The Writers Circle: Changing Grammar Rules

One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

A question by a writer friend:

My editor keeps changing my “he said” or “she went” phrases to “they said” and “they went”. He also keeps changing sentences and making them end in a preposition:  “The person with whom I spoke” becomes “The person I spoke with.”  Is this a universal change in the writing rules we are seeing? 

My friend wanted to hear what other writers were experiencing in this regard, so I’m posing it here.  What changes in long-held grammar rules have you noticed? Are your editors pushing you toward using the singular “they” instead of gender-specific pronouns? Where do you choose to hold onto the rules we learned in school and where to let go of them?

Let’s discuss this in the comments and see what our community thinks.


4 thoughts on “The Writers Circle: Changing Grammar Rules

  1. You don’t address whether your friend is writing fiction or non-fiction. There are differences between how formal or informal the writing is.

    This sentence, “The person with whom I spoke,” is clumsy. We don’t speak this way today, and to write it as, “The person I spoke with,” is more comfortable to say and to read. The original rule is grounded in grammar rules for Latin, and since we don’t speak Latin, we need not apply the rule to English. One for the editor.

    The next one is a bit trickier. “He said” is a common method of indicating a universal but unidentified speaker. It’s a problem of English not having much in the way of addressing an unknown person. Our word “it” is an unsuitable stand in. However, the editor is turning this into an issue of political correctness. How this affects the writing is something he (or maybe “she”) will have to think about. “They said” might not be appropriate if the context concerns one person, “they” being plural.

    I suggest your friend ask other readers familiar with the story how this change affects it. If it comes off awkwardly, stand your ground. Grammar is meant to smooth written language into comprehensible communication, not muddle it with personal issues. One for no one.

  2. Since my wife is my primary editor, I don’t run into issues like this. I am all for doing gender neutral pronouns. In most professional writing it makes sense (like the tech docs I write for work), but in fiction, gender can be important.

  3. I like proper grammar. I cringe at sentences that end in prepositions. However…if I am writing a conversation where someone is speaking, I will ignore the rule to make the character sound like a real person having a real conversation. Most people don’t say, “the person with whom I spoke,” when they’re talking to each other in the hallway. In a formal document, this is correct. But, if you want your characters to sound real (and normal), I think it’s okay to make an exception. I do still believe in gender-specific nouns unless there are characters in your novel that may not identify one way or another. Otherwise, it can just be confusing to use “they” for everyone.

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