The

Portrait of Henry VIII, King of England

Warning: today’s post may seem a bit esoteric. I think it’s pretty darn interesting, and I  know it has real-world implications for anyone trying to communicate anything, but if you want to cut to the chase you can always scroll down to the end.

What a difference a word makes!

I’m reading Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. Wolf Hall is a massive historical novel about Thomas Cromwell, who, as a trusted counselor to Henry VIII, helped usher in the English Reformation. Although I have my share of interest in history and read plenty of historical fiction as a kid, I rarely read it now. Why? Because I hate clumsy exposition. There is nothing so deflating as to be caught up in the middle of a fictional world, rooting for a character, crying over a sad turn of events, eager to see what happens next, only to be swiftly dumped back into the 21st century when the author stops to explain something. It’s even worse when that something is stuffed, with all the authenticity of a plastic pear, into a character’s mouth.

For example, I somehow missed the much-praised television series, West Wing, when it first aired. My 15-year-old daughter, a latter-day fan through the magic of Netflix, is now eagerly introducing me to what I missed. And, several “seasons” in, I’m very much enjoying it. But I squirmed through quite a few episodes before I got to this point.

Here’s why: West Wing, as you probably know, is about a fictional modern-day U.S. president and his closest staff. He’s got the kind of liberal politics that make it highly unlikely he’d ever have been elected in real life, and his ironclad integrity is even more unbelievable, but these stretches of reality are not what make me squirm. What drives me crazy is that at key points throughout nearly every episode a character will suddenly say something like, “What do you mean, the bill has to be voted on in both houses of Congress?” and another character will answer, “Well, every bill has to be passed in both the House and the Senate…blah, blah, blah.”

This is ridiculous. People who work at the White House don’t ask these questions of each other. Why? Because they work at the White House. They know the answers, and the writers know they know the answers, but they put those words in the characters’ mouths because they want to be sure you, the audience know the answers. And though dialogue like this does serve the function intended, it also yanks us viewers right out of our cozy involvement with the scene, back into our chairs in front of a television screen.

The fact is, the very best television (I’m speakin’ to you, The Wire) manages to avoid this kind of exposition. It does this in part by getting the message across much more subtly, in part by respecting the audience’s ability to catch on. The very best writing does, too.

Which brings me back to Wolf Hall. It’s not easy—at all—to create a work of fiction set in a time or place that’s unfamiliar to readers without inserting a lot of heavy-handed exposition. But Hilary Mantel manages to do it with an awe-inspiring grace.

In some cases, it comes down to one word.

On page 295 of my hard cover edition, a character tells Cromwell he is going to try for permission to visit “our brother Bainham.”

At this point, we’ve never heard of anyone named Bainham and need to be told who he is. A lesser author would come right out and do so (or, worse, have some minor character pipe up from across the room, “who’s Bainham?”) Mantel, writing in present tense as she does throughout the book, does this:

Bainham is the barrister who was taken up by [Sir Thomas] More last year and tortured.

(The brackets are mine—readers of the book know by this point who “More” refers to.)

What’s significant about this sentence is what Mantel could have said, instead:

Bainham is a barrister who was taken up by More last year and tortured.

Had she done this, had she used “a” instead of “the,” she would have been talking directly to me, the reader. She would have been bypassing her characters completely and, in the process, lifting me right out of their world and setting me down, with a thud, in 2013. Because both the characters in the room know who Bainham is. They don’t need to know he is “a barrister, etc.”

But it is perfectly within reason that they might need to search their memories for a moment, recollecting for themselves or reminding a friend who he is, in which case they might well say, “You know who I mean—Bainham is the barrister who was taken up by More last year and tortured…”

Do you see the difference?

One little word: the instead of a, and it turns from clunky exposition to a flowing internal conversation.

Yes, I have written this entire post to expound (as it were!) on the tiniest word in a 500+ page novel. But when I read that paragraph, that “the” jumped right out at me. It was so simple. And so perfect.

Ok, I promised you this would relate to the kind of writing you and I do, every day. Chances are, you’re writing neither historical fiction nor television screenplays. But you are writing for an audience, and you need that audience to stay with you, in whatever “story” you’re telling. So you need to remember:

  • If you use meaningless jargon—you will lose them.
  • If you sound inauthentic—adopt a voice that is too self-consciously hip, or an attitude that is too filled with rah-rah boosterism, or anything that strays from honesty—you will lose them.
  • If you are not inclusive—if you use sexist language, or project implicit assumptions that don’t apply to some part of your audience—you will lose them.
  • If you make too many careless mistakes in either content or form—you will lose them.
  • And if you can’t demonstrate the relevance to them of what you have to say—you will lose them.

Not to scare you or anything, but every word really does matter.

