Arrant Pedantry

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Which Hunting

I meant to blog about this several weeks ago, when the topic came up in my corpus linguistics class from Mark Davies, but I didn’t have time then. And I know the that/which distinction has been done to death, but I thought this was an interesting look at the issue that I hadn’t seen before.

For one of our projects in the corpus class, we were instructed to choose a prescriptive rule and then examine it using corpus data, determining whether the rule was followed in actual usage and whether it varied over time, among genres, or between the American and British dialects. One of my classmates (and former coworkers) chose the that/which rule for her project, and I found the results enlightening.

She searched for the sequences “[noun] that [verb]” and “[noun] which [verb],” which aren’t perfect—they obviously won’t find every relative clause, and they’ll pull in a few non-relatives—but the results serve as a rough measurement of their relative frequencies. What she found is that before about the 1920s, the two were used with nearly equal frequency. That is, the distinction did not exist. After that, though, which takes a dive and that surges. The following chart shows the trends according to Mark Davies’ Corpus of Historical American English and his Google Books N-grams interface.

It’s interesting that although the two corpora show the same trend, Google Books lags a few decades behind. I think this is a result of the different style guides used in different genres. Perhaps style guides in certain genres picked up the rule first, from whence it disseminated to other style guides. And when we break out the genres in COHA, we see that newspapers and magazines lead the plunge, with fiction and nonfiction books following a few decades later, though use of which is apparently in a general decline the entire time. (NB: The data from the first decade or two in COHA often seems wonky; I think the word counts are low enough in those years that strange things can skew the numbers.)

Proportion of "which" by genres

The strange thing about this rule is that so many people not only take it so seriously but slander those who disagree, as I mentioned in this post. Bryan Garner, for instance, solemnly declares—without any evidence at all—that those who don’t follow the rule “probably don’t write very well,” while those who follow it “just might.”[1] (This elicited an enormous eye roll from me.) But Garner later tacitly acknowledges that the rule is an invention—not by the Fowler brothers, as some claim, but by earlier grammarians. If the rule did not exist two hundred years ago and was not consistently enforced until the 1920s or later, how did anyone before that time ever manage to write well?

I do say enforced, because most writers do not consistently follow it. In my research for my thesis, I’ve found that changing “which” to “that” is the single most frequent usage change that copy editors make. If so many writers either don’t know the rule or can’t apply it consistently, it stands to reason that most readers don’t know it either and thus won’t notice the difference. Some editors and grammarians might take this as a challenge to better educate the populace on the alleged usefulness of the rule, but I take it as evidence that it’s just not useful. And anyway, as Stan Carey already noted, it’s the commas that do the real work here, not the relative pronouns. (If you’ve already read his post, you might want to go and check it out again. He’s added some updates and new links to the end.)

And as I noted in my previous post on relatives, we don’t observe a restrictive/nonrestrictive distinction with who(m) or, for that matter, with relative adverbs like where or when, so at the least we can say it’s not a very robust distinction in the language and certainly not necessary for comprehension. As with so many other useful distinctions, its usefulness is taken to be self-evident, but the evidence of its usefulness is less than compelling. It seems more likely that it’s one of those random things that sometimes gets grammaticalized, like gender or evidentiality. (Though it’s not fully grammaticalized, because it’s not obligatory and is not a part of the natural grammar of the language, but is a rule that has to be learned later.)

Even if we just look at that and which, we find a lot of exceptions to the rule. You can’t use that as the object of a preposition, even when it’s restrictive. You can’t use it after a demonstrative that, as in “Is there a clear distinction between that which comes naturally and that which is forced, even when what’s forced looks like the real thing?” (I saw this example in COCA and couldn’t resist.) And Garner even notes “the exceptional which”, which is often used restrictively when the relative clause is somewhat removed from its noun.[2] And furthermore, restrictive which is frequently used in conjoined relative clauses, such as “Eisner still has a huge chunk of stock options—about 8.7 million shares’ worth—that he can’t exercise yet and which still presumably increase in value over the next decade,” to borrow an example from Garner.[3]

Something that linguistics has taught me is that when your rule is riddled with exceptions and wrinkles, it’s usually sign that you’ve missed something important in its formulation. I’ll explain what I think is going on with that and which in a later post.

