Thinking About Punctuation: Semi-colons, Colons, and Dashes

Way of the HeathenI’m working on my new book, The Way of the Heathen: Practicing Atheism in Everyday Life. I’ve been having thoughts and conversations about punctuation. And I want to share them and get feedback.

Specifically: I’ve been thinking about when to use semi-colons, colons, and dashes. I’ve been thinking about this ever since I started writing professionally in 1989. More recently, Alex Gabriel and I were talking about our tendency (and many writers’ tendency) to overuse these punctuation marks. They are lovely and fun to use, and sometimes they’re exactly what you need: but they can make for precious, complicated, hard-to-read sentences with too many clauses and sub-clauses. I’ve been thinking more carefully about how I want to use them, and working on making my use of them more consistent instead of just using whatever looks right. So I wanted to share the guidelines I’ve been using, my own personal style manual. And I wanted to get opinions and feedback.

Period and commas. The main guideline comes straight from Alex: Whenever it’s reasonable, replace semi-colons, colons, and dashes with periods or commas. Shorter sentences are generally better.

But shorter sentences aren’t always better. Sometimes, replacing semi-colons, colons, and dashes with periods or commas would make the writing clumsy or unclear. When that’s the case, here are my guidelines.

Colons: I use a colon when the clause following it is a complete sentence. (Example: “You didn’t decide to be an atheist: you decided to ask questions, look at evidence, prioritize reality over wishful thinking, and quit pushing your doubts to the back burner.”

Note to self: These colons can often be replaced with periods, splitting the sentence into two.

Semi-colons: I use a semi-colon when the clause following it is not a complete sentence. (Example: “After all, what could make you feel more important than believing that the creator of the entire universe cares passionately about you; that he wants more than almost anything for you to do right and be with him after you die, and is even waging a war for your soul?”)

Note to self: These semi-colons can also sometimes be replaced with periods, splitting the sentence into two with just a little recasting. They can also sometimes be replaced with commas.

I also use semi-colons in the place of commas, when I have a sentence with a list of things, and the things being listed are longer phrases or clauses instead of single words or very short phrases. This is especially the case when one or more of the things being listed is a phrase that has a comma in it. (Example: “I love that we’ve dressed it up in studs and feathers, boots and stockings; that we’ve added personal theater and public theater; that we’ve spent millennia exploring it in painting and writing and film and pixels.”)

Note to self: Consider whether commas would be better. This is, however, a generally legitimate use of semi-colons.

Dashes: I use a dash when the clause following it is not a complete sentence, but when a semi-colon seems wrong — mostly because the second phrase needs more separation from the main sentence. (Example, other than that self-referential one: “And when you conclude that there are no gods, one of the implications is a demand that we work for social justice — an end to extreme poverty, political disempowerment, government corruption, gross inequality in economic opportunity, misogyny, racism, homophobia, and more.”

Note to self: These dashes can often be replaced with periods or commas. If not, they can often be replaces with semi-colons or colons.

I also use dashes to insert a short phrase that needs to be separate from the rest of the sentence, but that’s too important to put into parentheses. (Example: “According to the genetic counselor, it’s entirely possible — likely, even — that there are other genetic markers associated with Lynch Syndrome, ones that researchers don’t know about yet.”)

Note to self: Consider whether commas would be better. Consider whether parentheses would be better. Consider whether the phrase is even necessary, or could just be cut.

Other note to self: Try to limit dashes to no more than one use per paragraph.

Thoughts?


Comforting Thoughts book cover oblong 100 JPGComing Out Atheist Bendingwhy are you atheists so angryGreta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

Meta-Stories

I’m thinking about meta-stories. Stories about stories. This starts off being about Christmas stories — but that’s only where it starts. It goes somewhere else. I’m not sure where it ends.

