Tag Archives: grammar

How to Avoid Sexism in Writing

Most writers know that it is no longer acceptable to use “he” to refer generically to both males and females. The trouble is that you may not know how to replace it. Most people, instead, fall into this trap:

An elven archer carries an unlimited supply of arrows in their quiver.

That is, when referring to a person of unspecified gender, we tend to replace the unacceptable “he” with the seemingly neutral “they” or “them.” The trouble is that that is wildly grammatically incorrect.

What to do? You have two options.

Your first option is to use the clunky but correct “his or her,” as in, “An elven archer carries an unlimited supply of arrows in his or her quiver.” As a one-off sentence, you can do this without loading down the text. But if you intend to write several more sentences like this, the result is distracting and pretty much atrocious.

An elven archer carries an unlimited supply of arrows in his or her quiver. He or she also is fleet of foot, and he or she prizes his or her bow.

Horrible! Your option in this case is to just pick a gender. You can say, “An elven archer carries an unlimited supply of arrows in her quiver” with no repercussions. You could also say “his.”

Alternately, in some cases, you can rewrite a few of the sentences to eliminate the pronouns completely. For example, you can write,

An elven archer carries an unlimited supply of arrows in his or her quiver. Such an archer is also fleet of foot, and all elven archers prize their bows.

Some of our older words to describe professions, however, are inherently sexist. These professions have been renamed to avoid sexism. Here, a short list.

  • Policeman is now police officer.
  • Salesman is now salesperson.
  • Fireman is now fire fighter.
  • Anchorman is now anchor.
  • Chairman is now chair.
  • Congressman is now member of Congress.
  • Mailman is now letter carrier.
  • Workmen is now workers.

Others have been eliminated altogether, so that stewardess is now flight attendant, actress is now actor, and hostess is now host.

Some words, of course, do not brook changes. For example, what would you use in place of manpower? In cases like these, where no known alternative is available, you’ll simply have to use the word.

Note: No grammar rules exist that I know of to cover non-binary genders. If you know of a consensus on any of these, please drop me a line and let me know so that I can add to this article! Thanks!

When You Just Can’t Take This Any Longer

When your plot just won’t come together, when your characters insist on doing things their way, and when every last line of dialogue you write has been cribbed from Buffy, then you might think of imploring the creative Powers That Be to lend you a helping hand.

But how would you properly address them? You might think you would start off with this sentence:

“I can’t take this any more!”

Properly, though, your howl should have come out as so:

“I can’t take this any longer!”

What’s the difference? Why would you say any longer where you’ve always ended your desperate wails with “any more”?

The difference is that the phrase any more refers to amount. You might not be able to take any more (amounts of) chocolate berry blast Cheerios. You might not be able to take any more (amount) of your dog’s enthusiastic kisses. And you might not want to take any more (amount of) days getting up at dawn. All of these are amounts: any more Cheerios, any more kisses, any more days.

But any longer refers to time. If the Bradford pears have bloomed one day too many, then you can’t take the pollen any longer (in time): you’ll allot not one more day to suffering with allergies. If you’re at dinner with your parents and your father makes yet another crack about your lack of fiscal responsibility, then you can’t take his rudeness any longer (in time): you’ll never again put up with his criticism. And if you’ve been at your writing desk for nine hours, then you can’t hammer away at it any longer (in time): you’ll spend not one more minute trying to order your characters to behave.

What about your howl to the Powers That Be? Weren’t you saying that you couldn’t take one more minute of creative disorder? No: you were stating that you couldn’t take any more (amount) of your plot not coming together. You couldn’t take any more (amount of) disrespect from your main character. And you couldn’t take any more (amount) of uninspired dialogue. And when you can’t take any more (amounts) of that, then you can’t take it any longer (in time).

How Many Pod People Are There? None of Us Know!

None is a noun that gives writers no end of trouble. Is none a singular noun or a plural noun? Does it take a plural verb or a singular verb?

Take these sentences, for example:

None of the pod people knows we have a plan to blast them all back to Titan.
None of the pod people know we have a plan to blast them all back to Titan.

Which of these sentences is correct? The subject in each sentence is none, so the verb know must agree with it. You know that, of course.

What you may not know is that both are correct. Yes, this is actually one of those few times when there really is no hard and fast grammar rule!

Some sticklers will argue with me, of course, but the fact is, none can be either singular or plural – depending on how the writer thinks of it! Even Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary bears this out, defining none as either singular or plural in construction.

That is to say, if you, the writer, think of none as really meaning “not one,” then none should take a singular verb. If, on the other hand, you think of the word as representing a plural, then you can give it a plural verb.

Personally, I would say, None of the pod people know that we have a plan to blast them all back to Titan. You might choose the second sentence, though. We’d both be correct – and as your editor, I’d defer to you on that one.

Whose Secret Lair Is It? Indicating Joint Possession

Imagine that I want to write a sentence indicating that a secret lair belonging to my co-conspirator Nemo and myself has been discovered. How would I indicate joint possession of the lair? Mine and Nemo’s secret lair? I and Nemo’s secret lair? Nemo’s and I secret lair? Nemo’s and my secret lair?

Correctly, I should write Nemo’s and my secret lair.

Joint possession is a construction that a lot of writers struggle with, however. But unlike the combination key on the secret lair, the construction isn’t difficult to decode.

To indicate joint possession of an object or place, first, determine who the subjects are by breaking them apart. The first subject is Nemo – that’s easy enough. The second subject is I.

This is where it gets tricky. You then replace each subject – Nemo and I — with the possessive form of each: Nemo’s and my.

The first subject, Nemo, shouldn’t be too hard to make possessive – an “s” is all that is needed. (Please don’t forget the apostrophe!) The second subject is I. You might think, then, that the possessive pronoun would then just be I, but because I am speaking of something (the secret lair) that I possess, I’ll want to make this pronoun a possessive pronoun: my.

It’s easy enough to figure out if you break up the subject as I did a few moments ago. You would never say, “I secret lair” in order to indicate that the lair is yours. Neither would you say, “Mine secret lair.” No, you would say “my secret lair.”

Thus, once I’ve broken apart the subject, I can join the two possessive forms: Nemo’s and my secret lair.

And now, I had better get cracking on moving the lair before the good guys show up.

Which Saber-toothed Cat is Which?

Say you’re writing a story in which your main character busies herself with petting a saber-toothed Martian cat. You want to indicate that only one vermillion-furred beast with extended maxillary canine teeth and a habit of hissing poison exists in the scene. Therefore, as your character, Zelda, reaches out to pet the cat, you’d write, “The Martian cat, which Zelda reached out to pet, suddenly bared its saber teeth and hissed poison at her.”

In this sentence, by using the word which and by setting the phrase which Zelda had been petting off with commas, you can indicate to the reader that only one extraterrestrial feline exists in this scene. The cat is skulking around the spaceship, and oh, by the way, Zelda pets it before the unusual feline turns on her.

On the other hand, suppose that Martian cats surround Zelda but that only the one that she had been petting has turned on her. How would you indicate this? You’d write, “The Martian cat that Zelda had been petting suddenly bared its saber teeth and hissed poison at her.”

By not setting the phrase off with which and its attendant commas, but by instead using the proper “that”, you easily indicate the cat that out of all the felines in the scene has turned on Zelda – the one that she so foolishly petted. Let’s hope that Martian cats prefer tuna fish!