  1. [1] Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed., s.v. “that. A. And which.”
  2. [2] S.v. “Remote Relatives. B. The Exceptional which.”
  3. [3] S.v. “which. D. And which; but which..”

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Distinctions, Useful and Otherwise

In a recent New York Times video interview, Steven Pinker touched on the topic of language change, saying, “I think that we do sometimes lose distinctions that it would be nice to preserve—disinterested to mean ‘impartial’ as opposed to ‘bored’, for example.”

He goes on to make the point that language does not degenerate, because it constantly replenishes itself—a point which I agree with—but that line caught the attention of Merriam-Webster’s Peter Sokolowski, who said, “It’s a useful distinction, but why pick a problematic example?” I responded, “I find it ironic that such a useful distinction is so rarely used. And its instability undermines the claims of usefulness.”

What Mr. Sokolowski was alluding to was the fact that the history of disinterested is more complicated than the simple laments over its loss would indicate. If you’re unfamiliar with the usage controversy, it goes something like this: disinterested originally meant ‘impartial’ or ‘unbiased’, and uninterested originally meant ‘bored’, but now people have used disinterested to mean ‘bored’ so much that you can’t use it anymore, because too many people will misunderstand you. It’s an appealing story that encapsulates prescriptivists’ struggle to maintain important aspects of the language in the face of encroaching decay. Too bad it’s not really true.

I won’t dive too deeply into the history of the two words—the always-excellent Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage spends over two pages on the topic, revealing a surprisingly complex history—but suffice it to say that disinterested is, as Peter Sokolowski mildly put it, “a problematic example”. The first definition the OED gives for disinterested is “Without interest or concern; not interested, unconcerned. (Often regarded as a loose use.)” The first citation dates to about 1631. The second definition (the correct one, according to traditionalists) is “Not influenced by interest; impartial, unbiased, unprejudiced; now always, Unbiased by personal interest; free from self-seeking. (Of persons, or their dispositions, actions, etc.)” Its first citation, however, is from 1659. And uninterested was originally used in the “impartial” or “unbiased” senses now attributed to disinterested, though those uses are obsolete.

It’s clear from the OED’s citations that both meanings have existed side-by-side from the 1600s. So there’s not so much a present confusion of the two words as a continuing, three-and-a-half-century-long confusion. And for good reason, too. The positive form interested is the opposite of both disinterested and uninterested, and yet nobody complains that we can’t use it because readers won’t be sure whether we mean “having the attention engaged” or “being affected or involved”, to borrow the Merriam-Webster definitions. If we can use interested to mean two different things, why do we need two different words to refer to the opposite of those things?

And as my advisor, Don Chapman, has written, “When gauging the usefulness of a distinction, we need to keep track of two questions: 1) is it really a distinction, or how easy is the distinction to grasp; 2) is it actually useful, or how often do speakers really use the distinction.”[1] Chapman adds that “often the claim that a distinction is useful seems to rest on little more than this: if the prescriber can state a clear distinction, the distinction is considered to be desirable ipso facto.” He then asks, “But how easy is the distinction to maintain in actual usage?” (151).

From the OED citations, it’s clear that speakers have never been able to fully distinguish between the two words. Chapman also pointed out to me that the two prefixes in question, dis- and un-, do not clearly indicate one meaning or the other. The meanings of the two words comes from different meanings of the root interested, not the prefixes, so the assignment of meaning to form is arbitrary and must simply be memorized, which makes the distinction difficult for many people to learn and maintain. And even those who do learn the distinction do not employ it very frequently. I know this is anecdotal, but it seems to me that disinterested is far more often mentioned than it is used. I can’t remember the last time I spotted a genuine use of disinterested in the wild.

I think it’s time we dispel the myth that disinterested and uninterested epitomize a lost battle to preserve useful distinctions. The current controversy over its use is not indicative of current laxness or confusion, because there was never a time when people managed to fully distinguish between the two words. If anything, disinterested epitomizes the prescriptivist tendency to elegize the usage wars. The typical discussion of disinterested is often light on historical facts and heavy on wistful sighs over how we can no longer use a word that was perhaps never as useful as we would like to think it was.