Stephanie Zvan has an interesting piece about Christmas stories, and how many there are other than the obvious one. She wrote this paragraph, which struck a nerve and got my brain wheels spinning:

Christmas accretes stories the way Thanksgiving accretes recipes for disguising vegetables. Charlie Brown and his lonely tree. Scrooge and his ghosts. The little girl with the matchsticks. Jo’s Christmas “without presents”. Reindeer on the house-top. A Grinch with an undersized heart. A snowman willing to sacrifice himself for a little girl. A desperate man on a bridge. A ski resort in need of saving for the old man. A couple with nothing but the ability to sacrifice for each other. A consuming desire for an unsafe “toy”. A hostage situation, of all things.

the-little-match-girl-(a-living-story-book)-cover 200I read that paragraph — and had an immediate, vivid flash of memory. Stephanie wrote “The little girl with the matchsticks,” and what jumped into my head wasn’t so much that story itself, or even the memory of the picture book with the heavy, glossy cardboard pages. It was the meta-story. What I remembered was the time I was talking with my mother about “The Little Match Girl,” a story I loved and was somewhat obsessed with — and she said she hated the story, because it was a justification for why it was okay for children to freeze to death in the streets. I realized that Mom was right, and suddenly saw through the gloppy sentiment, and had a small moment of growing up. I had a small moment of realizing that the world wasn’t always okay — and I had a small flash of understanding about critiquing art.

Christmas doesn’t just accrete stories. It accretes meta-stories. I’m sure everyone who celebrates Christmas has these: the first time they watched “A Charlie Brown Christmas” after their parent’s divorce; the time when they’d just moved into their new home and watched “It’s A Wonderful Life” sitting on lawn chairs in a house full of boxes; the time they put on the Christmas play and accidentally set fire to the manger. The stories aren’t just stories: they become part of our own.

But of course, that’s true of all stories. The story of The Phantom Tollbooth is also the story of listening to my father read it aloud to me and my brother, and reveling in his pleasure in the story as much as my own. The story of The Godfather is also the story of my seventh-grade class passing it around to each other, whispering the page numbers of the dirty parts. The story of Star Wars is also the story of my younger cousins haunting the suburban mall where they watched the movie over thirty times. The story of Alice in Wonderland is also the story of the first year Ingrid and I were involved, when she was in New York and I was in San Francisco so we talked on the phone constantly, and she had a sore throat one time and couldn’t talk, so I read Alice in Wonderland to her over the phone.

So now I want to know: What are your meta-stories?


Comforting Thoughts book cover oblong 100 JPGComing Out Atheist Bendingwhy are you atheists so angryGreta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

Dream Diary, 11/20/15: Bobby Jindal in Discworld

bobby jindalI dreamed that Terry Pratchett had written a Discworld novel in which Bobby Jindal was a character, and was gay. In the book-within-a-dream, Jindal’s mother was a super-progressive, pro-LGBT PFLAG mom, and Jindal was embarrassed by this, because he was still a conservative Republican politician, and although he was out about being gay, he was embarrassed about it and didn’t like to talk about it.


Comforting Thoughts book cover oblong 100 JPGComing Out Atheist Bendingwhy are you atheists so angryGreta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

What You’re Saying When You Use the Phrase “Politically Correct”

“Warning — I’m going to say some things here that aren’t politically correct.”

Or, “Oh, I’d better be careful, I might upset the PC police.”

Or, in response to a complaint about bigotry and discrimination and dehumanization, “They’re just being politically correct, I’m so sick of all that PC nonsense.”

I hear this a lot. I hear it from writers, speakers, politicians, commentators, comedians. And I don’t just hear it from overtly douchey asshats. I also hear it from people who are generally smart, thoughtful, decent, and clearly wanting to do good.

hexagonal-warning-signI hear this a lot. And whenever I hear it, it’s like a red flag. It’s like a red flag attached to sirens and klaxons and flashing red lights. It’s like a guy on the side of the road jumping around with a giant sign — a sign that says, “This person is about to say something incredibly screwed-up.”

When you use the phrase “politically correct,” here’s what you’re saying.

You’re saying, “I want to be able to say things that are damaging — and I don’t want to be held accountable for it.”

You’re saying, “I don’t want to have to think very carefully about the things that I’m saying. I want to say whatever pops into my head — and I don’t want to think about whether it’s unfair, inaccurate, bigoted, or otherwise harmful.”

You’re saying, “I want to say whatever pops into my head — and I don’t want to think about whether it perpetuates harmful tropes or stereotypes.”

You’re saying, “In particular, I want to say whatever pops into my head about people who’ve gotten the short end of the stick for centuries — and I don’t want to think about whether the things I say are bashing them with that stick one more goddamn time.”

You’re saying, “When people speak up about bigotry and discrimination and dehumanization, I don’t want to have to think about the actual content of what they’re saying.”

