @ 10:54 am

    Keith, David: I read and understood the column, but I wasn't convinced that the problem is worth so much hand-wringing. The company's corporate pages use "Walmart" almost everywhere — it's clearly the spelling they prefer — and there's no chance of confusion. The lack of a formal name change under these circumstances just doesn't strike me as a showstopper. I'm sure that no-one at the WSJ has ever seriously proposed that they should stop talking about "Jeb Bush" because his real name is "John Ellis Bush", for example.

    (Note: I'm not advocating that newspapers should go along with every goofy name-related ploy companies come up with. But going along with a one-time hyphenectomy doesn't feel like a very slippery part of that slope to me.)

  20. J. W. Brewer said,

    December 14, 2015 @ 11:08 am

    It is not unusual for the form of name a corporation using for branding purposes to drift a bit from the formal/historical name of the entity. Pending completion of the potential merger just announced, the entity that currently calls itself DuPont for short is still E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company for official purposes. More to the point, its well known oval logo says DU PONT inside, i.e. with the two elements of the surname still separated by a space rather than joined up. I think the dominance of the joined-up "CamelCase" style for that particular company name is a comparatively recent (i.e. in the last 25 years or so) development, and one which has not been followed by most members of the namesake family with respect to their own surnames.

  21. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 14, 2015 @ 12:36 pm

    If anyone wants to know, I don't mind the other changes, but I'm mildly annoyed about "mic", so I agree with Walsh's priorities.

  22. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 14, 2015 @ 12:39 pm

    By the way, I didn't see anything about how the Post will spell the verb that used to be spelled "mike", especially in quoting someone who says something like (in the spelling I use), "Miking a piano isn't simple, but I'm happy with the way I miked it." I take it the main choices are "mic-ing", "micing", and keeping "mike" for the verb.

  23. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 14, 2015 @ 12:43 pm

    And "mic'ing", of course. One of these days I'll think of everything I want to say before I post.

  24. GH said,

    December 14, 2015 @ 12:58 pm

    @ David L:

    How do you figure that "mic" is a misunderstanding? The logic of it seems plain enough.

  25. V said,

    December 14, 2015 @ 2:15 pm

    How did mic come about? The abbreviation on some devices for the port where it's plugged in?

  26. Theophylact said,

    December 14, 2015 @ 2:18 pm

    @ Robert Coren: We'll have to stop using the words "pain", "ours", and "four", then.

  27. J. W. Brewer said,

    December 14, 2015 @ 2:33 pm

    Ben Zimmer on mike v mic (endorsing something like V's suggestion): http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/01/magazine/01-onlanguage-t.html. Apparently "mic" was a longstanding insider usage by certain groups of insiders; the dynamics of why the wider world should have decades later felt pressure to come around to that usage (until a cascade of switching generated the momentum to become a self-fulfilling prophecy) are less clear to me. When I did college radio in the '80's I think almost all of the communications I personally participated in re the equipment we used were oral,* so for all I know some of us might have had "mic" in their heads as the spelling and others "mike" but the difference didn't arise in speech. (I was and am on the "mike" side myself; it may or may not be significant that the "trade" publications I tended to read were focused not on recording technology as such but the aesthetic merits on the resultant recordings.) The google books corpus only has data through 2008, but as of that year "mike" was still roughly twice as common as "mic" in phrases like "grab the X" and "into the X" that I thought would likely screen out non-microphone senses of either string.

    *One bit of jargon I picked up doing radio was that the knobs one twiddled on the control board were "pots," with "pot" being a clipped form of "potentiometer," but the vowel changed (GOAT in the full word; LOT in the clipped version) consistent with the spelling, i.e. the pattern that would suggest "mic" ought to be pronounced to rhyme with "flick your Bic."

  28. Scott said,

    December 14, 2015 @ 3:16 pm

    Is "mic" really that unique of an abbreviation? I feel certain that there are other similar cases–that is, cases where an abbreviated spelling is pronounced with a shortened pronunciation of the original word, even if it doesn't make sense as a pronunciation of the abbreviation. I can't think of any right now though, other than marginal cases like "sin" for "sine" in math, or "socs" for "socials" in The Outsiders (which totally baffled me when I first saw it). Can anyone think of any other examples?

    I don't know if everyone does this, but I think I almost always mentally assign pronunciations to abbreviations, even if I never pronounce them out loud. It's easy to imagine someone deciding that the the one-syllable spoken form "mike" is a natural pronunciation for the written abbreviation "mic". Once you start using that out loud ("OK, plug that cable into the MIC port"), it wouldn't be long before you associated written "mic" with spoken "mike" in all cases.

  29. Stephen Hart said,

    December 14, 2015 @ 3:59 pm

    Robert Coren said "Maybe people who object to "email" are concerned about Francophone readers who think you're talking about enamel."

