by Jennie Ruby
The rules of grammar are not forever. But which ones should we allow to change? In my classes I still meet the occasional editor who still does not allow use of the word impact as a verb. But that battle was lost in the early 1990s. Dictionaries now list the verb form as a legitimate word. I still meet editors who treat the word none as a singular word, as in "none of the books is returnable," whereas most grammar guides started listing none as being plural or singular depending on its referent as long ago as 1983.
As popular usage changes, the rules of grammar, the definitions of words, and the guidelines for punctuation also change. But some kinds of changes come easier than others. For example, the new definitions of tweet, both as a noun and as a verb, to refer to posting on Twitter, have already made it into Webster's.
On the other hand, use of their as a singular possessive pronoun has not been adopted by many grammar guides. This example from spam I received is still considered wrong:
*Where will your loved one spend their golden years?*
The problem with the possessive pronoun is that the category of personal pronoun is a "closed" category; in other words, you can't make up a new pronoun and have it stick. Verb and noun are open categories, meaning that you can make up new verbs (to Google or to Photoshop), and you can make up new nouns (smart phone, iPad), and people readily start using them. But efforts to make up a new, singular generic possessive pronoun (s/his, herm) fail because they simply are not adopted. We are stuck with "his or her" or "his/her" in the singular. And the grammar rule that says their cannot be used to refer back to a singular word ("your loved one," in the example above) just will not die.
A punctuation rule that is under contention is the comma after the year in a three-part date, and similarly, the comma after the state when a city is named:
On June 10, 2010, an event occurred that changed his life.
In Springfield, IL, the convention center was spilling over with editors.
"I simply will not tolerate a trailing comma," said my lawyer, as we were reviewing a legal document. When I questioned him as to what he meant by a trailing comma, he listed the two above, as well as the serial comma. I also know of a government agency where the use of the comma after the year or state has been eliminated. Yet formal style guides such as The Chicago Manual of Style still call for use of these commas.
And don't get me started on who versus whom. English speakers in the United States have long since abandoned most proper uses of whom. But just enough common usage remains that we cannot declare the word whom archaic like thy or thou. In every grammar class my students struggle with sentences like "Whom did you give the book to," and "Whom do you think they will elect?" while correctly navigating "To whom shall I address the letter?" (My first example here also illustrates the issue of ending a sentence with a preposition.) Can we just give up on the word whom and allow who to be used as both an object and a subject?
What are your thoughts on these conundrums? One recent commenter on our blog stated, "Rules were meant to be broken." To what extent can we break them on these issues? Are there other grammar rules that seem outdated or irrelevant?
About the Author: Jennie Ruby is a veteran IconLogic trainer and author with titles such as "Editing with Word 2003 and Acrobat 7" and "Editing with MS Word 2007" to her credit. She is a publishing professional with more than 20 years of experience in writing, editing and desktop publishing.