You’re saying, “When people speak up about bigotry and discrimination and dehumanization, I’m not going to engage with the content of what they’re saying — I’m just going to dismiss it wholesale.”

You’re saying, “When people speak up about bigotry and discrimination and dehumanization, I’m not only going to dismiss what they’re saying — I’m going to trivialize the very idea of them speaking about it and asking people to change.”

get out of jail free cardYou’re saying, “Rather than actually thinking carefully about the things I’m saying, I’m just going to say whatever I feel like, and tack on this ‘PC’ line as a Get Out of Jail Free card.”

You’re saying, “I want to be able to say things that are damaging — and I don’t just want to avoid accountability. I actually want to be seen as brave and heroic.”

You’re saying, “I want to be able to say things that are damaging — and I want to be seen as a champion for free speech.”

You’re saying, “I want to be able to say things that are damaging — and I want to act like a martyr when I get called on it.”

If you don’t want to be saying any of that — don’t use the phrase “politically correct.”

The phrase is supposed to act as a shield, a Get Out of Jail Free card. But for me — and for many other people — it does the opposite. It’s not a shield. It’s an alert. It’s a giant red arrow, saying, “Heads up! This person is probably going to say some seriously douchey bigoted bullshit — so prick up your ears and listen carefully for it.”

Look. I get that this stuff can be hard. I completely understand the feeling of walking on eggshells in a minefield. I get that if you’re going to talk about important, difficult, heavily-loaded topics, you’re eventually going to say something wrong-headed or piss people off. And I get that people want to talk about important, difficult, heavily-loaded topics anyway. I not only get that — I support it. I don’t want every writer, speaker, politician, commentator, comedian, to spend all their time talking about the weather.

Yes, you show courage when you walk into the minefield. But that courage is eradicated when you use “I guess I’m not being very PC here” as a shield. When you walk into the minefield and you step on a mine, the shrapnel can hurt people other than you. It’s not very brave to use the “I guess I’m not being PC” shield to protect yourself from that shrapnel. And it’s seriously not brave to deflect that shrapnel onto the people who live their entire lives in that minefield, and whose bodies and minds are carrying scars from every other mine that exploded onto them, and who live in constant expectation of the next explosion.

So take responsibility for your words, and for their effect. If you screw up and hurt people you didn’t intend to hurt — cop to it. Apologize. And do better next time. Don’t turn the people you hurt into the bad guys, the so-called PC police who don’t want anyone to make jokes or think original thoughts or have any fun at all — simply because they told you that you screwed up.


Comforting Thoughts book cover oblong 100 JPGComing Out Atheist Bendingwhy are you atheists so angryGreta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

What’s the Opposite of Dictionary Atheism?

merriam webster dictionarySo I’m writing this piece that talks about dictionary atheism and dictionary atheists — atheists who insist that “atheism” can only mean, and should only mean, “no belief in any gods,” with no other implications, and no atheist activism about anything else. (Except, of course, for the issues they think are clearly connected to atheism, like church/state separation.)

So I’m writing this piece that talks about dictionary atheism, and I want to talk about the opposite of that: atheists who use the word more broadly, for whom “atheism” can also mean the implications that they see as implied by lack of belief, or the communities and movements and organizations created by atheists, or the critical thinking skills and commitment to evidence-based thinking that led us to atheism in the first place, etc.

So I’m writing this piece that talks about dictionary atheism, and I want to talk about the opposite of that, and a question occurred to me: What’s the opposite of “dictionary atheist” What would be a good term for that?

I was thinking “thesaurus atheist,” which I like — but it’s a little hard to say, with all the th’s and s’s. What are some other ideas?

A few suggestions that were made on Facebook, where I first posed this question: connotative atheism; encyclopedic atheism; consequential atheism; extended atheism; practical, pragmatic or functional atheism; applied atheism (this sounds like a college course, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing); descriptive atheism (“as opposed to dictionary atheism, which is inherently prescriptive”); philosophical atheism; expansive atheism; verb atheism; Wikipedia atheism (“Full of helpful connections to related topics and subject to change without notice”); Big Picture Atheism. (This isn’t a complete list: it’s a longish Facebook thread.) Do you like any of these? Do you have others to propose? Your time starts — now!