  1. [1] Don Chapman, “Bad Ideas in the History of English Usage,” in Studies in the History of the English Language 5, Variation and Change in English Grammar and Lexicon: Contemporary Approaches, ed. Robert A. Cloutier, Anne Marie Hamilton-Brehm, William A. Kretzschmar Jr. (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2010), 151

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Till Kingdom Come

The other day on Twitter, Bryan A. Garner posted, “May I ask a favor? Would all who read this please use the prep. ‘till’ in a tweet? Not till then will we start getting people used to it.” I didn’t help out, partly because I hate pleas of the “Repost this if you agree!” variety and partly because I knew it would be merely a symbolic gesture. Even if all of Garner’s followers and all of their followers used “till” in a tweet, it wouldn’t even be a blip on the radar of usage.

But it did get me thinking about the word till and the fact that a lot of people seem to regard it as incorrect and forms like 'til as correct. The assumption for many people seems to be that it’s a shortened form of until, so it requires an apostrophe to signal the omission. Traditionalists, however, know that although the two words are related, till actually came first, appearing in the language about four hundred years before until.

Both words came into English via Old Norse, where the preposition til had replaced the preposition to. (As I understand it, modern-day North Germanic languages like Swedish and Danish still use it this way.) Despite their similar appearances, to and till are not related; till comes from a different root meaning ‘end’ or ‘goal’ (compare modern German Ziel ‘goal’). Norse settlers brought the word til with them when they started raiding and colonizing northeastern Britain in the 800s.

There was also a compound form, until, from und + til. Und was another Old Norse preposition deriving from the noun und, which is cognate with the English word end. Till and until have been more or less synonymous throughout their history in English, despite their slightly different forms. And as a result of the haphazard process of spelling standardization in English, we ended up with two ls on till but only one on until. The apostrophized form 'til is an occasional variant that shows up far more in unedited than edited writing. Interestingly, the OED’s first citation for 'til comes from P. G. Perrin’s An Index to English in 1939: “Till, until, (’til), these three words are not distinguishable in meaning. Since ’til in speech sounds the same as till and looks slightly odd on paper, it may well be abandoned.”

Mark Davies’ Corpus of Historical American English, however, tells a slightly different story. It shows a slight increase in 'til since the mid-twentieth century, though it has been declining again slightly in the last thirty years. And keep in mind that these numbers come from a corpus of edited writing drawn from books, magazines, and newspapers. It may well be increasing much faster in unedited writing, with only the efforts of copy editors keeping it (mostly) out of print. This chart shows the relative proportions of the three forms—that is, the proportion of each compared to the total of all three.

Relative proportions of till, until, and 'til.

As Garner laments, till is becoming less and less common in writing and may all but disappear within the next century, though predicting the future of usage is always a guessing game, even with clear trends like this. Sometimes they spontaneously reverse, and it’s often not clear why. But why is till in decline? I honestly don’t know for sure, but I suspect it stems from either the idea that longer words are more formal or the perception that it’s a shortened form of until. Contractions and clipped forms are generally avoided in formal writing, so this could be driving till out of use.

Note that we don’t have this problem with to and unto, probably because to is one of the most common words in the language, occurring about 9,000 times per million words in the last decade in COHA. By comparison, unto occurs just under 70 times per million words. There’s no uncertainty or confusion about the use of spelling of to. We tend to be less sure of the meanings and spellings of less frequent words, and this uncertainty can lead to avoidance. If you don’t know which form is right, it’s easy to just not use it.

At any rate, many people are definitely unfamiliar with till and may well think that the correct form is 'til, as Gabe Doyle of Motivated Grammar did in this post four years ago, though he checked his facts and found that his original hunch was wrong.

He’s far from the only person who thought that 'til was correct. When my then-fiancee and I got our wedding announcements printed over eight years ago, the printer asked us if we really wanted “till” instead of “'til” (“from six till eight that evening”). I told him that yes, it was right, and he kind of shrugged and dropped the point, though I got the feeling he still thought I was wrong. He probably didn’t want to annoy a paying customer, though.

And though this is anecdotal and possibly falls prey to the recency illusion, it seems that 'til is on the rise in signage (frequently as ‘til, with a single opening quotation mark rather than an apostrophe), and I even spotted a til' the other day. (I wish I’d thought to get a picture of it.)

I think the evidence is pretty clear that, barring some amazing turnaround, till is dying. It’s showing up less in print, where it’s mostly been replaced by until, and the traditionally incorrect 'til may be hastening its death as people become unsure of which form is correct or even become convinced that till is wrong and 'til is right. I’ll keep using till myself, but I’m not holding out hope for a revival. Sorry, Garner.

