“Fake Rule: The generic pronoun in English is he.
Violation: “Each one in turn reads their piece aloud.”
This is wrong, say the grammar bullies, because each one, each person is a singular noun and their is a plural pronoun. But Shakespeare used their with words such as everybody, anybody, a person, and so we all do when we’re talking. (“It’s enough to drive anyone out of their senses,” said George Bernard Shaw.) The grammarians started telling us it was incorrect along in the sixteenth or seventeenth century. That was when they also declared that the pronoun he includes both sexes, as in “If a person needs an abortion, he should be required to tell his parents.” My use of their is socially motivated and, if you like, politically correct: a deliberate response to the socially and politically significant banning of our genderless pronoun by language legislators enforcing the notion that the male sex is the only one that counts. I consistently break a rule I consider to be not only fake but pernicious. I know what I’m doing and why.”
—Ursula K. Le Guin, Steering the Craft: A Twenty-First-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story
I included the above quote from Ursula K. Le Guin’s excellent book on writing in my tribute to Le Guin last week. It’s a quote I’ve been meaning to use in a blog post about fake grammar rules for a while, and now seems like a good time.
There are rules of grammar and learning them is important. However, it is also important to recognize that not everything someone tells you is a rule actually is. There are a number of so-called grammar rules that people have been passing down from generation to generation in schools, writers’ groups, and so on that simply are wrong. Some of them are due to a misunderstanding that has become common enough that people adopt it as a rule. Others have been the result of a small group of Latin scholars attempting to force a convention from the Latin language on to English out of a belief that Latin is somehow a purer language.
Others are a bit more complicated.
English pronouns are such a case. It wasn’t that many centuries ago that people had to keep track of more pronouns. The King James Version of the Bible was translated during a time when English speakers used thee, thou, you, ye, they, thine, their, and so forth. There were circumstances where it was incorrect to address someone as you rather than thou, and it generally came down to your social relationship. You use thou when addressing someone who was socially inferior, and you the other way around. This wasn’t just about class. Parents would use thou when talking to their children, for example, and children would use you when addressing parents and so forth. One also used thou for people with whom you were intimate—and I’m not talking about sex, this would be with close friends and so forth (though also one’s fiance or spouse would be appropriate, obviously).
Thee was the objective form of thou—this is parallel to the distinction between me and I which still exists in the language today. Ye was the plural form of you.
So what happened to all of those extra pronouns? We slowly stopped using them. Thou starting going away in the 17th and 18th Century in London as changing socio-economical norms started making it harder to tell which social class people were in. You didn’t want to offend someone who ought to be addressed as you by saying thou! I mention London specifically because etymologists have tracked where and when thou fell out of usage. There are regional dialects in England today where thou is still used, and they all occur in corners of the nation furthest from London.
Now let’s look at they. Lots of people object to using the singular they. It comes up frequently now because as transgender, genderfluid, and nonbinary people embrace their identities some ask us to use different pronouns. A transgender person who was assigned male at birth may ask their friends, family, and acquaintances to stop using he/him/his and start using she/her/hers, for instance. And some people aren’t comfortable with either of those and ask us to they/them/their. This makes some other people uncomfortable.
It makes some people so uncomfortable that they post rants about it on their academic blogs, railing against the singular they in one paragraph, and hilariously using a singular they in another.
The truth is, they has been both singular and plural for at least 675 years. That’s how long ago dictionaries have found samples of they being used in both the singular and the plural. Merriam-Webster cites examples from Chaucer (14th Century), Shakespeare (17th Century), Jane Austen (18th Century), Lord Byron (18th and 19th Century), and the King James Bible (17th Century) of the singular they.
So the first answer to people citing this rule is to inform them it isn’t a rule of English grammar and never has been.
The second is to point to that history of the decline of thou in favor of you. An entire language shifted because people didn’t want to accidentally offend each other. In other words, there is a precedent for adapting English usage to accommodate our mutual sensibilities.
And finally, the third answer is that after being informed of the above two facts, anyone who continues to raise a fuss about using the singular they to refer to someone after being asked to use it is doing so out of a feeling of discomfort due to bigotry. And none of the rest of us are under any obligation to put up with bigoted jerks.