Comforting Thoughts book cover oblong 100 JPGComing Out Atheist Bendingwhy are you atheists so angryGreta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

Why I Like Ebooks

Please note, before I begin: The title of this piece is not “Why you should like ebooks.” It’s “Why I like ebooks.” I’m both amused and irritated when questions of subjective taste get treated as arguments about morality or character or the well-being of society. So I’m both amused and irritated when people insist that ebooks represent the decay of all that is truly beautiful about reading — and when people insist that people who prefer paper books are out-of-touch fuddy-duddies who need to get with the times.

That being said: I do have a personal preference for ebooks over paper books — so this piece is a bit more of a pushback against the “Ebooks are destroying literature!” crowd. I like ebooks. Unless a book is an art book or has a lot of illustrations, I almost always buy books in ebook form if I can. I think this is a reasonable preference. Here’s why — and also, here’s why I understand that some people feel differently.

suitcases airline tickets and globeTravel. I travel a lot — and my ebook reader has been the secular equivalent of a godsend. Before ebooks, I hated the fact that when I was traveling, I had to decide ahead of time exactly what I wanted to read. I often wound up bringing four or five books with me — making my suitcase heavier, with less room for other stuff — and I still often wound up not being in the mood for any of them. (“I thought I wanted to read Great Expectations on this trip, but I’m just not in the mood for something that serious — can’t I just read Georgette Heyer again? No, because I don’t have it with me.”) When I’m tired and crabby at the end of a travel day, or bored and crabby on an airplane, I love having hundreds of books to choose from.

Plus, I love being able to flip back and forth between my books, depending on what I’m in the mood for — the serious novel or science book at the beginning of the long plane ride, the light familiar comfort book at the end of a long day. That’s also true when I’m at home, but it’s even more true when I travel. I’m something of a promiscuous reader — I often read more than one book in parallel. And I don’t always know what book I’ll be in the mood for when I’ve finished the last one. Ebooks make this a non-issue.

Immediacy. I love, love, LOVE the fact that, with an ebook reader, I can buy a book the minute I hear about it. Ebooks mean that I’m not wandering into bookstores asking the clerk, “There was this book I heard about a few weeks ago, I don’t remember the title or the author, but it was something about feminism and pop culture, or maybe the history of female characters in pop culture, or something like that, it had a writeup in the New Yorker, or maybe it was The Toast.” With ebooks, I can buy a book the minute I hear about it. (This is also dangerous, of course — being able to buy books on impulse means buying more books — but this is at least somewhat mitigated by the fact that ebooks tend to be less expensive.) [Read more…]

Pride and Prejudice and Class Warfare: An Homage to Mallory Ortberg’s “Texts From Jane Eyre”

Okay. Longish preface with short but hopefully worthwhile payoff.

So. In order to share my snarky class-warfare analysis of Pride and Prejudice, I need to briefly preface with two things.

texts-from-jane-eyre1: If you haven’t read Texts from Jane Eyre, by Mallory Ortberg of The Toast fame, I passionately suggest that you stop whatever you’re doing and get a copy right this minute. It is hilarious — and it is incisively, snarkily brilliant. It’s a collection of imagined text-message conversations involving famous writers, philosophers, artists, literary characters, and mythological figures — and it does a brilliant job of skewering these figures and characters and stories, stripping them of their pretensions, and bringing them down to Earth. It’s also got some amazing social and political commentary: in putting these stories and ideas into a modern framework, Ortberg shines a merciless spotlight, not only on the casual oppression and clueless privilege of the past, but on how it resonates into the present.

And did I mention hilarious? Ingrid will testify to this: I have been giggling and poking her and reading her bits from the book pretty much every day since I got it. And the first time I read the Edgar Allen Poe chapter, I laughed so hard I could barely breathe. I have now re-read that chapter probably thirty times, and it still makes me laugh out loud. Even just thinking about it now is making me chuckle. Get it. (Here, btw, is a very good Serious Literary Review of the book, by Sarah Mesle at Los Angeles Review of Books. There are also “Texts From” on The Toast site itself.)

