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June 7th, 2006

He, he/she, or they? / different with from or than / snuck

by Barbara Wallraff

Charles Bingham, of Sitka, Alaska, writes: “Some co-workers are rewriting a training manual, and they want to know what pronoun to use to refer to a department director. The position is held by a man but was previously held by a woman. The use of ‘he/she’ or the phrase ‘he or she’ gets clunky. But we want to avoid using ‘he,’ and we can’t use ‘they’ because there only is one director. Any suggestions on the best ways to get around this issue?”

Dear Charles: You and your co-
workers have my sympathy. If you use “he” to mean an unspecified person, you’ll annoy readers who consider it sexist. If you use “he/she” or “he or she,” you’ll annoy readers who think political correctness is often taken too far. If you use “they” to refer to one person, you’ll annoy readers who consider it ungrammatical. And if you use anything else, you’ll annoy readers who think you’re being weird.

Actually, I fall into all four categories of readers who are easy to annoy with pronouns. There’s no way to rewrite that training manual that will make me completely happy -- but check back in 20 or 30 years and I’ll bet “they” as a singular pronoun will have become standard by then. (If the word “you,” which was originally plural, can also be singular, why can’t “they”?) In the meantime, your best options are: (1) Flip a coin to decide whether to use “he” or “she” throughout, and include a note at the beginning of the manual explaining that the choice is arbitrary and was made for simplicity’s sake, or (2) Alternate “he” and “she” either paragraph by paragraph or chapter by chapter.

Paul Fishkin, of Madison, Wis., writes: “In a recent column you said that the word ‘guilt’ is ‘usually used differently from the way ...’ I thought it should be ‘differently than,’ as ‘from’ indicates distance. Which is correct?”

Dear Paul: Purists will tell you that no matter what the meaning, it should always be “differently (or different) from” -- never “than.” “Garner’s Modern American Usage,” by Bryan A. Garner, explains this point of view: “The problem is that ‘than’ should follow a comparative adjective (e.g., ‘larger than,’ ‘sooner than,’ etc.), and ‘different’ is not comparative.”

Garner doesn’t accept that as the last word on “different than,” though, and neither do I. “Different than” can untangle snarls of needless words. Consider “Some words are now used in ways different from the ways in which they were used a century ago.” Ick. “Some words are now used in different ways than they were a century ago” is much neater. The rule I follow is: Use “different from” unless it makes a mess that “different than” will clean up.

Suzanne Thurman, of Canton, Mich., writes: “Is it proper to use the word ‘snuck’? ‘He snuck out the back door,’ for example. I thought this was unacceptable usage, but some people argue with me.”

Dear Suzanne: I’m on your side: The traditional, correct past tense of “sneak” is “sneaked.” Given that the past tense of “seek” is the irregular “sought” and the past tense of “stick” is “stuck,” though, it’s probably inevitable that some people would try to give “sneak” an irregular past tense too. “Snuck” is increasingly common, but “sneaked” is still preferred.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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