Or, as someone else put it:
This modern world is full of quandaries and conundra, isn’t it? On the one hand, you have human people with human feelings, and on the other hand, you have an entirely insentient entity, the English language, which is wholly incapable of being hurt or offended in any way. Obviously you don’t want to upset either camp, but which do you prioritize? Living, breathing people — members of a systemically and institutionally marginalized minority — who have specifically identified the pronouns that people like you are to use for them so as to avoid causing the exact kind of offense that you profess to be concerned about committing? Or a theoretical concept that not only has no way of knowing whether you’ve used it incorrectly but in fact changes so rapidly that the notion of “correct” is functionally moot anyway, not to mention that being preoccupied with particular grammatical usages signals not a deep concern for linguistic propriety but is instead a probably classist and very likely racist and almost certainly ableist approach to human communication? You’re in a mighty fucking pickle, here!
—Bad Advice On Grammar-Policing Gender-Neutral Pronouns via The Establishment
I’ve written about two of Le Guin’s books that were instrumental in my life: Timebomb from the Stars – more of why I love sf/f and The Original Wizard School – more of why I love sf/f. Please note I said in my life, not just in my understanding of science fiction/fantasy or how to write. Her stories did that, too—but Le Guin’s books were particularly important to teen-age me trying to learn how to be comfortable in my own skin.
As I said in one of the earlier blog posts, she may not have explicitly meant her story to help a queer kid learn to accept himself, but that’s what her tales did for me. Also, every time I re-read one of Le Guin’s books, I notice ideas that she develops in the story that have become such an intrinsic part of how I look at stories, that I have forgotten she was the one who introduced me to the idea. The ideas in her tales weren’t messages that slap you in the face, they are simply a part of the story in such a way that you accept them. They aren’t “Ah ha!” moments, but more like, “Of course!”
I don’t know how to express how heavy my heart is because of her passing. Tuesday afternoon, when my husband got home from work, he asked me if I had been paying attention to the news or twitter, then told me that Ursula K. Le Guin had died, and I just said, “No! Oh, no!” emphatically. It struck me harder than a celebrity death has in a long time. Once I was finished with work, I cued up the audiobook in which Ursula read her own translation of the Tao Te Ching, because I just needed to hear her voice for a while.
I was a little surprised how upset I was, until I read John Scalzi’s column above. I hadn’t realized it, but she was a spiritual mother to me, despite my only ever meeting her at a book signing. And he’s right. It takes time to mourn a mother.
Some days, the best thing a guy can do is shut up and let other people talk. So, without further ado:
“We’re not going anywhere”: the 2018 women’s marches show the movement’s endurance – Some wondered whether marchers could sustain their energy for a whole year. On Saturday, the answer seemed to be yes.
Russell Burman, writing in the Atlantic explains:
If there’s one thing Democrats and Republicans (some publicly, many others privately) agree on, it’s that the president’s negotiating style has made it much harder for the two sides to reach a deal. Trump has veered wildly from one extreme to the other—telling lawmakers in one meeting that he’d sign any DACA bill Congress sent him, then issuing a list of hard-line demands in the next. His vulgar reference to African nations, among others, as “shithole countries” while rejecting a bipartisan DACA proposal blew up the negotiations at a critical juncture.
Republicans have begged the president to tell them exactly what he’d accept in an agreement and then stick to it. But Trump hasn’t delivered.
The Republicans have tried to paint the Democrats as the villains in this, but their attempts make them look worse: Mitch McConnell shutdown tweet a ‘ransom note,’ says DNC head.Meanwhile, across the country, millions of members of the resistance are turning out to march again: Women’s March draws crowds to DC and WATCH: Thousands Mark Trump’s Anniversary with 2018’s Women’s March. Most cities in the country will see these marches today, and I think that’s a good thing.