2: In my last re-reading of Pride and Prejudice, I was thinking (not for the first time) of an oddity of the Regency class system. In the Regency class system, being in trade, or having a job, automatically cut you off from the higher levels of society. You could be in the aristocracy if you had land and investments, of course — those were pretty much de rigeur — but you couldn’t actually make stuff, or sell stuff, or provide a service. Among the gentry and gentry-adjacent, having a job or being in trade — or having relatives who had jobs or were in trade — was gauche, almost shameful. If you had social ambitions about being in the aristocracy or the gentry, the best you could hope for was that your children or grandchildren might marry into it. (As long as they didn’t make stuff or sell stuff or have a job, that is.) There were a couple of exceptions — being a military officer or a clergyman — but even with those, there was a social glass ceiling. Not glass, actually. Just a regular ceiling that everyone could see.

So. That being said. Here’s the short but hopefully worthwhile payoff: my own “Texts From Pride and Prejudice,” an imagined text-message conversation between Caroline Bingley and Jane Bennet.

so your uncle is an attorney
and your other uncle is in trade
well that’s just
well you’re such a sweet girl
i’m sure you’ll do fine
it’s such a shame though

yes
it’s so shameful
i have relatives who provide goods and services that people need and want
who don’t leech off other people’s labor
whose wealth wasn’t inherited
from people who inherited
from people who inherited
i have relatives who aren’t parasites
i don’t know how i can hold my head up
i might as well go lie in the gutter
oh, maybe with your brother
that sounds like a good idea
i’ll go do that

brb

Female Fantasy, and Some New Thoughts on “Pride and Prejudice”

And now for something completely different. Spoiler alert: This post has spoilers about “Pride and Prejudice”.

Pride and Prejudice BBCNo, this isn’t about how hot Colin Firth was in the BBC mini-series of Pride and Prejudice. Although… well, yes. Damn. Day-um. But this isn’t about that.

In movies, books, TV shows, etc. aimed at women, there’s a common trope, a fantasy that gets trotted out a lot: Reforming the Bad Boy. In the trope/ fantasy, the heroine is so amazingly awesome — so beautiful, so sexy, so brilliant, so charismatic, so noble — that the bad boy reforms his bad boy ways in order to be with her. Think Spike on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or George Clooney on E.R. (Please feel free to cite other examples in the comments. Ideally with links to pictures. No, I’m not immune to this fantasy, even though I know how ridiculous it is.)

This trope even got poked fun at in The Simpsons, when Bart’s babysitter Laura is dating Jimbo Jones: Bart asks her, “What do you like about him? He’s just a good-looking rebel who plays by his own rules” — and Laura, Lisa, and Maggie all sigh wistfully.

And I was thinking: Does Pride and Prejudice fit this category?

In the most obvious sense, of course it does. Mr. Darcy is a handsome, not-very-nice man who initially dismisses the heroine, but is quickly struck by her fine eyes; becomes increasingly taken with her intelligence and wit and spirit; falls in love with her; courts her; is spurned by her; is initially enraged by her spurning; takes her chiding to heart; and betters himself to win her over. Yup, that sure sounds like the “I Can Reform Him” trope.

But I think in the larger sense, Pride and Prejudice doesn’t fit this trope at all.

For one thing: Mr. Darcy is anything but your standard Bad Boy. He’s not a rake or a bounder or a ramblin’ man. He’s a stuck-up snob who’s way too full of himself. In order to earn Elizabeth Bennet’s love, he has to get over his priggish superiority, stop worrying so much about propriety, and let go of some of his rigidity about social class. (Some of it, I said.) Yes, he reforms to be worthy of Elizabeth, but her influence doesn’t tame him — if anything, she loosens him up. He’s not a good-looking rebel who plays by his own rules. He’s a good-looking tight-ass who plays by society’s rules.

And perhaps more importantly: Mr. Darcy doesn’t just reform to be worthy of Elizabeth Bennet. Elizabeth reforms to be worthy of Mr. Darcy.

pride and prejudice penguinThis is one of my favorite things about the novel — the two parallel character arcs. Yes, Mr. Darcy changes to earn Elizabeth’s love — and since we see the story primarily through her eyes, we see those changes through her eyes as well. But we also see — much more uncomfortably, much more painfully — her own changes, and her own growth. Yes, we see Elizabeth’s pleasure in realizing how much Mr. Darcy has been willing to change for her. We also see her pain in realizing how much of a jerk she’s been: how quickly she’s willing to dislike people, how attached she is to being right about that dislike, how easily her judgments of people are shaped by whether those people flatter her. The scenes where she realizes how much she misjudged both Mr. Darcy and Mr. Wickham — they’re not fantasy wish-fulfillment at all. They are extremely uncomfortable scenes, vividly depicting the dark night of her soul. (Or, if you prefer more secular phraseology: They are extremely uncomfortable scenes, vividly depicting her cognitive dissonance collapsing in on her with a thud.) Her story arc isn’t, “He is inspired to change by his love for me, because I am so awesome!” Her story arc is, “He is inspired to change by his love for me — but I need to change too, because I’m not quite as awesome as I thought I was.”

