Saturday, April 10, 2010

Sometimes what you're advertising isn't what you meant to say

I've just come home from brunch with friends down the posh end of town, and as I crossed the road to return to the car I became mesmerised by a large banner slung overhead across King William Road. It was an ad for Pulteney Grammar School, one of Adelaide's pricey private schools, showing a picture of a little girl with plaits, bent studiously over an exercise book.

Above the photo, in giant letters wholly innocent of punctuation, appeared the following exhortation:

SEE YOUR CHILD DISCOVER WHO THEY REALLY ARE

(Thinks: 'Hello darling, how was your day?'
'Excellent! I saw Ermintrude discover who they really are!'
'Who who really are?'
'Ermintrude.'
'Um, what?'
Etc.)

Now, I don't have any kids, and if I did they'd probably be beyond school by now, but if I had and they weren't and I was looking to educate them, any school that advertised itself using the so-called 'singular they' would get crossed off my list sharpish.

22 comments:

Zarquon said...

If it was good enough for Shakespeare their words are good enough for me.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Now that Shakespeare is very interesting. 'There's not a man I meet but doth salute me / As if I were their well-acquainted friend' -- borderline, borderline, but I'd argue that the sense of that line -- 'all men salute me as if etc' -- sneaks in under the radar.

The Thackeray is also interesting. The character who uses it is on her dignity but not sure of her grammar -- I'd argue that that's Thackeray doing a bit of clever characterisation, not him using 'their' on his own account to mean 'his or her'. Which is, of course, the thing I'm really whingeing about.

Tatyana Larina said...

I agree that the use of ‘singular they’ is problematic, but I’m not convinced by ‘Ermintrude’, unless it’s a class signifier. A primary private school Melbourne equivalent at the moment is much more likely to be something quite ‘pedestrian’, not always Anglo-Saxon, and occasionally completely made up.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

This is true. I confess that Ermintrude as a default girl's name is a direct pinch from The Compleet Molesworth, specifically the bit where Nigel Molesworth is learning how to compliment GURLS HEM-HEM: 'Cor crikey, Ermintrude, yore pigtails are ropy today.'

Anonymous said...

Heh! Have no memory of Ermintrude, but still giggle when I think of Fotherington-Thomas ("hullo trees, hullo sky...")
Bless Leigh Hobbs for keeping the spirit of Searle going.
Delia

Anonymous said...

Ah, found him online. God I love the net!

A shame I can't post the pic here, but the text itself is as good as I remembered:

"A new recruit for the hard-pressed crew. Aktually it is only fotherington-tomas you kno he sa Hullo clouds hullo sky he is a girlie and love the scents and sounds of nature tho the less I smell and hear of them the better."

Delia

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Delia, you must have a look at this. Aktually everyone should have a look at that. H/T Tigtog, many moons ago now.

Mitzi G Burger said...

Every parent should be shuddering in their shoes when their teens discover who they really are.

kika said...

i thought our education system - especially the private one - was all about NOT discovering who you are. rather, being conditioned to be who they want you to be!

apologies for the poor grammar - i went to a state school.

fmark said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

"I confess that Ermintrude as a default girl's name is a direct pinch from The Compleet Molesworth..."


I thought you might be a Magic Roundabout fan..


cheers
B Smith

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link, Kerryn. Good stuff! So good I may have to link on facebook... Delia

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Oh yes, do!

Elisabeth said...

I suspect they're trying to get away from gender divisions, even as they write of an life in all girl's school. It vexes me too.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Elisabeth, yes they are, however ineptly -- but because Pulteney Grammar is a former boys' school now gone co-ed.

Personally I see nothing wrong with 'his or her', 'she or he' etc etc, but if people don't like that then they should do what is always the best thing to do in these sorts of grammar situations (repelled as I am by the sentiment being expressed as well as by the way it's expressed), and that's either to fix the immediate problem, which in this case is noun-pronoun agreement in number ('See your children become the people they really are') (barf, but at least it now makes sense), or to re-work the sentence completely: I would change it to something like 'See your child become a functioning and socially acceptable human being', which appears to be what they're trying to say.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

BTW, my ex-husband went to Pulteney Grammar and I'm here to tell you that claim is a hell of a stretch.

Armagnac Daddy said...

Interesting, I generally go for they in work situations on the basis that it's gender neutral, and 'he or she' is both clunky and, inevitably, privileging of one or the other (in the small sense that one comes first, and usually it's 'he', and if you reverse it you sound self-conscious).

Have to add, most pretentious bunch of names I've heard recently was the classmates of a friend's child who attends a public school in the greens heartland of Clifton Hill... and yes, of COURSE there was an Atticus...

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Armagnac D -- heh.

I approve of the motives of they-users. I just think this kind of thing undermines the system by which language works as a sense-making operation (as does, say, the demented US usage 'could care less' to mean 'couldn't care less' -- go figure), and there are better ways of getting round the problem.

It's true about the privileging of whichever of 'he' or 'she' goes first, but otherwise I don't see that 'he or she' is clunky. At seven letters and three syllables it's certainly no more clunky than horrid, vapid, interminable managerial language, say.

I'm a bit puzzled by your 'self-conscious' tag; why is that a bad thing? The more evidence I see that people have been conscious of their word choices and have made them carefully, the more respect I have for them and their writing.

As I say, my favourite solution with this particular grammatical problem is to re-work the whole sentence so that one does not get tangled up in that kind of 'he/she' construction in the first place.

Armagnac Daddy said...

"At seven letters and three syllables it's certainly no more clunky than horrid, vapid, interminable managerial language, say. "

Say What?

=p

*dux*

lucy tartan said...

You know I hate this sort of thing. And a school, too. I use 'her or his' all the time and it's perfectly lovely. Also, I think mentioning Shakespeare (or Austen) in these conversations is the grammar discussion version of Godwin's. No offence Zarquon :)

Armagnac Daddy said...

Godwin's is a recipe for failing to learn the lessons of history. Just saying...

Ping said...

And yet singular genderless 'their' is house style for at least one local textbook publisher. 'His or her' is forbidden.

*sigh*