Pronoun question: is the Fed “it” or “they”?

As I read market and economic commentary, I see a split between writers who use “it” vs. “they” to refer to the Fed. Opinions can run strong about pronoun questions like this. To help you decide on the right pronoun, I ran a poll asking my readers which they prefer. I also did some additional research, which I share below.

“It” vs. “they” poll

I asked

Do you refer to the Federal Reserve or the Federal Open Market Committee as “it” or “they”? For example, would you say “It raised rates” or “They raised rates”?

Here are the results

Poll results on pronoun question for the FedA majority (55%) of respondents use “it,” followed by 20% who avoid using a pronoun for the Fed, 15% who use “they,” and 5% who answered “other.”

The case for “it”

Organizations are not people. That’s why I go with “it.”My readers in the “it” camp agreed. Below are some of their comments on this pronoun question (with the names of the people who commented, when they provided them):

  • Corporations and government agencies and entities are referred to as it not they. It’s the law. Lol. I’m a Wall St editor. Pet peeve!
  • I use “it” because I am considering them an entity and not a group of people.
  • It has one voice by a single decision. Each member has their own opinion and speeches. Members are the “they” but the institution is “it.”
  • I handle it the same way as I would for any institution or corporation—as an entity, not a person. And while it is made up of people, the opinions of the institution do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the individuals who work there.
  • Without an ‘s’ on the end, ‘group’ is singular and is, therefore, an ‘it.’ The only exception to this that I can think of is ‘people,’ a collective and thus a plural.
  • It has one voice by a single decision. Each member has their own opinion and speeches. Members are the ‘they’ but the institution is it.
  • While not an expert, I’d consider the Fed to be a collective noun so singular. If it was ‘senior figures at the Fed’ or ‘Fed chiefs’ or something I’d use ‘they’, and this is what I’d be perhaps more inclined to do.—Michael Stark, AAATrade Ltd
  • The Fed, like a corporate entity, seems like a singular it.—Martin Goldberg, Ph.D.

I did some research. Here’s what the 2016 AP Stylebook says (note “The committee set its agenda):

AP Style collective nouns pronoun question

The Chicago Manual of Style says, “A collective noun takes a singular pronoun if the members are treated as a unit {the audience showed its appreciation}.”

Collective nouns are treated differently in British English. From Garner’s American English, I know that collective nouns are typically treated as singular in American English, but as plural in British English.

The Wall Street Journal is another source that I rely on for style guidelines, as I’ve explained in “Financial jargon killer: The Wall Street Journal.” Here’s an example from “Kaplan Says Fed Should Begin Reducing Its Balance Sheet ‘Very Soon’”: “The Federal Reserve should begin shrinking its balance sheet ‘very soon,’ Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas President Robert Kaplan said Friday.”

The case for “they”

The case for “they” rests on usage and the way that people think about the entity. Many investment professionals refer to the Fed as “they” because they are thinking about the individuals who make up the FOMC.  One survey respondent explained his or her preference for “they” by saying, “The Fed is a group of people.”

In “People Versus Entities,” Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty suggests that if you want to use “they” you should refer to the people who make up the entity. Here’s her example of how to bring the people into the sentence: “Today, the MegaCo directors, who just gave themselves a raise, laid off 1,000 factory workers.”

Fogarty also says:

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage gives a lot of credit for the growing use of plural pronouns to advertising and PR people at large corporations trying to “present a more human and less monolithic face to the public.” Nevertheless, most grammarians lean in the direction of companies being nameless, faceless entities that should be treated as singular nouns and not personified.

Style guidelines

If the organization that you’re writing for has style guidelines, check to see what it says about the Fed. Given that some investment professionals feel strongly about referring to the Fed as “they,” the company may endorse “they” over “it.”

Here’s what one respondent said:

The organization’s style guide always rules. If the organization does not have a preference for this situation, I urge them to add it to the style guide for consistency. My default is the plural pronoun.

