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Evolving Rules of Grammar

Posted by Brian Kelly on 31 January 2013

Is “Why every researcher should sign up for their ORCID ID” Grammatically Incorrect?

Tweets saying "every researcher should claim their ORCID ID"Yesterday a post of mine entitled “Why every researcher should sign up for their ORCID ID” was republished on the LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog. The announcement made by @lseimpactblog was subsequently widely retweeted, as illustrated.

It was subsequently pointed out the sentence contained a grammatical error: “every researcher” is singular and therefore shouldn’t be followed by a plural form of the pronoun: “their ORCID ID“. Coincidentally yesterday I came across as tweet which linked to the announcement that “The [University of Washington] Daily adopts gender-neutral pronoun“. I responded to the tweet questioning whether this was a wise decision:

Univ of WA adopts gender neutral pronouns – they as singular pronoun: ow.ly/hgwD6 Surely a thumbs down?

In response it seems that several people were in agreement with the decision taken at the University of Washington that “The Daily will join the efforts of these organizations by implementing gender-neutral language, using “they” as a singular pronoun when applicable“. I received several responses shortly after publishing my tweet:

  • It was good enough for Jane Austen! :)
  • Meh. It’s been around since at least 1595 – better than ubiquitous ‘he’, generally less clumsy than ‘he/she’, so why not?
  • I use ‘they’ as a gender neutral pronoun. Better than s/he surely?
  • why? I can live with it for the sake of less gendered conversations (and have been doing it for years anyway)

However one person made the point that:

  • I really HATE the use of “they” as a singular pronoun!

I would agree with the view that “Why every researcher should sign up for his/her ORCID ID” is ugly. I also feel that “Why every researcher should sign up for his ORCID ID” is sexist and “Why every researcher should sign up for her ORCID ID” seeks to make a political point which, although I might be sympathetic towards, will distract from the purpose of the sentence.

In light of the comments and subsequent discussion on Twitter this morning I now realise that I agree that this construct is now acceptable. However as a comment made on the English StackExchange forum put it:

It’s not ungrammatical per se on the basis of analysis of actual usage using reasonable linguistic methods. But use it at your own risk of being criticized by the self-righteous but misinformed.

The question seems to no longer a question of one’s understanding correct and incorrect language use but one’s willingness to potentially alienate the “self-righteous but misinformed“. And note that before anyone suggests that there is no such things as incorrect language use I’ll highlight a tweet I saw this morning which provided an ironical perspective on language misuse:

Somewhere, someone who writes “should of” instead of “should have” gets paid more than me.

The particular example discussed in this post clearly has ‘political’ connotations as one form which was popular in the past makes 50% of the population invisible (it was interesting to observe, y the way, that 4 of the 5 initial responses were from women). It would be possible to sidestep such controversy by restructuring the sentence e.g. “Why all researcher should sign up for an ORCID ID” or “Why all researchers should sign up for their ORCID ID“. But what about the more general question regarding changing rules of grammar?

“Data Is” or “Data Are”?

"Data is" or "Data are" discussionAs recorded in a Storify summary of the subsequent Twitter discussion, last year a reviewer of a paper which asked “Can Linkedin and Academia.edu Enhance Access to Open Repositories?” commented that:

the word ‘data’ is still a plural noun, no matter how many times people may erroneously use it in the singular

Myself and my co-author Jenny Delasalle disagreed and the paper was published containing the sentence:

As described by Delasalle [8] the data for Academia.edu was obtained by entering the institution’s name in the search box; the number of entries were then displayed

But what if reviewers or editors insist that text must conform with specific house rules in order for a submitted article to be published? Should one’s approach to writing and grammar be based on one’s own views on what is appropriate or on what may be appropriate for the readers? And if that latter, whose opinions should one prioritise: the editors and reviewers or general readers?

It seems to me that it can be helpful to gauge opinion on such matters. I have therefore set up two surveys to solicit views on whether the following grammatical constructs are felt to be appropriate in scholarly works: “Anyone who loves the English language should have a copy of this book in their bookcase” and (b) “The data was obtained from an online survey“.

I invite responses to the survey and comments on this topic.


View Twitter conversation from: [Topsy] | View Twitter statistics from: [TweetReach] – [Bit.ly]

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8 Responses to “Evolving Rules of Grammar”

  1. Jonathan Blaney said

    I used to work as a lexicographer at OUP. In the New Oxford Dictionary of English, for example, we used singular they in definition writing as a matter of policy.

    I like the summary of the arguments, with useful links, given on Stan Carey’s language blog a couple of days ago: http://stancarey.wordpress.com/2013/01/29/singular-they-you-and-a-senseless-way-of-speaking/

  2. Of course in this specific instance it might’ve been easiest to use ‘Why every researcher should sign up for an ORCID ID’ ;-)

  3. I use ‘they’ as a singular – I’m in good company.
    Despite having a Classics degree, I don’t mind ‘data’ as a singular – when a word enters English it takes on a life of its own. I tend to make ‘data’ singular in speech, but often plural in writing, depending on the local house style.

    But ‘Myself and my co-author Jenny Delasalle disagreed’ makes me wince. I realise you want to make it clear that you disagreed with the preceding quotation, not with one another, but I would have said ‘My co-author… and I disagreed with this’.

  4. With the greatest of respect may I suggest that the biggest issue about ORCID is whether it offers a SINGULAR value proposition that encourages PLURAL scholarly services to flourish.

  5. I generally just point people to the Peeving category on the Language Log – http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?cat=62. It generally discusses how ill-founded these preconceptions are.

    There’s absolutely nothing wrong with personal preferences on matters of usage. It becomes a lot more problematic when ill-informed people in positions of power (like teachers and newspaper editors) use it to judge people’s abilities in other fields. I have absolutely no sympathy with that and think these people deserve to be ridiculed the same way they ridicule others. I’ve written about that at some length (including comments) in the case of “literally” http://metaphorhacker.net/2011/02/literally-triumph-of-pet-peeve-over-matter/.

    • Ian Watson said

      One solution is to use a different sentence construction ‘researchers should sign up for their…’
      Or ‘ would all researchers sign up for their…’

  6. […] Is “Why every researcher should sign up for their ORCID ID” Grammatically Incorrect? Yesterday a post of mine entitled “Why every researcher should sign up for their ORCID ID” was republished on the LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog.  […]

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