Roundtable Style Discussion I summary: serial comma, singular they and passive voice

Nordic Editors and Translators hosted the first roundtable discussion on grammar and style issues on 7 October 2016 at the Finnbrit Society. Rebecca von Bonsdorff led the discussion with the help of Alice Lehtinen and Terese Forster. This session covered the serial comma, singular they and the passive voice.

Roundtable Style Discussion 1 at Finnbrit October 2016


Three grammatical subjects were presented by the hosts.

  • Rebecca von Bonsdorff introduced the serial comma.

It was discovered that the group was split fairly well in half by those who do use the serial comma and those who don’t. It could roughly be said that participants who had an education in the US fell into the first category and those with a British background fell into the second.

After working through some examples of lists it was agreed that the use of the serial comma depends upon the situation. The most important factor to be taken into consideration is the clarity of the text and how punctuation can be used in a way that is most effective. For those who are averse to using the serial comma, other punctuation is always possible.

  • Terry Forster introduced the singular ‘they’.

In the absence of a gender-neutral pronoun in the English language, is ‘they’ acceptable instead of he or she or it? Numerous examples were given and many participants had their own experiences with texts which were problematic without a gender-neutral pronoun. The options of he/she or s/he were seen as being cumbersome.

It was concluded that many participants felt that attitudes towards using ‘they’ in the singular were changing. It is becoming a more acceptable feature of writing.

  • Alice Lehtinen introduced the passive.

The pros and cons of using the passive in a text were discussed in some depth by the group. It was seen that using the passive is cheaper due to it having less characters than the active form. However, many participants felt that they preferred to minimize the amount of the passive in a text. It was agreed that generally people were moving away from using it, even in academic writing.

It was concluded that the use of the passive would eventually depend on the context in which it is being used, what the writer is intending to do and who the target reader is. Again, an important issue that needs to be considered is that a text has clarity.

Published by Virvey

Writer, editor and translator in Finnish and English

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