a human-like hand made of bright blue geometric lines reaches from out of a laptop screen to grasp a person's hand in a handshake

AWEsome Editing

We live in an era of artificial intelligence (AI). Even those who don’t own self-driving cars or operate drones from their phones use AI every day in some form or another. Social media algorithms, smart home assistants, virtual banking, streaming services, predictive text messaging—there seems to be no field that AI has not entered and completely changed. And that’s not a bad thing; AI makes our lives easier. As Sabine Hauert, cofounder of Robohub.org, says, the ultimate goal of AI should be to take on the “difficult, demanding, dangerous, [and] dull” jobs, allowing humans to focus on what’s left.

However, AI’s reach into jobs that have previously been done only by humans is worrisome to some. In the past decades, several automated writing evaluation (AWE) software programs have been created to help writers proofread, spellcheck, and improve their writing. With the success of other AI technology and AWE’s ease of use and access, some worry that traditional human editors will fade into obsolescence.

Fortunately, such a future is unlikely. AWE does provide helpful tools, but it cannot replace a human editor. While it can supplement and complement the work of an editor, it shouldn’t be used exclusively. Editors provide nuanced feedback, are overall more accurate than AWE, and help writers learn from mistakes. However, editors in the digital age could use AWE to increase productivity and overall efficiency.

One writer at Grammarist says that she uses several AWEs in her editing, running her manuscripts first through the built-in spellcheckers in Microsoft Word, then Google Docs, and finally through Grammarly—a practice that would prompt gratitude from any editor. It should be noted, however, that before and after using any AWE, she proofreads her writing to catch mistakes an AWE may not.

Editors could also opt to use AWEs only for specific aspects of editing. For example, reference sections are crucial in academic writing. However, formatting reference sections is incredibly nuanced and changes depending on which style is used. Researcher Yeonwook Kim suggests that AWEs such as Edifix, an AWE specifically for proofing references, and PerfectIt could be used to find and correct most of the errors in a reference section, leaving the human editor more time to address other, more refined issues (Kim 2020).

Another option for editors is the lesser known FRedit, a macros-aided editing technique conceived by Paul Beverley in his online book Macros for Editors. FRedit allows editors to use the macros option in Microsoft Word to automatically find, delete, or replace common and repeated global errors. Learning how to set up macros is simple and requires only a short video tutorial and some practice, after which editors can program their own macros into their FRedit document.

A FRedit macros might change all double hyphens to an em dash, convert straight quotes to smart quotes, correctly format ellipses according to the Chicago Manual of Style, delete extra spaces between words, and highlight any instances of open-ended quotes—all at once and with just a few clicks. This function is especially helpful for editors working on long manuscripts, when edits such as those listed above might number in the hundreds or even thousands. On his website, Beverley has a long list of sample edits that can be done by FRedit and how to code them in macros, but they all focus on correcting mechanical errors such as punctuation or formatting, leaving the more individualized, subjective editing to an actual editor.

Whatever combination of AWEs editors choose, they should remember that AWE programs are never a replacement for human eyes on a page. Even assisted by AI technology, editing is a meticulous, time-consuming job. Cutting corners by trusting too completely in an AWE will result in less correct, less personalized, and overall less helpful editing.

AWEs such as FRedit and Grammarly can’t replace human editors, but they can be used in conjunction with traditional editing to increase productivity and allow the human editor to focus on more individualized feedback. Editors provide something that AI has yet to achieve: empathy and connection, two skills that are absolutely vital for effective editing.

teacher and students in classroom

Are Singular “They/Them” Pronouns Grammatically Correct?

At the end of last year, I was catching up with an aunt who is an English teacher. Politics came up, as is inevitable around the holidays, and I asked her how she felt about the use of they/them pronouns to refer to a single person.

“It doesn’t matter how I feel about them,” she responded. “It’s just not correct grammar.”

I wondered if she was right. Certainly, I was taught growing up that they and them are plural pronouns used to refer to more than one person or thing. However, language is created by humans, and therefore, humans have the power to change language as they wish. Of course, a single person cannot suddenly decide upon a new definition for a word. The point of language is interpersonal communication, which is only successful when parties who speak the same language know the same definitions of words and how they are used.

The documentation of that widespread agreement can be found in style guides and dictionaries. Ooligan bases our style guide off of The Chicago Manual of Style, so I looked up what it says about singular they/them. In CMOS 5.48 it says:

…because he is no longer universally accepted as a generic pronoun referring to a person of unspecified gender, people commonly (in speech and in informal writing) substitute the third-person-plural pronouns they, them, their, and themselves (or the nonstandard singular themself). While this usage is accepted in those spheres, it is only lately showing signs of gaining acceptance in formal writing, where Chicago recommends avoiding its use. When referring specifically to a person who does not identify with a gender-specific pronoun, however, they and its forms are often preferred.

This explanation validates the singular they/them as grammatically correct. While Chicago is growing to embrace they/them, there is still some hesitation in using plural they/them, “As of the 17th edition, CMOS recognizes that such usage is gaining acceptance in formal writing but still advises avoiding it if possible—for example, by rewriting to use the plural (see CMOS 5.255).”

Knowing that different style guides have different recommendations based on the disciplines they cater to, I checked the American Psychological Association‘s (APA) guide. It turns out that they endorse the use of singular they with no holds barred “because it is inclusive of all people and helps writers avoid making assumptions about gender.”

The APA cited Merriam-Webster’s acceptance of the word, and sure enough, the definition of they in this dictionary includes usage “with a singular antecedent to refer to an unknown or unspecified person; to refer to a single person whose gender is intentionally not revealed; [and] to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary.” In other words, according to Merriam-Webster, singular they/them is grammatically correct. In addition, they was Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year in 2019, as “the nonbinary pronoun sense of ‘they’ was added in September 2019.”

To me, the growing acceptance of singular they/them is a relief. I always found it tedious when I was growing up to write he/she or (s)he when referring to a hypothetical person whose gender was irrelevant to the topic. These phrases were clunky and interrupted the flow of my writing, but as a person using she/her pronouns, I never felt that generic he was an appropriate alternative. Not only do they/them give gender-nonconforming people a way to refer to themselves in a way that makes them feel comfortable, but they also give writers an innately gender-neutral way to prevent disjointed writing.

The pronouns are in the awkward growing stage as their new usage continues to gain acceptance and faces pushback. It will take time for some folks, like my aunt, to accept the change when they have been using they/them a different way for their whole lives. Even Google Docs is trying to autocorrect the sample sentence at the end of this blog post. Still, I daresay that in twenty years no one will bat an eye at the sentence, “They are a really good teacher.”