I’ve seen people arguing that marches don’t do anything, but they’re wrong. They said that same thing in 1993 about the March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation, because congresspeople who had opposed queer rights didn’t all spontaneously change their minds afterward. But that isn’t the point of these demonstrations. When more the 800,000 queer people trekked across the country to stand up and protest, it did more than send a message. It demonstrated, for one thing, that there were a lot more of us than most people realized. More importantly, it demonstrated to us that we weren’t alone. It inspired hope in the individual queer communities among people who didn’t go. And those that did came back energized and inspired, and they did stuff! We organized new groups. More of us volunteered for local political campaigns. We staffed phone banks, we opened our wallets. We began to believe that if we worked together we could convince the rest of society to come around to our way of thinking. We didn’t have immediate success, but progress noticeably accelerated after that.
Last year’s Women’s March was the first time after the election that I felt hope again. And I’m the kind of person who normally never gives up hope. At a deep, fundamental level my brain does not believe in the no-win scenario, right? But when Trump won the electoral college, all of that crashed down.
Until I saw the hug crowds, vastly outnumbering the inaugural crowd not just in Washington D.C., but in cities all across the country.
There are more of us than they realized. There are more of us than we believed.
It’s from that moment of inspiration that moment such as Run For Something was born. The march inspired people back in their communities to get involved. Not just to wear a pink hat and make protest signs, but to join political action groups, to staff phone banks, to support progressive candidates, and to run for office. We got the dramatically different results in the Virginia elections this year than before in no small part because there were dozens of districts where previously the Republican had run unopposed again and again that finally there was an alternative!
And last year’s march can take credit for that.The fact that the tyrant is such an incompetent, creepy, and transparently bigoted cretin is also a contributing factor. I’ve seen a few experts make the claim that White House ineptitude and biases are solely to blame for their failures. But that ignores the fact that what we are protesting is this administrations bigotry and callous disregard for facts or other people, and overarching greed—in other words, their biases and ineptitude. We’re fighting a good fight, and the fact that the opposition is not fighting well is not unrelated. However, there is a lot of fight left to go. We have to keep the momentum going not just in the Congressional election next fall, but in local elections, and continuing to make those phone calls to congress, and showing up at protests and more. But it’s a fight we can win. And our country isn’t the only one dealing with corruption:
UK government kept awarding public sector contracts to Carillion despite fears about its future, minister admits and UK government officials set up Carillion collapse task force to support companies and workers. So there’s a lot of bad to fight against…
I am, indeed, one of those people who think there is a song from a musical for every situation. Some people consider this a stereotypical gay thing, but I know way more gay people who never liked theatre (musical or otherwise) than do (and there are plenty of straight people writing, performing, or buying tickets to Broadway musicals and the like). Oh, yes, there are arguments made about the kind of misfit who is drawn to the exaggerated and colorful worlds portrayed in musical theatre, and that’s why there are enough queer people into it to create the stereotype. But I think there’s more than a little bit of a chicken-and-egg aspect to that.
Regardless, I have a lot of musical soundtracks in my music collection, along with orchestral scores for my favorite movies and TV shows. And I have been known to surf to TuneFind.com while watching something when a particularly good piece of music is used to accompany a scene in one of my favorite shows, so I can buy a copy of the song for myself. And I’ve blogged before about how I create playlists specifically for certain writing projects.
I’ve had more than one friend comment, upon seeing the list of songs in one of my play lists, “How can you write while listening to songs with lyrics?” First, if a song has wound up in one of my playlists, it’s usually a song I’m already familiar enough with that I don’t have to pay attention to the lyrics to parse the meaning of the song. Even with very voice-forward songs, while I’m writing I’m not processing the music as words, but as mood music.
Second, if a song is fairly new to me—I heard it for the first time, liked it a lot, bought it, and added it to my current writing playlist—I may pause while writing the next time it comes up. Far more likely, I will have heard the song a few more times before I’m next writing because I listen to the playlists at least as often when I’m not writing as when I am. While riding the bus to work, while working at my desk at my day job, while walking in the evening before heading home I’ll be listening to the current writing playlist, in part to get my subconscious working on the story while I’m dong these other things. I’m more likely to be in the mood to be productive on a personal writing project after a long workday if I’ve been listening to a playlist that I associate with the personal writing..