This isn’t a story about a good woman reforming a bad boy. This is a story about two complicated people, each with good qualities and bad qualities, inspiring each other to be better.

Thoughts?

What To Do Now That “Serial” Is Over: Read More True Crime (Guest Post by Ingrid Nelson)

This is a guest post by Ingrid Nelson.

shock-value coverI started reading and collecting true crime books when I was in college. I’m pretty sure my interest was first piqued by John Waters’ Shock Value. The chapter called “All My Trials” was all about his experiences as a trial buff. He attended the Manson trial, Patty Hearst, Angela Davis, all the most famous trials of the 60s and 70s. I am a California native, so those were all crimes I grew up hearing about, along with the Lindbergh baby, the Zodiac, Jonestown, and the Milk/Moscone assassinations.

The way John Waters talked about true crime, it was like a guilty pleasure: sordid but entertaining. I thought it was hilarious at first, then I went through a phase of feeling guilty about it. Then I started thinking seriously about why I was drawn to these stories, and I decided it was a natural human reaction, and not something I needed to be ashamed of. I am fascinated by people and what makes them tick, so of course I want to learn about what happens when people go horribly wrong. It reminds me of when I was studying anatomy and physiology in nursing school. I always found cardiology sort of confusing — until we studied congenital heart defects. Learning what happened when the heart didn’t work properly was how I came to understand normal cardiac function.

I am now unapologetic about my love for true crime, but I try not to joke about it anymore. If you read John Waters now, it’s obvious that he went through something similar. He has befriended some notorious killers, visits them in prison, even advocates for their release if he thinks they are rehabilitated. He has cast Patty Hearst in some of his movies. He has taught film classes inside prisons. He is careful to avoid any hint of exploitation, tasteless jokes, or gratuitous violence when he writes about it now.

serial podcastLike so many “This American Life” listeners, I have been completely obsessed with the “Serial” podcast. But I was struck by how many fans said they felt guilty or embarrassed. I went through that process years ago, I have made my peace with it, and I am here now to help you all embrace your love of a good crime story. I have formed some serious opinions about how to distinguish good true crime from bad. I look for books that are well written and thoughtful, that are unflinching and honest without being lurid. I look for moral complexity, for writers who try to analyze and understand the horror, but not excuse it. And of course, one of the most important skills is an eye for which case will make a good book.

So, for my fellow “Serial” fans, I present: Ingrid’s True Crime Top Ten. [Read more…]

Trans People, Pronouns, and Choosing Between Social Justice and the Chicago Manual of Style

Chicago_Manual_of_Style_15th_editionWhen it comes to the pronouns we use for transgender people, which is more important — treating marginalized people with basic respect, or following the Chicago Manual of Style?

I recently wrote a column for The Humanist magazine, Trans People and Basic Human Respect, in which I made the case (a case that should have been obvious but regretfully isn’t) for treating trans people with basic human respect, including accepting their own evaluation of their own genders, and using the names and pronouns they prefer.

Tom Flynn — executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, vice president for media at the Center for Inquiry, and editor of Free Inquiry magazine (for which I am a columnist) — has written a reply. He generally applauds the piece, and says that he mostly agrees with it. But when it comes to pronouns, and using the singular “they” for trans people who prefer it, that’s just a bridge too far. Flynn objects to anyone — trans, cis, anyone — using the singular “they,” on the grounds that “it unnecessarily degrades the clarity of our language in regards to number.” (Read Flynn’s piece for a more thorough explanation of his concerns.)

As you might guess, I strongly disagree. That’s putting it mildly. I disagree on grammatical grounds — and far more seriously, I disagree on social justice grounds. Flynn’s understanding of the linguistics behind the singular “they” is just flatly wrong — and his take on the social justice issue is distressingly retrograde. [Read more…]