    Also in Vienna. We have two enamel pitchers labelled Riess Email, and that usage also occurs on this web page and maybe others. http://www.vienna-unwrapped.com/enamel-cookware-review/

  30. Stephen Hart said,

    December 14, 2015 @ 4:02 pm

    And Riess itself uses email:

    PREMIUM EMAIL
    QUALITÄT AUS ÖSTERREICH
    SEIT 1550

    http://www.riess.at/haendler_in_oesterreich,haendlerinoesterreich.html

  31. Piyush said,

    December 14, 2015 @ 8:18 pm

    Bill Walsh says:

    Why did we wait so long to make the changes? As the keeper, more or less, of The Post's style manual, I'll tell you why: because the new spellings were wrong.

    As someone who grew up learning English alongside a language employing a far more phonetically aligned script, I find this sentiment charmingly cute. From my point of view, almost all English spelling is irreparably, but, alas, defiantly, "wrong".

  32. Matt McIrvin said,

    December 14, 2015 @ 9:13 pm

    To me "mike" conveys old military slang and "mic" hip-hop lyrics.

  33. Matt McIrvin said,

    December 14, 2015 @ 9:14 pm

    …maybe "evokes" was the verb I wanted there.

  34. Chas Belov said,

    December 15, 2015 @ 3:19 am

    @Lazar: I've been using themself about as long as I've been using singular they but I've never seen it approved anywhere.

  35. Rachael said,

    December 15, 2015 @ 6:43 am

    I was surprised to learn "mike" was old and "mic" was new. I'd assumed it was the other way round. I have the impression – perhaps incorrectly – that historically there was more of a tendency to make abbreviations conform to the spelling of the original word. The article makes the point that the abbreviation for "refrigerator" is "fridge", not "frig"; but I'm sure I've seen it as "frig" (or " 'frig") in older novels from around the time refrigerators were a new invention.

  36. Vasha said,

    December 15, 2015 @ 9:36 am

    I've been using themself about as long as I've been using singular they but I've never seen it approved anywhere.

    Me too, but then, I also say ourself. My dialect is Northern Cities — anyone from there or elsewhere do the same?

  37. JJM said,

    December 15, 2015 @ 10:16 am

    When Walsh states "simply allowing they for a gender-nonconforming person is a no-brainer" he could not be more wrong (actually I'm wondering whether he is just being muddle-headed here and hasn't thought things through). That's because singular they is only used with general, not specific identities. Look what happens when I take:

    "Well, if you talk to any doctor, they'll tell you not to take that sort of supplement."

    and substitute "my doctor":

    "Well, if you talk to my doctor, they'll tell you not to take that sort of supplement."

    The singular they no longer "works" because I know my GP is a she.

    In other words, using they specifically for a "gender-nonconforming person" is not a no-brainer at all. It's an entirely new usage for singular they with no guarantee of widespread acceptance because it contravenes the longstanding and well-embedded "rules" for its use.

  38. Robert Coren said,

    December 15, 2015 @ 10:41 am

    @Theophylact: "No, you can't have those bears; they're ours!"

    @Rachael: The spelling "fridge" might have gotten extra support from the existence of the brand name "Fridgidaire", which used to be a moderately common usage for a refrigerator of any brand (rather like "xerox", except that it didn't stick). I can't recall ever seeing "frig" for "refrigerator", and would be mightily puzzled if I did.

  39. adamvert said,

    December 15, 2015 @ 12:11 pm

    @J. W. Brewer The first "o" of potentiometer is short in British English, so there's no change in the abbreviation for us.

    As for mic/mike and verb forms… "microphone" is not a verb; you never talk about "microphoning a piano", so it doesn't make any sense to use the "mic" form there. I guess the verb was always a slang, oral thing. OTOH it always feels wrong to me to spell the noun "mike".

    So I've just now developed my own personal style guide on the matter: "mic" is the noun, "mike" is the verb. Painfully inconsistent, but it feels right to me.

  40. Rodger C said,

    December 15, 2015 @ 12:24 pm

    @Robert Coren: Isn't that "Frigidaire"?

    @Theophylact: To say nothing of "dent" and "legs."

  41. J. W. Brewer said,

    December 15, 2015 @ 12:43 pm

    I guess in AmEng the first syllable of "potentiometer" is sometimes, perhaps often, reduced, but you'd thinking clipping would "automatically" unreduce the vowel, and in any event at least in AmEng the reduced-vowel pronunciation would come out approximately homophonous to "putt" rather than "pot."

  42. Tom Gadd said,

    December 15, 2015 @ 1:53 pm

    JJM – your example becomes much less clear if your doctor is gender nonconforming. If your doctor was neither male nor female, but some third category, then your my doctor construction becomes the most natural way to express that thought. I also think that in English as, well, as it's actually used, your distinction is at best historical, and at worst prescriptive nonsense which you've internalised but which simply isn't true.

