Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Gibbon was wrong -- it was split infinitives that destroyed the Roman empire

posted Wed, 28 Jul 2004

A few weeks ago, I wrote to Maytag about a Jenn-Air ad. My letter is below, followed by the response I got. (PS I will admit right here that I am one of those people who doesn’t have anything better to do with my time than tilt at windmills.)

Dear Ms Spiekerman,

I am sure you will be as appalled as I was to read the following sentence, which appears in Jenn-Air's inside front cover ad in the June/July issue of Saveur magazine:

"A great chef wears their passion on their sleeve."

My third-grade English teacher would have marked a big red 'X' through that sentence and returned the paper to me with an 'F.'

You and I both know that the third-person possessive singular plural pronouns in English are "his" and "hers." "Their" is plural. Great chefs wear their passions; a great chef wears his passion. (And I – a woman – do not get offended at seeing the English language used properly. I do not take that sentence to mean that all great chefs are men. I'll bet the women who would get bothered at that are not women who cook. So do you care what they think?)

Maybe you could give a copy of Strunk and White's "Elements of Style" to your ad agency so they don't commit this sort of error again.

Yours sincerely,

The Class Factotum
(aka One of Those Language Sticklers)

Dear Mrs. Factotum,

Thank you for taking the time to contact us with your comments about our recent advertisement in Saveur. We would like to offer you some context regarding the use of the plural pronoun "their" coupled with the singular word "chef" in the ad.

Because it is rare to hear "his/her" used in everyday language, we chose the pronoun "their" as a means of ensuring a conversational tone. This sort of colloquial language is used frequently in advertising copy in the interest of avoiding phrases that, though grammatically correct, may create confusion for the typical reader, or may serve to disrupt the conversational tone.

We hope that you liked the ad despite the use of this phrase, and that you will continue to look for future advertisements from Jenn-Air.


Kingsley Shannon
Jenn-Air Brand Manager

Here are my questions to Maytag: First, do you really think most Americans are so stupid they would get confused by proper English? Do you really think your target audience and the readers of Saveur magazine are such idiots that they would get confused by good grammar?

Second, do you think that maybe, just maybe, you might be part of the problem? By perpetuating this atrocity – “their” used as a third-person singular possessive pronoun – don’t you think that you are making it even more conversational? If “their” starts to sound right, then the proper term – “his” or “her” – starts to sound even more wrong. It’s a death spiral that will lead us to chaos and anarchy.

Now, I know most of you reading this are scratching your heads and thinking, “This woman is completely nuts. So many big things to worry about and she picks this as an issue? Did she run out of her medication or what?”

Well. Perhaps. But I am passionate about this issue. Language matters. Precision matters. Meaning matters. And it doesn’t hurt that this is something I am good at where I get to be right! (Even though no one else cares.)

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