I’m working on some posts now about National Work and Family month, comedy in the workplace and a cool scheme to communicate work-life programs at Johns Hopkins. Some will be published here, some on Huffington Post, some on both…but you’ll only catch them for sure if you’re on my mailing list—sign up to Follow Me! 

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The Pronoun Problem

We

(Photo credit: Mike Kanert)

What to do about gender neutrality?

It was so easy when I was growing up. We were taught that “he” referred to all humans, of either sex, and we believed it.

In fact it didn’t and, as an excellent analysisI just came across points out, throughout history it hardly ever has. (Carolyn Jacobson, the University of Pennsylvania graduate assistant who wrote the piece I just linked to back in 1995, uses this wonderfully oddball example to prove that we don’t read “he” as referring to both men and women: “The average American needs the small routines of getting ready for work. As he shaves or blow-dries his hair or pulls on his pantyhose, he is easing himself by small stages into the demands of the day.”)

In fact, the use of “man” and male pronouns to refer to human beings reflects a society in which men are the only beings considered fully human. As the second wave of feminism came along to spread this news, we looked for alternatives. It was relatively simple to substitute “human” for “man” and “humanity” (or even “people”) for “men.” But the problem of singular pronouns—what to do about “he” and “his”—was a much greater one. The problem first arose sometime in the 1970s. Forty-plus years later, we still haven’t figured out how to deal with it.

What to do about gender neutrality?

First, some ground rules. Some folks are still on the fence about this. Hold-outs continue to use “he” as a universal pronoun. But every major stylebook advises against it, and I, personally, think it is inexcusable.

“He” and “him” refer to a man, a boy, or a male animal. Period. You can no more use “he” to refer to people of both sexes than you can use “boy” to refer to a grown African-American man. This is not something anyone should have a choice about anymore–it is part of the evolution of our understanding about human rights and the role language plays in creating—or shutting down—change.

Beyond that, however, you have some choices. Sadly, none of them is very good:

1. You can replace he with “he or she” and him with “him or her.” He or she who hesitates is lost.

2. You can skip the “or” and say “he/she,” “him/her,” or opt for a slimmed down look and say “s/he” (which, however, begs the question of what to do about “him” and “her”). S/he who hesitates is lost.

3. You can try to re-write the sentence completely to leave out pronouns: The person who hesitates is lost.

4. You can turn every problematic singular sentence into a plural one: Those who hesitate are lost.

5. In certain contained circumstances, you can alternate the use of “he” and “she:”

A person who isn’t quite sure what to do next has several choices:

  • She can consider her options carefully, and make a thoughtful decision..
  • He can ask others for advice.
  • She can hesitate, and be lost.

The problem is, solutions like these are cumbersome at best, unworkable at worst. “He or she,” which is more clear than alternating the use of “he” and “she,” and just slightly more professional and formal than “s/he,” can result in impossibly convoluted language, especially when it involves other pronoun forms. Consider:

“Every employee should talk to his or her manager about what he or she needs to do in order to complete his or her project.” It’s enough to make the writer gag and the reader jump off his or her ledge.

Option four, re-writing a sentence to turn it from singular to plural, is the one I see recommended most often, but it works better in some cases than in others. “Employees should talk to their managers about what they need to do in order to complete their projects,” is not too bad, except for the possible confusion about whether individual employees each have multiple managers or projects or just one apiece. But compare these alternatives:

Every man must listen to his conscience, following the voice in his head.

All people must listen to their consciences, following the voices in their heads.

Not only does the original sentence lose quite a bit of poetic (if clichéd) punch in the pluralized version, it veers dangerously close to a prescription for mass schizophrenia.

Reader, there is a fifth option. It’s in common use informally, but represents a radical step for formal grammar and is far from universally accepted. Nonetheless, it is out there, being debated and approved by even some among the grammatical establishment. It’s the use of the singular “they.”

The fact is, as grammarians will point out, the singular “they” (if a person hesitates, they are lost) has been around for a long time. As Arnold notes in the link above, it can be found in the works of Shakespeare, Austen and Dickens, among others. The arguments against its use seem to have originated in the same misguided attempts to mold English around Latin that led to the now-abandoned  argument against splitting infinitives.

The singular “they” allows us to put away convoluted attempts to neutralize gender in one swift move, no muss, no fuss. Although it can sound odd, I have gradually come to the conclusion that it is the most elegant solution we English-speakers have to this problem-that-will-not-die.

That doesn’t mean I use it. Most of my work involves writing communications for others and I know usage of the singular “they” in formal writing is still unacceptable to most. Even in my own work, it still often sounds awkward and grating, and I find myself re-writing sentences to avoid it. 

But having decided it is, ultimately, the best solution, I have vowed to start using it more. It’s a matter of conscience for me, because ultimately, it’s about removing the language’s built-in bigotry. As for you, you’ll have to decide for yourself.  Everyone must listen to their conscience, and do what they think is right.

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