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Want to Help a Grad Student with His Research?

As you may know, I’m a grad student currently working on my master’s thesis. I’m examining usage changes made by copy editors and how they shape standard written English. I’ve been able to get my hands on about two dozen edited manuscripts, marked with Word’s Track Changes feature, but the editors are student interns here at my university, and I’d like to get a better sample.

Here’s where you, dear reader, come in. I’d like some volunteers to edit the original versions of these manuscripts and then send them back to me with their changes tracked. Edited for simplicity: For the purposes of this study, I’m mostly interested in grammar and usage, so it should be more of a copy edit than a content or substantive edit.

But to keep my results relevant, I’d like my volunteers to be professional editors. I would also like them to be native English speakers who edit for American audiences. If you fit the criteria and wouldn’t mind editing a 20–30-page article (for science!), please read the following informed consent information and send me an email through the contact form below. Edited to add: The important part is familiarity with editing for an American audience. If you’re from outside the US but have experience editing for a North American audience, feel free to participate.

Addendum: A couple of people have asked about deadlines, so I thought I’d better clarify. I’d like edited manuscripts returned by the end of this month if possible, but that’s not a firm deadline; I plan on defending next April, so it will probably be okay if they keep coming in over the next few months. If I need to close the survey, I will post an update here.

Informed Consent

Purpose

The purpose of this study is to investigate the effect of editing on standard written English. The results will be analyzed in aggregate to determine the affect of editing on standard written English.

Procedure

After you submit your information through the contact form below, you will be emailed an unedited paper selected at random from my collection of manuscripts. Using Word’s Track Changes feature, please edit for usage and grammar but not for content. The survey will look at spelling and stylistic variation but not at simple spelling errors or punctuation changes. When you are through editing the paper, please return it to me via the email address from which you received the paper.

Benefits

The results of this study will contribute to our understanding of the selection and codification processes of standard written English.

Risks

There are no risks involved with this study.

Voluntary Participation

Participation in this study is completely voluntary. You may withdraw at any time.

Compensation

There is no financial compensation for participation in this study.

Confidentiality

No personal identifying information will be collected for this survey. Email addresses will be used only to distribute and collect manuscripts for the survey and to contact you in the event of technical problems. Email addresses will not be sold, given out, published, or used for any other purposes.

Contact for Questions

If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, please contact me through the regular contact form here. If you would like to be notified of the results when the survey is complete, please include a note to that effect when you return your edited manuscript.

Consent to Participate

By filling out the form below, you confirm that you have read the above information about this study and that you understand the purpose of this study.

[si-contact-form form='2']

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Whose Pronoun Is That?

In my last post I touched on the fact that whose as a relative possessive adjective referring to inanimate objects feels a little strange to some people. In a submission for the topic suggestion contest, Jake asked about the use of that with animate referents (“The woman that was in the car”) and then said, “On the flip side, consider ‘the couch, whose cushion is blue.’ ‘Who’ is usually used for animate subjects. Why don’t we have the word ‘whichs’ for inanimate ones?”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (one of my favorite books on language; if you don’t already own it, you should buy it now—seriously.) says that it has been in use from the fourteenth century to the present but that it wasn’t until the eighteenth century that grammarians like Bishop Lowth (surprise, surprise) started to cast aspersions on its use.

MWDEU concludes that “the notion that whose may not properly be used of anything except persons is a superstition; it has been used by innumerable standard authors from Wycliffe to Updike, and is entirely standard as an alternative to of which the in all varieties of discourse.” Bryan A. Garner, in his Garner’s Modern American Usage, says somewhat more equivocally, “Whose may usefully refer to things ⟨an idea whose time has come⟩. This use of whose, formerly decried by some 19th-century grammarians and their predecessors, is often an inescapable way of avoiding clumsiness.” He ranks it a 5—“universally adopted except for a few eccentrics”—but his tone leaves one feeling as if he thinks it the lesser of two evils.

But how did we end up in this situation in the first place? Why don’t we have a whiches or thats or something equivalent? MWDEU notes that “English is not blessed with a genitive form for that or which“, but to understand why, you have to go back to Old English and the loss of the case system in Early Middle English.