  43. mollymooly said,

    December 15, 2015 @ 2:53 pm

    "Painfully inconsistent, but it feels right to me." — I think you mean, "painlessly inconsistent".

  44. John O'Toole said,

    December 15, 2015 @ 4:42 pm

    Et tous ces hommes et femmes d'affaires avec leur "sales figures"?

    A classic of Anglo-French word confusion.

  45. Robert Coren said,

    December 15, 2015 @ 5:34 pm

    @RodgerC: Right you are. And of course it would be, since the idea was presumably to suggest "frigid air". So, as to that part of my comment, "never mind".

  46. Vince Edgar said,

    December 15, 2015 @ 7:49 pm

    @Jerry Friedman & @adamvert

    There's nothing so horrible about having "mic" the noun and mike/miking for the verb. We often change the consonant when changing between parts of speech to preserve the desired pronunciations.

  47. Graeme said,

    December 16, 2015 @ 6:26 am

    'Email' was a major brand long before it swept the world as an electronic communication system: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Email_Limited
    As if to emblemise something, the brand/manufacturer is now defunct.

    We 'email' each other but I don't recall ever asking someone to 'mail' me.
    Because the postal system was more diverse? Except you can attach all manner of stuff to an email.
    Or because we think of email as not just instantaneous, but unmediated? Whereas I just 'post' something – the mail system with all its red/yellow vans and posties on scooters does the real work?

  48. S Frankel said,

    December 16, 2015 @ 10:05 pm

    @Graeme

    Are you British? Because in American, or at least the American I know (east coast), it's the other way around. We often "mail" things, but to "post" something would be considered a Britishism, and Americans can't say it without sounding affected. So "email" as a verb might simply be USA usage spreading beyond our borders.

  49. Gene Callahan said,

    December 17, 2015 @ 4:46 am

    @Tom Gadd: "JJM – your example becomes much less clear if your doctor is gender nonconforming. If your doctor was neither male nor female, but some third category, then your my doctor construction becomes the most natural way to express that thought."
    Right: and if an electrical charge is neither positive or negative, but some made-up third category, we might want to describe it as "nogative.""

  50. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 17, 2015 @ 11:32 am

    Scott: I feel certain that there are other similar cases–that is, cases where an abbreviated spelling is pronounced with a shortened pronunciation of the original word, even if it doesn't make sense as a pronunciation of the abbreviation.

    The ones I can think are "veg", "Reg", and "Rog".

    Vince Edgar: There's nothing so horrible about having "mic" the noun and mike/miking for the verb. We often change the consonant when changing between parts of speech to preserve the desired pronunciations.

    I didn't say there's anything horrible about it. In fact, if people are going to use the horrible (sorry, that slipped out) noun "mic", "mike" would be my suggestion for the verb.

    However, I can't think of many examples where we change a consonant when changing parts of speech to preserve the pronunciation—only a few verbs such as "panic > panicked". I can't think of any that would be analogous to "mic > mike" where we change the spelling of the verb so the inflected forms will look right. What did you have in mind?

    And by the way, I wonder why "mic" rhyming with "bike" would be okay for somebody but "miced" rhyming with "biked" wouldn't. If there are such people, do they have a hierarchy of acceptability in strange spellings? Or is it just a matter of familiarity because the noun is more common than the verb?

  51. Tom Gadd said,

    December 17, 2015 @ 12:31 pm

    @gene
    I, and clearly the WaPo author took it as given that there were third categories. There are some that are, frankly, incontestible – the intersex for one – but I suppose you're just unaware. Your made up third category reference is picking on transgendered folks, implying that there is no difference between sex and gender, or perhaps that biological sex fully determines gender, either way a controversial opinion you hold but which clearly the Post editorial staff don't.

    That aside, even in your dumb example there's a third option – what do you call a null charge?

  52. Gene Callahan said,

    December 18, 2015 @ 1:01 am

    @Tom Gadd: "I, and clearly the WaPo author took it as given that there were third categories. There are some that are, frankly, incontestible – the intersex for one – but I suppose you're just unaware. "

    Yes, Tom, I am "just unaware" of the delusions your ideology projects onto reality. Mea Culpa.

  53. GH said,

    December 21, 2015 @ 7:16 am

    @ Gene Callahan:

    The existence of intersex people is not a question of ideology. To deny it is simply ignorant. So yes, tua culpa.

  54. Mike said,

    December 21, 2015 @ 2:00 pm

    Related to the topic of getting "an email", this sounds perfectly natural to me. Also, while I've never heard anyone else say I've received "a mail" in reference to physical mail, I'm pretty sure that "you have some mail", "I haver mail" or the infamous "you've got mail" are perfectly fine.

    So why does "you've got mail" work, while "you've got a mail" doesn't?

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