Avoiding the pronoun question

What do you do if you’re a writer or editor who works for people who can’t agree on which pronoun to use for the Fed?

Alana Garrop of Savos Investments said, “I keep the pronouns out of the conversation. “The Federal Open Market Committee raised rates at the June meeting.” Notice how she avoided using “its” or “their” by referring to “the June meeting.”

This is a great workaround when choosing “it” or “they” means you’re going to offend someone. It reminds me of the workaround to avoid deciding on “Treasuries” vs. “Treasurys.”

 

 

 

Shall vs. will–which is best?

“When should I use ‘shall’ instead of ‘will’? ” I confess that this reader question stumped me. I can’t remember ever using the word “shall.” The question spurred me to do some research on the topic of shall vs. will.

First person vs. second or third person

A Grammar Girl post on “‘Shall’ Versus ‘Will‘” says that British and sticklers’ rules say that

  1. “…you use shall to indicate the future if you are using first person (I or we) and if you are using second or third person (you, he, she, or they).”
  2. “The British traditionally use shall to express determination or intention on the part of the speaker or someone other than the subject of the verb.”
  3. Lawyers and orators may use shall differently.

Determination

My old Associated Press Stylebook picks up the theme of determination, seen in Grammar Girl’s second point.

It says “Use shall to express determination: We shall overcome. You and he shall stay.”

A different take on shall vs. will from Garner

Garner’s Modern American Usage includes a table showing when to use shall vs. will to show “simple futurity” vs. “determination, promise, or command.” The table distinguishes between first person vs. second and third person. However, author Bryan Garner says, “with only minor exceptions, will has become the universal word to express futurity.”

Here are the two exceptions, according to Garner:

(1) interrogative sentences requesting permission or agreement <shall we all go outside?> <shall I open the present now?>; (2) legal documents, in which shall purportedly imposes a duty <the tenant shall obtain the landlord’s permission before making any changes to the premises>.

However, Garner notes that lawyers are using “shall” less.

I can’t imagine asking “Will we all go outside?” but I’m more likely to say, “Let’s go outside” or “Would you like to go outside?”

Memory aid

If you’d like to distinguish between “simple futurity” vs. “determination, promise, or command,” this memory aid from Joe Polidoro of Polidoro Marketing Communications, may help.

Accident: “No one will save me—I shall drown!”

Suicide: “No one shall save me—I will drown.”

The bottom line

If you’re an American communicating with other Americans, you can probably get away with using only “will.”

If you want to abide by the American rules, you should probably check your trusted American grammar reference. If you’re communicating with British people, who use “shall” more frequently, find a resource that you trust for the British rules. Here’s a post from Oxford Dictionaries: “‘Shall’ or ‘will’?

I will not think less of you if you never use “shall.”

If you’d like some great references for checking your grammar, check out “My five favorite reference books for writers.” Also, try the quizzes I mention in “How can I brush up my grammar?

 

Thanks, Doug, for suggesting this topic!

 

Disclosure:  If you click on an Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I only link to books in which I find some value for my blog’s readers.

Note: I updated this post on Nov. 16, 2017, to add Joe Polidoro’s example.

Confessions of a grammar ignoramus

Many people think of me as a grammar expert. I can see why. After all, I’ve shared many blog posts and social media updates that touch upon grammar. However, I know the truth.  I’m no expert.

My history with grammar began in a conventional way, with English classes in a suburb of Rochester, N.Y. The classes challenged me. My brain didn’t seem to think in terms of the rules. However, I slowly absorbed them. As I recall, I was a B student in my high school English classes. They weren’t my strength.

Then, educational reform hit. My high school switched to teaching what it called “linguistics” instead of grammar in English class. It was a totally different approach to understanding sentence structure. It wish I could say that linguistics clicked with me in a way that traditional grammar did not. Nope. The only thing I remember from those classes is the word “morpheme.” However, I didn’t remember what it means. I had to use Google to find that Wikipedia defines it as “is the smallest grammatical unit in a language.”