First of all, Old English did not use interrogative pronouns (who, which, or what) as relative pronouns. It either used demonstrative pronouns—whence our modern that is descended—or the invariable complementizer þe, which we’ll ignore for now. The demonstrative pronouns declined for gender, number, and case, just like the demonstrative and relative pronouns of modern German. The important point is that in Old English, the relative pronouns looked like this:

that
Case Masculine Neuter Feminine Plural
Nominative se þæt sēo þā
Accusative þone þæt þā þā
Genitive þæs þæs þǣre þāra, þǣra
Dative þǣm þǣm þǣre þǣm, þām
Instrumental þȳ, þon þȳ, þon

(Taken from Wikipedia.org. The þ is a thorn, which represents a “th” sound.)

As the Old English case system disappeared, this all reduced to the familiar that, which you can see comes from the neuter nominative/accusative form. The genitive, or possessive, form was lost. And in Middle English, speakers began to use interrogative pronouns as relatives, probably under the influence of French. Here’s what the Old English interrogative pronouns looked like:

who/what
Case Masculine/Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative hwā hwæt hwā/hwæt
Accusative hwone hwæt hwone/hwæt
Genitive hwæs hwæs hwæs
Dative hwǣm hwǣm hwǣm
Instrumental hwȳ hwȳ hwǣm

(Wikipedia didn’t have an article or section on Old English interrogative pronouns, so I borrowed the forms from Wikibooks.)

On the masculine/feminine side, we get the ancestors of our modern who/whom/whose (hwā/hwǣm/hwæs), and on the neuter side, we get the ancestor of what (hwæt). Notice that the genitive forms for the two are the same—that is, although we think of whose being the possessive form of who, it’s historically also the possessive form of what.

But we don’t use what as a relative pronoun (well, some dialects do, but Standard English doesn’t); we use which instead. Which also had the full paradigm of case endings just like who/what that. But rather than bore you with more tables full of weird-looking characters, I’ll cut to the chase: which originally had a genitive form, but it too was lost when the Old English case system disappeared.

So of all the demonstrative and interrogative pronouns in English, only one survived with its own genitive form, who. (I don’t know why who hung on to its case forms while the others lost theirs; maybe that’s a topic for another day.) Speakers quite naturally used whose to fill that gap—and keep in mind that it was originally the genitive form of both the animate and inanimate forms of the interrogative pronoun, so English speakers originally didn’t have any qualms about employing it with inanimate relative pronouns, either.

But what does that mean for us today? Well, on the one hand, you can argue that whose as an inanimate relative possessive adjective has a long, well-established history. It’s been used by the best writers for centuries, so there’s no question that it’s standard. But on the other hand, this ignores the fact that some people think there’s something not quite right about it. After all, we don’t use whose as a possessive form of which or that in their interrogative or demonstrative functions. And although it has a long pedigree, another inanimate possessive with a long pedigree fell out of use and was replaced.

His was originally the possessive form of both he and it, but neuter his started to fall out of use and be replaced by a new form its in the sixteenth century. After English lost grammatical gender, people began to use he and she only for people and other animate things and it only for inanimate things. They started to feel a little uncomfortable using the original possessive form of it, his, with inanimate things, so they fashioned a new possessive, its, to replace it.

In other words, there’s precedence for disfavoring inanimate whose and using another word or construction instead. Unfortunately, now thats or whiches will never get off the ground, because they’ll be so heavily stigmatized as nonstandard forms. There are two different impulses fighting one another here: the impulse to have a full and symmetrical paradigm and the impulse to avoid using animate pronouns for inanimate things. Only time will tell which one wins out. For now, I’d say it’s good to remember that inanimate whose is frequently used by good writers and that there’s nothing wrong with it per se. In your own writing, just trust your ear.

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Free Shipping on Shirts Today and Tomorrow

Sorry if you’ve already seen this on Twitter or Facebook, but you can get free shipping (up to $9.50 value) on all orders from the Arrant Pedantry store today and tomorrow. Use the code witchinghour during checkout. There’s no minimum order requirement, so the coupon is good whether you buy one shirt or a dozen shirts. Go check out the new designs and the cheaper standard-weight shirts (starting at $10.99).

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Rules, Regularity, and Relative Pronouns

The other day I was thinking about relative pronouns and how they get so much attention from usage commentators, and I decided I should write a post about them. I was beaten to the punch by Stan Carey, but that’s okay, because I think I’m going to take it in a somewhat different direction. (And anyway, great minds think alike, right? But maybe you should read his post first, along with my previous post on who and that, if you haven’t already.)

