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A Word, Please:

Doing battle for ‘them’

January 06, 2010|By June Casagrande

Everyone knows that grammar is for nerds. What they don’t know is that grammar is only for the toughest, the scrappiest, the baddest nerds in all the land. I’m talking dweebs with UFC fighting credentials and authorization to carry concealed weapons.

True, we nerds all put in our retainers one tooth at a time. But unlike science nerds or computer geeks or those people who still wear Chewbacca T-shirts, grammar nerds must always be prepared for battle. Brutal battle.

For example, a science nerd can mention that water molecules look like Mickey Mouse with exactly zero fear of reprisal. There’s no danger that another science nerd will respond by screaming, “No! They look like Donald Duck!” and then punch him in the solar plexus.


No computer geek will ever have to argue with a colleague who insists that binary language is really made up of ones and eights.

No “Star Wars” nerd will have to defend the assertion, “Chewy is awesome!”

But grammar nerds don’t have it so easy. If you don’t believe me, try arguing in public that it’s OK to begin a sentence with “more importantly.” If your experience is anything like mine, you’ll end up with enough angry e-mails to justify three weeks’ worth of columns and six weeks of therapy.

That’s why it is only with great reluctance that I’m taking a suggestion from my friend and fellow grammar nerd, author Carolyn Howard-Johnson, who wrote recently to ask my feelings on using “he or she.”

To non-dweebs, this seems like a pretty safe question. But grammar nerds know it’s really a viper’s den.

You see, most experts say it’s usually best to use “he or she” instead of “they” in a sentence like: “When an applicant arrives, he or she should complete the paperwork.” Back in the days when women were less likely to apply for the same jobs as men, people could often just use “he.” But today most people try to be more inclusive. So “he or she” is the most precise and polite solution.

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