THEY: A Story of Love and Hate
I’ve been moping around here all day, watching my KDP numbers, trying to think of something to write for you guys. By the way, Aurian and Jin is FREE in ebook form for a few more hours, and I highly recommend you take advantage of that shit.
Anyway. To the story.
‘Write about something you love to hate’, one well-meaning blog prompt suggested. Well, worth a try, eh? I passed up pickles as too boring, my waistline as too banal, my current story, in which I am unabashedly stuck, as too personal.
And then I was commenting on someone’s post on Facebook, right? And I began typing this phrase: “I prefer to go up to a person, and when they–“
Wait, hold the phone.
NOT they. This is singular. A person, not people. So not they, right? He or she.
But GOD, that’s fucking bumpy as hell. I hate ‘he or she’. It smacks of grammarian and becoming the sort of grandparent who says yes, of course, you can have a soda, and then folds his or her (!!!) arms and stares at you smugly, waiting for the apologetically mumbled ‘may’. It smacks of that creative writing professor who failed your critique group poem because, instead of writing about womyn, you Bukowski’d it up by farting out that common faux pas women.
Well, I’m not a sexist piece of shit (not particularly, at least), nor am I a grammar Nazi, nor am I going to be the sort of grandmother who clucks under her breath when you go to lay down.
I do, however, like to be right. I think most of us share this liking. I like, in particular, to be right about grammar, because, honestly, conscious grammar usage is one of the things that, in my opinion, separates a professional writer from someone who really enjoyed writing stories about their favorite animes in high school.
And these days, with the advent of self-publishing as a major force, there isn’t as much to separate these groups of people as there used to be. Maybe this sounds cruel. Hell, it is cruel. But when I’m out looking for something to read, and I’m browsing Kindle Free titles because I’m broke, good grammar is one of the things I look for as an enticement to click that ‘download’ button.
Now, don’t get it twisted. I know that ‘they’ as second person singular isn’t entirely wrong. It’s accepted. Famous writers have used it. But it still has the taint of informality to it, and it still, in my personal opinion, stinks to high heaven. And, dear god, I’m not the only person who thinks so. By FAR.
But it’s not wrong, not exactly, right? So why do I care?
Because, my beauties. No, it’s not exactly wrong; on the other hand, it isn’t exactly RIGHT.
Because I’m serious about reading. I read or reread about a book a day, and yes, I remember a lot about them, and yes, I can answer questions. And I don’t like to waste my time, which is at least precious to me, parsing my way through someone’s thinly veiled and poorly spelled Harry Potter fanfiction. (A note: if it were PHENOMENAL Harry Potter fanfiction, well written and edited, sure. I’m not saying this to get all shitty on folks who write fanfiction. But that’s still not really my thing, okay?)
And when your novel’s tagline is ‘A person can take a lot, but can they survive MORE than a lot?’, let me tell you.
There is a brief and terrible supernova, complete with flashing lights and the buttery scent of dying electrons, in my skull-hole.
I repeat. There is a quantum blood diamond RAVE in my brainpan.
There is a extrasensory orchestra, complete with supersonic tympani and piccolo solos in colors our limited eyes can’t register, twining within my motherfucking grey matter. And it’s a SHITTY extrasensory orchestra, folks. I can’t identify it, but I know it’s fucking terrible.
And I go: “AW, FUCK THAT.”
And I click next.
Why? Why do I care so much, when I think the alternatives to ‘they’ are clunky at best, contrived at worst? Why, when I’m perfectly willing to use ‘they’ when I’m texting a friend or making a comment on Facebook? Why, when it isn’t even technically wrong?
Because I’m a reader and a writer, and I think your story’s blurb needs to contain not even a WHIFF of grammatical wrongness, because even that whiff takes me out of your pitch and onwards into the cold blue wonderland of grammatical sophistry. Because, even though it’s increasingly unpopular these days to do so, I think we owe the written word a lot of respect. And if you’re a writer, hoping to make a name or a living for yourself using the written word as your toolbelt, I damn well expect you to do the same.
Yes, there are times when ‘he or she’ or ‘a person’ is just too clunky, or doesn’t fit the mood of the scene. And, yes, the universal ‘he’ is a little sexist. And you will never, ever, hear me say you should stick to the rules when they just don’t work for you. Thackeray and Austen, who’re after all kind of hard to argue with, employ ‘they’ as a second person singular pronoun. But here’s the thing, kids: when someone’s making a thoughtful departure from ‘he or she’ for good reasons, you can tell. Just trust me on this: you can tell. You can tell, in fact, because it won’t bother you. You won’t have to look twice at that sentence to figure out what it means, because the writer, in searching for the least distracting way to convey a second person singular pronoun of uncertain gender, determined it to be ‘they’. And, whaddya know. THEY were right.
However, one of these times should NEVER be in your story blurb. Because that handful of words is all you have to hook people in, and, honestly, the right sort of reader DOES care about that sort of thing, and a lot of them, just like everybody else in the whole frigging world, are still on the fence about ‘they’. It’s not wrong, necessarily, but it’s noticeable, and noticeable grammar is a bad, bad thing.
You want ‘the right readers’ to read your book. Why? Because you want to be appreciated by people who know what they’re talking about. It might not always get you far, but it’ll get you somewhere you want to be. Maybe it makes me some sort of ‘ist’, but I’d much rather be respected by ten people who know what they’re talking about than two hundred people who don’t. If I’m a plumber, I want to be recommended by all the good plumbers in town, not the shitty ones. I want the customers who loved me to be the people with five diarrhea-ridden children who use their single toilet every day, not the spinster who takes a dump every two weeks, and only at three AM when no one can see the light go on in the bathroom.
And, maybe I’m an idealist, but it makes long-term sense as well. Because who do you go to for a plumber recommendation: the constipated spinster, or Mr. And Mrs. Dominic Dook?
Wow, that was a serious digression. Anyway.
Questionable grammar pulls you out of the story pitch and makes you blink. It makes you ask, in true grandmotherly style, ‘wait, whose bathroom, again? You said it was THEIR bathroom’. And, if it happens enough, it’s just irritating as fuck. Grammar exists as a way to make language more concise, more universal, more understandable.
I’m a fan of it, as far as that goes. Grammar is a tool, just like outlines and pretty adjectives. But when the tool is more noticeable than the end you’re trying to achieve, it isn’t good sales pitch fodder.
So lay off THEY. Make the sentence plural, or his or hers it up, or revert to the universal masculine. Or, probably a better idea: delete the sentence. Because if you need a 2nd person pronoun of indeterminate gender, it probably isn’t that captivating anyway. If I see it in your story from time to time, I’ll forgive you. Hell, I even do it myself in the right circumstances. But your blurb isn’t the place.
Righty-ho. Off to gaze at my mountainous KDP reports again. Le sigh. If only these sales represented actual money.