I’m not just talking about that and which but also who, whom, and whose, which is technically a relative possessive adjective. Judging by how often relative pronouns are talked about, you’d assume that most English speakers can’t get them right, even though they’re among the most common words in the language. In fact, in my own research for my thesis, I’ve found that they’re among the most frequent corrections made by copy editors.

So what gives? Why are they so hard for English speakers to get right? The distinctions are pretty clear-cut and can be found in a great many usage and writing handbooks. Some commentators even judgementally declare, “There’s a useful distinction here, and it’s lazy or perverse to pretend otherwise.” But is it really useful, and is it really lazy and perverse to disagree? Or is it perverse to try to inflict a bunch of arbitrary distinctions on speakers and writers?

And arbitrary they are. Many commentators act as if the proposed distinctions between all these words would make things tidier and more regular, but in fact it makes the whole system much more complicated. On the one hand, we have the restrictive/nonrestrictive distinction between that and which. On the other hand, we have the animate/inanimate (or human/nonhuman, if you want to be really strict) distinction between who and that/which. And on the other other hand, there’s the subject/object distinction between who and whom. But there’s no subject/object distinction with that or which, except when it’s the object of a preposition—then you have to use which, unless the preposition is stranded, in which case you can use that. And on the final hand, some people have proscribed whose as an inanimate or nonhuman relative possessive adjective, recommending constructions with of which instead, though this rule isn’t as popular, or at least not as frequently talked about, as the others. (How many hands is that? I’ve lost count.)

Simple, right? To make it all a little clear, I’ve even put it into a nice little table.

The proposed relative pronoun system

This is, in a nutshell, a very lopsided and unusual system. In a comment on my who/that post, Elaine Chaika says, “No natural grammar rule would work that way. Ever.” I’m not entirely convinced of that, because languages can be surprising in the unusual distinctions they make, but I agree that it is at the least typologically unusual.

“But we have to have rules!” you say. “If we don’t, we’ll have confusion!” But we do have rules—just not the ones that are proposed and promoted. The system we really have, in absence of the prescriptions, is basically a distinction between animate who and inanimate which with that overlaying the two. Which doesn’t make distinctions by case, but who(m) does, though this distinction is moribund and has probably only been kept alive by the efforts of schoolteachers and editors.

Whom is still pretty much required when it immediately follows a preposition, but not when the preposition is stranded. Since preposition stranding is extremely common in speech and increasingly common in writing, we’re seeing less and less of whom in this position. Whose is still a little iffy with inanimate referents, as in The house whose roof blew off, but many people say this is alright. Others prefer of which, though this can be awkward: The house the roof of which blew off.

That is either animate or inanimate—only who/which make that distinction—and can be either subject or object but cannot follow a preposition or function as a possessive adjective or nonrestrictively. If the preposition is stranded, as in The man that I gave the apple to, then it’s still allowed. But there’s no possessive thats, so you have to use whose of of which. Again, it’s clearer in table form:

The natural system of relative pronouns

The linguist Jonathan Hope wrote that several distinguishing features of Standard English give it “a typologically unusual structure, while non-standard English dialects follow the path of linguistic naturalness.” He then muses on the reason for this:

One explanation for this might be that as speakers make the choices that will result in standardisation, they unconsciously tend towards more complex structures, because of their sense of the prestige and difference of formal written language. Standard English would then become a ‘deliberately’ difficult language, constructed, albeit unconsciously, from elements that go against linguistic naturalness, and which would not survive in a ‘natural’ linguistic environment.[1]

It’s always tricky territory when you speculate on people’s unconscious motivations, but I think he’s on to something. Note that while the prescriptions make for a very asymmetrical system, the system that people naturally use is moving towards a very tidy and symmetrical distribution, though there are still a couple of wrinkles that are being worked out.

But the important point is that people already follow rules—just not the ones that some prescriptivists think they should.

  1. [1] “Rats, Bats, Sparrows and Dogs: Biology, Linguistics and the Nature of Standard English,” in The Development of Standard English, 1300–1800, ed. Laura Wright (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 2000), 53.

