Back To The Other Deadly Science

Some months ago The New York Times expressed an unusually astute editorial opinion. Said the Times: "Nobody wants some sicko drilling a peephole in their locker room."
In their locker room?

Four months later, the Times was relieved by a report discounting the threat of nuclear weapons in Iran. Even so, "The new report is not an argument for anyone to let down their guard when it comes to Iran’s nuclear ambitions." Let down their guard?

Yes, we’re back today to that other dismal science, i.e., grammar. The question nags at every serious writer. How do we handle referent pronouns? The clumsy things won’t behave. They won’t go away. They flop around in our prose like wet dogs on a kitchen floor.

Last month the acting head of the Federal Aviation Administration made a reassuring statement: "We will take action against anybody who violates their obligation …" In Time magazine, a writer discussed the Barbary States, "where everyone is making their own deals." In The Seattle Times, an education reporter spoke of a decision-making process that isn’t complete "until everybody has said their piece."

This past September I heard from David Short, a retired teacher who formerly taught English at the ninth-grade level. He is of the old school: "I always taught my students that in antecedal constructions, the ‘one’s’ and ‘body’s’ were always singular, e.g., ‘Everybody left HIS jacket on the bus.’" He asks, "Was I right?"

On this recurring question, the Times’ stylebook is unequivocal: It lines up the usual suspects — anybody, anyone, everybody, everyone, no one and someone — and decrees: "Each of these pronouns is singular and requires ‘he’ or ‘she’ (never ‘they’) on further reference. Thus, ‘Has anybody lost HIS ticket?’"

In its sometimes disappointing way, The Associated Press Stylebook ducks the issue. So, too, with the eminent Henry Fowler in his Modern English Usage. Fowler’s inheritor, R.W. Burchfield, gently waffles. He says the indefinite pronouns "are now frequently, though somewhat controversially, followed by such plural pronouns as ‘they’ or ‘their.’" Burchfield goes on to say: "Popular usage and historical precedent favor the use of a plural pronoun in such contexts, but many writers prefer to use ‘he’ or ‘he or she.’"

What about it? I would love to hear from editors, authors, speechwriters and serious readers (God bless you!) and will report your consensus.

We turn now to another teeth-grinder, i.e., the abuse of "like." Horrid Examples, please.

From historian Richard Rubin, writing in The New York Times magazine: "Even as the American small town continues what often seems like an irresistible decline, some in northwest North Dakota are mounting …"

From a Times editorial commenting on a huge Pepsi sign to be built in the Meadowlands. The company said no sign so vast has been seen before. Said the Times: "That seems like a safe bet."

What is the rule on "seems like"? Isn’t a simple "seems" enough? My thought is to reserve "like" for honest similes: My love is like a red, red rose. A fighter airplane flies like a homesick angel. To the complacent Polonius, a cloud was like a camel, like a weasel, and very like a whale. When we’re just "seeming" and not comparing, let us shun the encumbering word. Down with LIKE! In these constructions, truly less is more.