Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Ideas to Improve Standard English

English is a rich and wonderful language, with contributions from other languages around the world. Writers can have their characters interact at a gathering (Old Dutch), a forum (Latin), a tete-a-tete (French), a powwow (Narragansett), or a shindig (American 1800s). But proper English has a few gaping holes in ease of use, and I’d like to suggest a fix for one or two that bother me the most.

First of all, we need a word for “his or her.” Writers constantly tie themselves in knots trying not to say, “I want to thank the anonymous donor for their contributions,” because of course, that’s incorrect. Donor is singular and their is plural. However, “I want to thank the anonymous donor for his or her contributions,” sounds awkward. That’s how we get sentences like, “The contributions of the anonymous donor should be applauded, and I’d like to be the first to say thank you.”

So, here’s my first recommendation. “Their” should officially have a recognized meaning of “his or her,” in addition to its other meanings. Casually, we're already using it that way. Just make it legal, people. 

Next, English needs an official plural form of you, and we have a perfectly good one – y’all. Yes, it’s a southern American term, but I say let’s borrow it, as we have so many other useful terms, and make it official. But use it correctly. Y’all is a contraction for you all, and is never, ever singular. If the sentence doesn’t make sense using you all, don’t use y’all. It’s that simple.

Finally, we have a punctuation mark for a question, “Who drank the Kool-Aid?” or an exclamation, “He drank the Kool-Aid!” What we need now is a mark to indicate irony or tongue-in-cheek. “I drank the Kool-Aid – not.” 

This is not a new idea. Apparently, people have been floating this since at least the 1580s. Wiki article. The most common suggestion is a backward question mark. Think of all the internet flame wars that could have been prevented had it been clear the original message was not intended to be taken at face value. This punctuation mark could save lives[!] (See, that sentence needed an irony mark.)

Apparently, there is no official board to petition, so we just have to spread the word. The grammar textbook writer can consider the changes in their next edition. The keyboard designer can consider adding an irony mark next to the right shift key. So, y’all need to get on board and tell somebody about this. Help English flow more smoothly. Spread the word.


  1. I like the suggestions - all but the plural for 'you'. You see (cough: history student here) 'you' is already plural, rather like the French word 'Vous'. The English-speaking folk dropped the 'singular' form of the second person pronoun about 150 years ago Maybe it's time to bring it back?

    The word is 'thee'. Or, more accurately, thee, thou, thine, thyself, thy. It would be complicated, since we would have to bring back some semi-archaic verb forms, and a lot of people would be stunned to learn, for example, that 'thy' is NOT formal even if it IS used in 'The Lord's Prayer', but is the term one would use to address a beloved.

    So, dear Beth, how dost thou feel about this? It would involve some adjustment but if thou wert to ask the various experts to say to each child, one on one, in Grammar Class, 'Dost thou see? Thou wilt be speaking just like T'Pao from Star Trek. I know thine inclination would be to flinch, but I have confidence in thine intelligence (the possessive 'thy' before a word starting with a vowel turns into 'thine') to give thee credit for the ability to learn. What dost thou think? Thou hadst best say 'yea' or I will contact thy parents and lay the case before them!'

    ...or we could all just start speaking French or German, which have the same words but never stopped using them. Nah. The German gutturals would give me a sore throat...

    ;) Great post!

  2. Diana, I always learn so many interesting things from you. I knew that thee was the informal, familiar version of you, but I didn't realize you was plural and thee was singular.

    Thou hast shed the light upon my confusion, and mine eyes have been opened. Surely, thou wilt propel us forward into a glorious new form of conversational English. Lead on.

    1. Oh, I don't know... I rather liked your suggestions. Especially the 'snark alert' backward-facing question mark. Not sure why that has NOT caught on!

      I'm off to read another of your books. That beta-read was so enjoyable, and I've enjoyed the excerpts of yours I've read. Can you recommend a particular one of yours, or shall I simply close my eyes, point my mouse and purchase?

      Do let me know. Every author has their (see, I listened!) favorite.


  3. You're making me blush. My personal favorite is "Recalculating Route." The prequel is a free short story "Detour on Route 66." Give that a read sometime, and if you like the characters I'd be happy to gift you a copy of "Recalculating Route."

    1. Thank you!

      I just uploaded DETOUR and purchased RECALCULATING. I'm looking forward to reading them.

  4. Thanks. Hope you enjoy them.

  5. Yes! I 100% agree with all of these! The his-or-her thing is especially annoying. "Their" is becoming more popular and is even acceptable in some circles, but it's hard to know if you're actually in one of those circles or not, so I usually avoid it.

  6. P.S. I propose 'shis'. For example, "Every student must bring shis notebook with shim, or shis grade will be docked." :-D

    1. Caryn - I love it! A whole new set of pronouns that actually fulfills the requirements of the job. Thanks for stopping by.