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Stylebook needs updating
January 11, 2023
Long entrenched in Central High School’s history is the fabled Stylebook. Ask any Central High graduate about their least favorite–or most important–piece of their education and one will quite possibly receive the same answer: the Stylebook. Derived from the 1921 work of Central English teacher and department head Sara Vore Taylor, the Stylebook has most certainly been around for generations of Central students to correct themes and cure grammar maladies.
But the Stylebook is not a perfect document. In the eight years since revision, professional stylebooks have evolved to become more inclusive, and the Central Stylebook ought to follow suit. And that starts with changing rule S3-B.
This is not to say that Central’s Stylebook must match professional stylebooks by any standard.
High school level writers simply do not need a resource as in-depth as the Modern Language Association or Associated Press stylebooks, and the occasional revisions that are made to Central’s Stylebook take time and money to create, print and distribute. Central English teachers, sadly, are not paid enough to be professional stylebook editors. The Stylebook is a fantastic way
for teachers to dish out efficient and succinct writing feedback, an issue that many other English teachers struggle with.
Like Vore Taylor once said, “Only a born dictator would pursue [the Stylebook] to death.” But that does not mean that there are not things that can be done to improve it. Stylebook Rule S3-B states in plain text that “A pronoun should agree with its antecedent in number and gender.” This rule makes practical sense. But problems start to arise with the example that the Stylebook provides.
B. Pronoun Agreement with Antecedent
Error: Everyone should do their work.
Correction: Everyone should do his/her work.
This example disallows the use of a singular “they” pronoun. Singular “theys” and “thems” are not new to the English language. The Oxford English Dictionary reported in 2018 that written use of a singular “they” has been traced back to 1375, almost 650 years ago. Colloquially, the pronoun was used in the singular form long before that.
Use of the singular “they” makes the referral to a person of an unknown gender much less awkward. In 2015, the Washington Post officially updated its style to allow for the use of a singular “they.” Then-copy editor Bill Walsh pointed out that “alternating he and she is silly, as are he/she, (s)he and attempts at made-up pronouns.” The AP stylebook followed suit in 2017, approving the usage of a singular “they” when “alternative wording is overly
awkward or clumsy.” In 2019, the MLA stylebook updated its standards, putting it into writing that a singular “they” could be used “as a generic third-person singular pronoun to refer to a person whose gender is unknown or irrelevant to the context.”
As Kirby Conrod – University of Washington linguist who specializes in pronoun usage – puts it,one would not say, “Did you see that? He or she cut me off!”
Moreover, the accepted use of a singular “they” is a catalyst to make the English language more inclusive. Many transgender, nonbinary, agender, genderqueer and cisgender people feel more comfortable using a gender-neutral pronoun, such as “they.” Dignifying the use of a singular
“they” supplies legitimacy and grammatical correction to people who use gender-neutral pronouns in the ever-evolving language that is English. Acceptance of a singular “they” on an academic level creates more space for queer self-expression within the writing world.
Not only is there a current burden to correct this draconian rule, but there is historic precedence on how a change should look. The word “thou” was used in old English in an analogous way to how modern-day English speakers use “you.” “Thou” was a singular pronoun, and it was eventually ditched in favor of the more popular “you” because “thou” connoted speaking down
to someone, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. The specific example of “you” is so spectacular because it has become a numerically ambiguous word – one uses “you” when referring to a singular “you” or a large group of “you.” Different dialects of English have adapted their own versions of “you,” for example, the South’s “y’all.” It is a gender-neutral and
colloquial way to refer to a group of people or to get attention, and my personal favorite pronoun of all. While “y’all” may not be used in an academic setting, the sentiment still stands. Humans change, and language changes with them.
Rule S3-B is not the only discrepancy in the current version of the stylebook. Since the publishing of the last edition, the Nebraska Department of Education has updated its High School Student Friendly Language Arts standards, a crucial tool for teachers to plan and grade
around. Students must be just as involved as teachers in the Stylebook revision process.
It is time for Central to retire the current version of the Stylebook. The 2014 version has done its due diligence in the eight years that it has been in service, and it must change so it can continue to evolve with the rest of Central High School.