The result of my high school’s switch? I learned neither system. If you ask me to explain either system’s approach to sentence structure, I’ll give you a blank stare or run to my computer to do an online search.

However, I eventually came to understand many of traditional grammar’s rules. I haven’t achieved this through an intensive study of grammar rules. That strikes me as a time-consuming exercise in memorization. Instead, I’ve learned by fixing problems in my writing, with help from other people’s feedback and my research.

I’ve unconsciously absorbed good grammar by reading and applying other people’s feedback on my writing. I’ve received this feedback in writing classes and writing groups, where teachers and peers tell me what works and what doesn’t. I’ve also received it in one-on-one exchanges with editors and friends. The people who gave me feedback typically didn’t mention grammar in their feedback, but they pushed me toward writing in a more grammatical, reader-friendly way.

My grammar research has been spurred by the realization that I don’t know grammar well enough to decide what’s right. Sometimes a Google search is enough to answer my questions. Other times I turn to my favorite reference books or online resources for grammar, punctuation, and usage questions. Sometimes I turn to writers forums or friends because I’m not sure what to input into the search box—or to seek in the index—to find the answers to my questions. Some of my blog posts about grammar, punctuation, and usage have originated with my trying to answer questions raised by my writing or the questions of my readers. My question-inspired blog posts include “How do you make Degas possessive?” “That vs. which: Which is right?,” and “Proper usage of periods: One space or two?

My inadequate knowledge of grammar has made me feel sympathy for other people’s struggles with writing. It’s not easy to get things right, especially if you haven’t received good training.

I still have a lot to learn. For example, I struggle with when to use commas in long, complex sentences. That’s a tough topic to understand. Putting commas in the right places requires making many judgments. Once I figure out the answer, I’ll share it here.

Thank you for sticking with me as continue my quest to better understand grammar!

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

My five favorite reference books for writers

A printed book is sometimes the best place to find a solution to your question about writing style, punctuation, or grammar.

Here are my five favorite reference books.

  1. Edit Yourself: A manual for everyone who works with words by Bruce Ross-Larson. Everyone should own this small, inexpensive, easy-to-use book. I use Part II, the back of the book, the most. It lists troublesome words in alphabetical order. It’ll help you cut pretentious words and resolve problems such as deciding between “which” and “that.” Part I describes and offers solutions to problems common in everyday writing. Buy it today!
  2. Words into Type, based on studies by Marjorie E. Skillin, Robert M. Gay, and other authorities. This fat classic from 1974 is my second “go to” reference book when I’m flummoxed by a question of style, punctuation, or grammar. I go straight to the index to look for the word or type of problem. The book is aimed at individuals preparing manuscripts for publication.
  3. The Chicago Manual of Style was my favorite reference book for many years. It’s the most academic of the books on this list. You can also subscribe online to the manual and follow it on Facebook or Twitter.
  4. The Associated Press Stylebook. If you’ve ever heard an editor say, “We follow AP style,” they’re talking about the print or online edition of this style book. There’s even an iPhone app for this guide. If you’re geeky enough–like me–to consider owning multiple style guides, you may enjoy the sarcastic, not-to-be-trusted FakeAPStylebook Twitter account, in addition to the Twitter account of the real thing.
  5. The Grammar Bible by Michael Strumpf and Auriel Douglas. This book gives plain English explanations of vexing issues of grammar and more.

Honorable mention

If you’re passionate about good writing, you’ve probably got a favorite reference that I’ve overlooked. Please tell me about it.

Do your grammar, punctuation, and usage affect your credibility?

Does the quality of your writing matter? It looks like it does. When I asked “Does a writer’s grammar, punctuation, or usage errors damage that writer’s credibility in your eyes?”, an amazing 100% of respondents said “yes” in response to the survey on my blog and in my newsletter.

Specifically, they gave the following answers to my multiple-choice question.

