Category Archives: Word usage

Buzzing with enthusiasm for headlines and practical experience

Getting practical with bees_LRThere are some things that just lend themselves to corny headlines and clichéd lines. Most stories about bees seem to fall into that category. I’ve been fortunate enough to write about ChemCentre’s research into certifying monofloral honey (that’s honey from one flower species, such as jarrah or karri) in this story: ChemCentre puts honey on the menu. And I’ve previously written about international bee research for Farming Ahead magazine – ‘High tech bee research aims for sweet success’ (Farming Ahead, January 2016).

I find the whole topic of bees and honey fascinating, so when I had the opportunity to begin to get some practical experience helping friends’ out in their beehives, I flew at the chance. There’s nothing like real world experience to put theory into perspective and to add colour to your writing. With bees that perspective can pack a punch or, more accurately, a sting. In my case, on my second foray into a hive, I ended up with three bees buzzing around my head on the wrong side of the veil; the wrong side being the same side as my face.

My friend and beekeeping mentor Helen managed to squish one of them before it stung me; but the other two stung – it’s tempting to say that I was stabbed in the back but took it on the chin, as that is exactly what happened; one stung me on my chin and one on the back of my neck. Stings aside, the experience was a good one. I’m pleased to say that I wasn’t sufficiently daunted by the stings (nor by the weird looks I got down the shops the next day when people noticed my swollen, misshapen face) to stop my exploration of beekeeping. I’ve been back into the hives again since and have plans to continue my apprenticeship. Reading and writing about bees and honey research is always interesting, but there’s nothing quite like sticking my head in a hive to find out what bees are really like. I could wax lyrical about their busy little lives, although I feel that could come to a sticky end.

The pointy end of this blog really is that sometimes a well-placed cliché and even a little bit of corniness may make a tasty subject even sweeter; I think it depends on the audience, but tread carefully lest you get stung.

Singular they

The only acceptable usage of ‘they’ used to be as a third person plural pronoun; that is, the word you use to refer to more than one person:

Marshall and Warren discovered Helicobacter pylori cause stomach ulcers. They used unconventional research methods.

There’s nothing unconventional about using ‘they’ in this way, but increasingly ‘they’ is seen referring to an individual when the person’s gender is unknown:

doctor-563429_640The doctor looked at the test results. They appeared to be concerned.

In the past, this would have been written:

The doctor looked at the test results. He appeared to be concerned.

It’s likely that when this usage was first established, the vast majority of doctors were male, but the usage wasn’t really about doctors; ‘he’ was the acceptable pronoun to use if the gender of the subject was unknown:

The parent looked at the test results. He appeared to be concerned.

I think we are way past pretending that ‘he’ can justifiably be used to mean he or she. He/she was considered an option for a while and does still get used, but it’s not a great solution. It’s tempting to think of ‘they’ as a modern way around this, but the Australian Government Style Manual says this “type of construction has a long history dating back more than four hundred years, but it has acquired special value recently in the context of seeking inclusive language” (p76). Expect to see it more and more. It was voted as word of the year by the American Dialect Society but its usage is by no means restricted to America; Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary describes it as a solution that is being adopted more and more these days.

In just the same way that ‘they’ can be used in a singular form, so can ‘them’. For example:

The doctor looked at the test results. It was difficult for them to interpret exactly what was going on.

In this case, ‘them’ provides a gender-neutral alternative to saying him or her.

I, myself, don’t like this usage

Last week I shared an article about foetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) on the Write Course Facebook page. The article took the (American) Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention to task over the way it had approached the issue and presented what I read as a well-written article. I shared it to highlight how communicating science can go awry when the tone and pitch of the writing misses the target audience: in this case the CDC’s article was intended to highlight an important issue but missed the mark to some extent because of the way it was written. I concede that there could well have been many other readers who read the CRC’s article and weren’t offended.

When I posted the article, I introduced it by saying: “Interesting, well-written article. It clarifies the issue of foetal alcohol syndrome but also highlights the importance of clearly communicating science. If the messaging is wrong, the important messages can so easily be lost.”

My Facebook post received the comment: “Yeah but the irony is she lost me in the first sentence with ‘myself’.” (Thanks Jean.) It’s a good point.

The Forbes article begins with: “Feminists–including myself–have been in an uproar this week over the tone-deaf and paternalistic decree from the CDC that women of childbearing age shouldn’t drink alcohol if they’re not on birth control.”

Leaving aside the content of the sentence and focusing on the use of the word ‘myself’, Jean’s right. It’s not correct to use ‘myself’ in this context. It should be ‘me’.

Myself is a reflexive pronoun, which means it is used to refer to something ‘I’ did in the past: “I did it myself.” It is not a substitute for ‘me’ or ‘my’: “It is my work.” “Give it to me.” Not: “Give it to myself.” And not “Give it to my.” (Even if you put on a Kath and Kim accent!)

Sometimes, ‘myself’ gets used for emphasis: “But I, myself, don’t like this usage.” I think it is difficult not to sound pompous saying ‘I, myself’ and I like writing that says what it means and means what it says.