I need to make a small digression about my longer bus commute. I have tried several times to write on this bus route as I used to back on the Route D—the ride’s longer; I should be able to get more writing done! Unfortunately, the other difference is that the physical road seems to have a lot more potholes and irregularities. It’s really annoying, because the bouncing and dipping is pretty much constant. So there I am, holding my phone in my hand with one of my writing apps up but we’re constantly bouncing, so my thumbs keep hitting the wrong part of the screen. I get half a word typed and then get five incorrect letters in a cluster because of a particularly bad bounce, so I try to delete and there’s a bunch of smaller bounces and half my attempts to tap the backspace hit another key near it instead.
I can read (though sometimes that’s a little difficult). I can take notes. But when I’m writing, once my head is in the scene want to just get out this sentence and on to the next and the next. But I can’t get the flow going because of the dang bouncing. I tried to ignore the wrong letters and keep going one time, but I spent way more time correcting the gibberish once I got home and transferred it to the laptop that I realized bus writing is just not possible for most of the Route E.
Which has made the writing playlists take on a new importance. Since it is very difficult to write on the new bus route, what I do instead is listen to the current project’s playlist while either re-reading recently written scenes or going through my notes on the project.
One reason I have writing playlists is because music conveys emotion. It doesn’t just convey emotion, it generates emotion. When we hear a song we know well, it may remind us about a particular event, or a person, or just a time in our lives. And it doesn’t always have to be because we are remembering that song happening to accompany a particular memory. Sometimes a song that was written long after a particular event in your life manages, somehow, to evoke your memory of the experience.
Another reason I have writing playlists is going to sound strange to some. Dialog is, in my opinion, the heart of most stories. Dialog conveys information, and illustrates relationships of the people talking, and gives you a sense of the personalities of each speaker. A good dialog is like music. It isn’t just about the literal or contextual meaning of the words, but also the rhythm. Some phrases flow easily from one’s mouth, whereas badly written dialog will tie your tongue in a knot if you try to read it aloud. For me, listening to music while I write helps me find rhythms. The dialog just works better if I have a good set of songs going.
And another reason that I have writing lists is, I don’t like to write in silence. I can write in silence. But it’s difficult, sometimes. Maybe it’s because during my childhood, when I first started writing (I literally decided that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up at the age of six, and was regularly pounding out page after page of stories on my mom’s Easter Pink Smith-Corono Silent Super typewriter by the age of ten) there was alway a lot of noise. Other people in the house doing things of their own. Dad watching a ballgame in the living room, while my sister was playing in her room and Mom was doing something in the sewing room. And there were often neighbors outside making noise.
And for a lot of those years I would be back in my room, with the door closed, tapping away on those keys with the radio playing as I tried to learn the magic of dialog that sounded like real people, and scenes that moved the story along. Sometimes, an especially good song would come up and I might have to stop typing to sing along. And yes, sometimes I got up and danced around my room as I did so. But when the song ended, I’d go back to the typewriter. Giddy with the joy of the dancing, and feeling renewed determination for my hero to save the day.
Songs never mean the same thing to other people. So sharing my playlists probably doesn’t help any of my friends write. Though I have had one or two of them say that they were glad I introduced them to a particular song or artist when I share a list. And I know I have found great new songs when other people share their own lists. But while it may be futile to expect that one of my playlists will effect you the way they do me, I’m going to share four songs from my current novel editing playlist. The full playlist is nearly 60 songs. These aren’t a representative sample, but they are particular favorites. Three of these songs I associate with a specific character in my fictional universe–evoking a particular aspect of their personality, or even expression something that character believes are feels. One of them describes the past relationship between a pair of characters.
Darling Lili– Whistling Away The Dark (HD) – JULIE ANDREWS :
(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)
Mame – Bosom Buddies – Angela Lansbury and Bea Arthur:
(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)
Bad Influence – P!nk (Music Video):
(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)
Shrek 2 – Holding Out For a Hero – Jennifer Saunders:
(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)
I have two more writing-related posts half written, one of which I hoped to queue up for Tuesday, but I was cranky, exhausted, and still sick when I got home from work. So I’m just going to whine about feeling sick and how I cope and related things. Which means that this post is going to be, as one friend calls them, a “what I had for breakfast post.” I probably won’t talk about breakfast, but if you’re not interested in just mundane stuff, don’t click through: Read More…
A few months back James Palmer posted A Message About Message Fiction that hit several of the points that I have tried making before about writing, including the notion that from one perspective, all fiction is message fiction. Which isn’t to say that every story is meant to convey an ideology or convince the reader to accept a particular thesis. Writers, just like all other people, perceive the world via minds that have been molded by a lifetime of experiences; they craft narratives in frameworks built from their beliefs, memories, hopes, fears, and a plethora of thoughts and ideas encountered throughout their lifetime.