0%   No, I don’t notice errors
0%   No, I don’t care
26% Yes, but I forgive small mistakes, especially in social media posts
74% Yes, they damage the writer’s credibility

I imagine that my readers are more critical than the general population. Still, these numbers should make all of us, including me, pay closer attention to how we write.

Respondent comments on bad writing

As one respondent commented, “Having your reading disrupted by a misspelled word or badly written sentence is like having air suddenly let out of a balloon. It makes me question the writer as well as the content.” Another reader said, “it reflects poorly on the writer and shows lack of attention to detail.” On a similar note, one person wrote, “There’s always that nagging feeling: if they didn’t care enough to proofread this, where else are they cutting corners? I try to be charitable because I too make mistakes, but it really bugs me.”

In their comments, readers showed some tolerance for mistakes. Here’s one example, “To me, it shows the writer is not detailed enough to review their input before hitting “go” – drives me crazy. That being said, I hit the wrong key often when texting and sometimes miss it before sending, so I have a small tolerance for those sort of errors.”

Believe it or not, despite my weekly “Mistake Monday” feature on the Investment Writing Facebook page, I fall into the 26% of people who tolerate small mistakes, especially in social media.

The worst mistakes?

The second question in my survey asked, “What is the worst mistake that writers make? Why is this mistake bad?”

Popular answers included spelling mistakes, mistakenly using “it’s” as the possessive form of “it,” and failing to proofread.

Here are more answers to my question about the worst mistakes:

“It’s a toss-up between thinking they are texting and using texting acronyms and overloading their writing with technical jargon.”

“Writing with very little thought and planning… poor sequencing of ideas, incomplete sentences, stream of consciousness, no clear call to action. When that’s the output, why bother?”

“Since I read almost no fiction–in my job, I don’t have to because what I see and hear no writer could make up–I confine my comment to non-fiction. Embedding numbers inside paragraphs abuses most readers because it asks them to ‘see’ relationships between and among numbers that can be shown much more easily with charts and graphs.”

“Using too many words. I want to get the point, learn the lesson without reading useless words.”

Dave Spaulding on writing mistakes

I’m not the only person raising these questions in the world of investment management. You can read Dave Spaulding’s “Should GIPS verifiers correct grammar? Spelling?

When Dave sees mistakes, he recommends changes. In his blog post, he says, “On occasion, I’ve discussed this with our clients, and in every case the client has been very clear that they welcome my comments. Most want their materials to be as correct in all respects as possible.” That’s good news.

 

March 13, 2017 update: The original version of this post linked to my original survey. I updated the post to focus on the survey results, which I’d published in my monthly e-newsletter (click to subscribe).

Celebrate National Grammar Day with me

Grammar is important. When used properly, it helps us communicate better.

 

In honor of National Grammar Day, please join me on the Investment Writing Facebook page for Mistake Monday and check out some of my blog posts (see links below) related to grammar, punctuation, and style. Also, click on the National Grammar Day box to see what Grammar Girl is doing for National Grammar Day.

 

Test your proofreading skills on Mistake Monday

On Monday mornings I post some writing samples that let you test your proofreading skills. Here’s an example from a past Mistake Monday. If you’re reading this blog post on a Monday, mosey over to the Investment Writing Facebook page and join in the fun!

 

I have a confession to make. Some of the mistakes are my own. Nobody’s perfect. Mistake Monday keeps me on my toes.

 

Blog posts on grammar, punctuation, style, and other writing challenges

Are you as compulsive as me or I?

I’m not perfect. I make grammar mistakes, too. This post is my attempt to learn from one of my many mistakes.

I wrote “… as compulsive as me” in a Weekly Tip. A kind reader told me I’d made a mistake, I should have written “as I.”  I have asked some friends for their opinion on this topic. They all agreed that “I” – not “me” – was correct because the sentence could be completed “…as compulsive as I am.”

