The word of the year for 2015 is listed as the use in English of the pronoun they, and its associated forms, such as them, and their as a singular word. Examples given are:
* "Somebody left their umbrella in the office. Would they please collect it?"
* "The patient should be told at the outset how much they will be required to pay."
* "But a journalist should not be forced to reveal their sources."
To say ‘his or he’ is gender specific, assuming the subject is a man. To say ‘he or she’ is considered unnecessary so the word ‘they’ is non-sexist and will convey the meaning without confusion.
Languages change over time with words taking on new meanings. I can presume this happens with other languages, but certainly in English, words have taken on new meanings. One example that you will almost certainly have heard is the word ‘awesome’. Its meaning used to be ‘causing a feeling of awe or wonder but now it is understood more in the sense of indicating strong approval.
There used to be a rule stated in a delightful way that we should never use a preposition to end a sentence with - a sentence that breaks the rule it is stating. To impress this rule on our memory, our teacher announced: “Ending a sentence with a preposition is a misuse of the English language, something up with which I will not put.” Amusing, but we don’t need to use such clumsy English. We could say rather: ending a sentence with a preposition is not good grammar.
One example given of rules that can be broken was about doubling words. Of course our computer will point out whenever you repeat a word but some examples are amusing. Written on the blackboard at school were the words ‘bread and cheese’ but the space between these words was considered inadequate - they should be separated by a greater space. So the teacher said to the class: ‘The spaces between bread and and, and and and cheese are inadequate. With the right emphasis the meaning is quite clear.
An infinitive is a form of a verb with no reference to a specific tense, person, or subject. In English, an infinitive is a verb preceded by the word 'to', e.g., 'to see'. And the rule used to be never split an infinitive, i.e. to place another word or phrase between the ‘to’ and the ‘verb’. The rule both illustrating the error and forbidding it read: Remember to never split an infinitive.
In these days to insist on the observance of this rule is considered pedantic. But I have to confess I find split infinitives are irritating, and clumsy wording. I have been reading a most excellent book but the writer seems to split an infinitive in just about every second page. Some I admit are clear in their meaning, and it is fussy to object, but some are just plain clumsy. Examples include “to honestly wrestle with these questions”, or “the alternative is to instead adopt”, or “to always remember”. Personally I believe in the above, “to wrestle honestly with these questions,” or “honestly to wrestle with these questions” sounds much better, but maybe this is just a matter of custom.
Change is upon us and perhaps we have to simply accept the fact!
Rev. Alan Stuart Ex missionary to Korea, Retired Minister, UCA
(02) 8876 1870