A story cannot exist without such a framework.
But seeing the world through the writer’s eyes is not—or should not be—the same as being indoctrinated with an ideology. I’ve seen many people try to make the distinction between message fiction and fiction which happens to have a message. I never found their arguments persuasive, coming to the conclusion that they were talking about a difference without a distinction. I thought I was through talking about this, but then a friend asked a question about metaphors and how you craft them. At the time, I was too busy explaining that that isn’t how my process works (I never plan a metaphor on purpose; other people have to point them out to me in my story afterward) to notice that while he was talking about metaphors, he also expressed the desire to craft a story that didn’t beat a notion over the reader’s head, but rather left them thinking about things afterward. It didn’t leap out to me until I was re-reading our text exchange later, while looking for a link he’d sent me earlier.
That seemed like an important distinction: preachy message fictions delivers an answer, whereas good stories raise questions.
Yes, the way the author poses the question may tilt toward a particular answer, but that isn’t the same thing as insisting on that answer.
I’m a little embarrassed that this particular means of drawing a distinction didn’t occur to me before, because my own writing process has always been about looking for answers to questions. Sometimes the question is, who are these two characters jabbering away in the back of my head? but it’s always a question. If the seventh son of a seventh son is fated to have great luck, what about the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter (or seventh son of seventh daughter, or seventh daughter of a seventh son)? What if a dragon sought redemption? What if a prophet/seer was always right–and she insists that freewill is real? What if a god retires? What if the foretold apocalypse literally can not be averted?
I start with questions like that and then write to try to find an answer. That’s my process, I really am writing to try to find out how the story ends. In longer stories, there is usually a point long before I reach the end where I realize what the ending will be, and then I spend time figuring out how I get from what I have to the end, but I almost never know how a story will end when I start it.
Just because that’s the way I work, I am not saying that that’s the way everyone else ought to write stories. A friend of mine who is also one of my favorite writers usually can’t start a story until he knows the ending. He spends a lot of time thinking about the situation until he figures out how everything will go. That process works for him and creates great tales. But when we’ve talked about his process, he doesn’t talk about metaphors or messages: he talks about actions and consequences, and whether the reader will enjoy the ride. So even then, the focus isn’t on trying to convince the reader to agree with something.
While working on earlier drafts of this blog post, I went back and re-read a lot of the articles and blog posts about message fiction that I had read when wrestling with this question previously. When I examined the specific examples cited in each one, I found that most of those articles that tried to draw a distinction between message fiction and fiction with a message really were just constructing rationalizations to commend messages they agreed with and condemn the messages with which they disagreed. So my earlier conclusion, that it was a difference without a distinction was completely wrong. There was a distinction, but it wasn’t being explicitly (or honestly) delineated.
Some of my favorite stories (whether novels, short stories, or movies) have been tales that blew my mind by making me see something I had never seen before. They made me question my own assumptions. And the ones that did that didn’t just push forward an agenda, they problematized assumptions. What I mean is, they took a set of assumptions—whether the author’s or those held by a significant proportion of society—and examined problematic implications of said assumptions. They created a situation where I could see more than one side of the issue; in other words, they made more than own perspective on the problem appear reasonable.
In other words, they are stories where, at some point in the process, the author was exploring. Which is, in my not-so-humble opinion, an essential part of art. Message fiction doesn’t explore, it dictates. And that isn’t art, at all.
For another take on some of the topics covered here, but not from the viewpoint of a sci fi fan, you might find this informative: The Sci-Fi Roots of the Far Right—From ‘Lucifer’s Hammer’ to Newt’s Moon Base to Donald’s Wall