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Hey, hey, APA …

This week brought two nice surprises from the library. The first was a mail telling me that the book I’d ordered (Higher Education in Virtual Worlds) had arrived; the second was that on my way to pick it up, I managed to grab a copy of the APA Publication Manual off the New Arrivals shelf. Managing to borrow a library copy of the most recent edition of a major style guide is the academic equivalent of getting front-row seats at Superbowl or a box at La Scala: normally these books are either out on loan or in the Reference section (probably in a locked case).

On the other hand, although I need to know about APA style for my job, I’m not a major fan. (I’m more of a Chicago kind of a guy myself.) My skeptical attitude was reinforced when I opened the book at random and found the APA perpetuating two language myths in quick succession.

Neither the highest scorer nor the lowest scorer had any doubt about his or her competence.
Neither the highest scorer nor the lowest scorer had any doubt about their competence.

(2010, p. 79)

The “incorrect” version is perfectly correct; singular “they” is a respectable feature of the English language, and anyone who claims it is ungrammatical is picking a fight with Jane Austen (who while physically frail is not the kind of person you want to get into a grammar fight with). If that’s not enough, check out Mark Liberman’s post in Language Log, “Singular ‘They’: God Says It, I Believe It, That Settles It.” Moreover, the “correct” sentence, while not ungrammatical or illogical, still strikes me as odd.We tend to use “his or her” where the gender of the referent is uncertain, and while we may not know the gender of the highest scorer, I’m sure that (ahem) they do, and the sentence refers to the scorer’s doubts, not ours.

Immediately following this nonsense, we have another case of silly prescriptivism:

The students that completed the task successfully were rewarded.

(2010, p. 80)

They clarify by saying “Use who for human beings and that or which for nonhuman animals and for things.” Of course since this is an imperative and not a declarative sentence, I can’t say the APA are wrong. They can tell people to use any language they like; in fact they could say “Use foo for human beings and foobar for nonhuman animals and for things,” and they still wouldn’t actually be wrong, just weird. But if they are claiming that this is the way English works, then they are wrong, plain and simple: the human/non-human distinction determines the choice of “who” or “which”, not “who” or “that”.

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