Here’s an explanation by David Budin that I found particularly helpful. 

If you’d like to see more of my mistakes, please visit Mistake Monday on the Investment Writing Facebook page. When I make mistakes, I include them in my Mistake Monday feed. It’s a good reminder for me to learn from my mistakes.

Have you learned from a recent writing mistake?

Please share what you’ve learned from your mistakes.

“The Which Trials” according to “Woe is I”

Woe Is I

If you’ve ever worried whether to use “which” or “that” you’re not alone. It took me years to figure out. However, Patricia O’Connor lays out the rules nicely in “The Which Trials” section of her book, Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English.

Which vs. that

Here are O’Connor’s rules from page 3 of her book.

  • If you can drop the clause and not lose the point of the sentence, use which. If you can’t, use that.
  • A which clause goes inside commas. A that clause doesn’t.

Investment commentary example

I grabbed a sentence from a John Mauldin commentary to illustrate O’Connor’s rules for using which. In “A Player to Be Named Later,” he wrote, “The carrot is 1% financing for your banks, which can then buy your bonds at 4-5-6% (depending on the country).”

Which is proper in this sentence because the following sentence makes sense: “The carrot is 1% financing for your banks.” Mauldin properly places a comma before the start of the which clause.

Here’s a Mauldin sentence that properly uses that: “Will those lines look like the one that Colonel Travis drew with his sword at the Alamo, where those who crossed and joined him knew their fate?” A sentence consisting only of “Will those lines look like the one?” doesn’t make sense. Thus, that is required.

The first sentence of Mauldin’s commentary requires a judgment call about whether the second clause is essential to the meaning of the sentence. It says, “We have come to the end of yet another European Summit that was supposed to be the one to fix the problem.” The shortened version of the sentence–“We have come to the end of yet another European Summit”–works, suggesting which should replace that. However, it seems important to me that the summit failed to fix the problem. Without that phrase, the meaning of the sentence would change. Thus, it satisfies O’Connor’s stipulation that without the that clause you would “lose the point of the sentence.”

You’ll find more on these rules in “Which Versus That” by Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty, one of my favorite online grammar resources. For a more technical explanation, see “Introduction and General Usage in Defining Clauses” on the Purdue Online Writing Lab site.

By the way, I wish Mauldin hadn’t capitalized “Summit.” But that’s a whole other issue, which I’ve explored in “Do you use ‘pride capitals’?

Woe is I is a fun read

I recommend O’Connor’s Woe is I as a fun read. Plus, you may learn something from it. I know I did. I’m glad I learned about it from a post on the Copyediting Facebook page.

Fun with Strunk and White: Grammar rap video

This grammar rap video on Strunk and White’s Elements of Style cracked me up, so I’m sharing it with you. I discovered this on Grammar Girl’s website. Please note that Grammar Girl says you CAN split infinitives, despite what the video says.

The Elements of Style from Jake Heller on Vimeo.

How can I brush up my grammar?

Grammar, punctuation, and word usage questions puzzle many of my readers. If you’d like to brush up on the basics, I’ve got some tips for you.

1.  Buy and read Edit Yourself  by Bruce Ross-Larson.

This slim paperback offers tips in an easy-to-read style in its first 11 chapters. For example, “Long sentences−those of more than, say, twenty words−often are hard to read. Short sentences usually are not.” The second half of the book is an alphabetical, reader-friendly reference.

When you have questions beyond the book’s scope, check out the books listed in “My five favorite reference books for writers” and the online resources I discuss in “Poll: What’s your favorite online resource for grammar, punctuation, and word usage questions?

2. Take GrammarBook.com quizzes.

GrammarBook.com offers interactive quizzes. What I liked about the one quiz I took was that the answers explained the rules clearly. Plus, it taught me some fine points of grammar, so it’s good for advanced students as well as writers who are brushing up.

Some of the GrammarBook quizzes are free. If you like the freebies enough, you can buy an annual subscription to access the rest.