Saturday, April 18, 2015

What Do You See?

      Several years ago, I was preparing a PowerPoint to introduce John Knowles’s A Separate Peace to my students. This award-winning novel addresses the struggle between good and evil both in the universe and in the individual’s heart. I told Brenda Price, our ever-helpful school librarian, I wanted pictures that would represent this struggle. We sifted through images of the most heinous acts in history, of the vilest villains, of the most corrupt institutions. We also sought out the acts of incomparable courage, the heroes, the saints. In the course of our search, she took from a shelf In Their Name, the book commemorating the OKC bombing. We leafed through it quickly but then lingered when we came to the iconic photo that had spread all over the world after the bombing—the one of Baylee Almon’s lifeless little body so tenderly cradled in a fireman’s arms.
In photos from OKC bombing, do you see
evil? goodness? despair? hope?

      As we studied that emotionally charged photograph, the question came to us simultaneously: “Does this represent the good or the evil?”
      It was a difficult question to answer. Difficult, because in that image we are reminded of the vilest, basest, most depraved acts of which mankind is capable. And in that same image we are shown love manifested in selfless sacrifice and heart-wrenching compassion—the noblest of human actions and emotions. 
      That day in the library, Brenda and I came to the conclusion the photograph represents both—the best and the worst of humankind. But as that image continued to invade my thoughts through the years, I came to another conclusion. Whether we see in that picture hate and despair in a hopeless world or whether we see love and hope in a struggling one depends on what we carry in our own hearts.

                                         Double Exposure
                             Lifeless baby,
                             victim of hatred,
                             cradled with love
                             in a fireman’s arms

                            Timeless image,
                            quintessence of grief,
                            to man’s condition

                           Ageless question—
                           goodness or evil?—
                           answered only
                           by the viewer’s heart

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

"They" as a Singular Pronoun

            In perusing the Review section of the WSJ last Saturday (4/11/15), I came across the headline “Can We Take ‘They’ as a Singular Pronoun?” I realize the admission of the slightest interest in such a subject puts me in a class of weirdoes right up there with crossword puzzle competitors (watch the documentary Crossplay) and Trekkies. But a one-third page article was dedicated to this question, so there must be a respectable number of us around.
            The article reported that the question had been discussed at length in the “Ask a Lexicographer” session at the annual conference of the American Copy Editors Society. I could be wrong, but somehow I can’t imagine these conference attendees posting Facebook pics of themselves lounging in the hot tub while sipping drinks with little umbrellas. Talk about an intimidating group. Surrounded by such esteemed literati, I would have been too terrified to utter a word. I break out in a cold sweat just knowing the group exists. And, as if a society of editors weren’t already intimidating enough, check out the acronym: ACES. I wonder how long it took the charter members to come up with that. (Come to think of it, probably not long.)
Problem solved. The ACES have spoken.
            But as it turns out, ACES members proved not to be the stuffy traditionalists I’d envisioned. The consensus, it appears, is that not only is it acceptable to use “they” as a singular pronoun but it is preferred over the cumbersome alternatives of “he or she,” “he/she,” or “s/he.” As an amateur writer, I’m glad to have this issue resolved. As a former English teacher, I’m experiencing mild guilt over all those times I marked “they” with a big, red PAA (faulty pronoun-antecedent agreement.) Notice I said "mild guilt." I’ll get over it, as I’m sure all my former pupils have.
            The English language is a complex and evolving organism. What works in one century . . . decade . . . year, doesn’t necessarily translate well to the following. The use of “they” as a singular pronoun has been gaining momentum ever since the 1970s, when the generic “he” became too sexist. And women of my generation learned quickly to stop saying “thongs” when referring to our sandals.
            Despite my lighthearted jabs at ACES, I’m actually very grateful the society exists. Something as malleable and yet so critical to civilization as language needs a watchdog to ensure change stays within reason. Otherwise, pandemonium will ensue and what then? Participles dangling precariously like the last autumn leaf on a tree?  Infinitives split with all the destructive force of splitting the atom? The elimination of “whom” from our vocabulary? It’s a slippery slope.