Future of Languages: Zero Tolerance Approach for Punctuation


Istvan Simon was born in Hungary and grew up in Brazil.  He writes: I am probably on dangerous thin ice to get involved in a discussion on English usage, given that English is my third language, though I think that I now speak it better than my first one. Also, I am awed by the eminence of the WAISers that have expressed opinions on this issue. Still, I'll foolishly venture into dangerous waters. "everybody wants to have their cake and eat it too" is not only  correct, like Cameron Sawyer points out, but BETTER than "everybody wants to have   his cake and eat it too." The latter, in my humble opinion, is not only ambiguous, but the two meanings of the sentence seem to have about equal weight. Of course, it can be argued that the same is true of ..."their cake ..." but I disagree, as the undesired meaning in that case is less likely, because collective ownership of a cake is highly unlikely.    Therefore, the apparently un-grammatical "their cake" is correct, and better than the arbitrary "his cake" or "her cake".  OK, now trounce me ..."

RH: Istvan is correct. In the good old days "his" stood for both genders, but feminists denounce that as male chauvinism. "·His?her" is clumsy, so "their" is the lesser of two evils.


Glenye Cain writes: David Crow might be heartened to know that I share his tendency toward grammatical conservatism with political liberalism. I also agree with his caution about applying the AP Stylebook outside the world of journalism, which has its own space-related needs that often trump elegance. On the subject of space-saving devices, the paper I work for has an irritating habit of using numbers instead of words even when an age is spelled out, as in, "during his 3-year-old season." I think this looks dreadful. A magazine I once worked for did even worse, though. Its editor banned the use of the word "the" at the beginning of sentences, so you'd have to write "Thought occurred to him that ..." and similarly awkward things. The editor also experimented for a while with spelling "employee" as "employe," which generated a lot of laughter among the readership (and chagrin among the editorial staff).


Your comments are invited. Read te home page of the World Association of International Studies (WAIS) by simply double-clicking on:   http://wais.stanford.edu/ E-mail to hilton@stanford.edu. Mail to Ronald Hilton, Hoover Institution, Stanford, CA 94305-6010. Please inform us of any change of e-mail address.

Ronald Hilton 2004

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last updated: October 8, 2004