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They and the Gender-Neutral Pronoun Dilemma

A few weeks ago, as a submission for my topic contest, Bob Scopatz suggested I tackle the issue of gender-neutral pronouns in English. In his comment he said, “I dislike alternating between ‘he’ and ‘she’. I despise all variants of ‘he/she’, ‘s/he’, etc. I know that I should not use ‘they’, but it feels closest to what I really want. Could you maybe give us the latest on this topic and tell me if there is any hope for a consensus usage in my lifetime?” It must be a timely topic, because I’ve read three different articles and watched a video on it in the past week.

The first was Allan Metcalf’s article at Lingua Franca on failed attempts to fill gaps in the language. He says that the need for a gender-neutral pronoun is a gap that has existed for centuries, defying attempts to fill it with neologisms. He notes almost in passing that they is another option but that “filling a singular gap with a plural doesn’t satisfy” every one.

The next was June Casagrande’s article in the Burbank Leader. She gives the subject a little more attention, discussing the awkwardness of using “he or she” or “him or her” every time and the rising acceptance of the so-called singular they. But then, in similar fashion to the it’s-not-wrong-but-you-still-shouldn’t-do-it approach, she says that she won’t judge others who use singular they, but she’s going to hold off on it herself (presumably because she doesn’t want to be judged negatively for it). She also overlooks some historical facts, namely that they has been used this way since Chaucer’s day and that it wasn’t until the end of the eighteenth century that it was declared ungrammatical by Lindley Murray.

That leads to the next article, an interview with Professor Anne Curzan at Visual Thesaurus. She discusses the “almost hypocritical position” of having to grade students’ papers for grammar and usage issues that she doesn’t believe in, like singular they. She tackles the allegation that it’s incorrect because they is plural, saying that in a sentence like “I was talking to a friend of mine, and they said it was a terrible movie”, “they is clearly singular, because it’s referring to a friend.” This probably won’t carry much weight with some people who believe that it’s innately plural and that you can’t just declare it to be singular when it suits you. Ah, but here’s the rub: English speakers did the same thing with plural you in centuries past.

Originally, English had two second-person pronouns, singular thou and plural you. But speakers began to use you as a formal singular pronoun (think French vous, Spanish usted, or German Sie). Then it began to be used in more and more situations, until thou was only used when talking down to someone and then disappeared from the language altogether. Now we have a pronoun that agrees with verbs like a plural but clearly refers to singular entities all the time. If you can do it, why can’t they?

Further, Steven Pinker argues that “everyone and they are not an ‘antecedent’ and a ‘pronoun’ referring to the same person”, but rather that “they are a ‘quantifier’ and a ‘bound variable,’ a different logical relationship.” He says that “Everyone returned to their seats means “For all X, X returned to X’s seat.” In other words, there are logical objections to the logical objections to singular they.

Then there came Emily Brewster’s Ask the Editor video at Merriam-Webster Online. She notes that for the eighteenth-century grammarians who proscribed singular they and prescribed generic he, “inaccuracy of gender was less troublesome than inaccuracy of number.” She then concludes that “all this effort to avoid a usage that’s centuries old strikes some of us as strange” and makes the recommendation, “Perhaps everyone should just do their best in the situations they find themselves in, even if their best involves they as a singular pronoun.”

Rather than join the ranks of grammarians who walk through all the arguments in favor of singular they but then throw their hands up in defeat and tell you to avoid it because it’s not accepted yet, I’m taking a different track and recommending its use. The problem with not using it until it becomes accepted is that it won’t become accepted until enough people—especially people with some authority in the field of usage—use it and say it’s okay to use it. If we sit around waiting for the day when it’s declared to be acceptable, we’ll be waiting a long time. But while there are still people who will decry it as an error, as I’ve said before, you can’t please everyone. And as Bob said in his original comment, they is what many people already use or want to use. I think it’s the best solution for a common problem, and it’s time to stop wringing our hands over it and embrace it.

So, to answer Bob’s question if there will ever be consensus on the issue in our lifetime, I’d say that while there might not be consensus at the moment, I’m hopeful that it will come. I think the tide has already begun to turn as more and more linguists, lexicographers, editors, and writers recommend it as the best solution to a common problem.

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Continua, Planes, and False Dichotomies

On Twitter, Erin Brenner asked, “How about a post on prescriptivism/descriptivism as a continuum rather than two sides? Why does it have to be either/or?” It’s a great question, and I firmly believe that it’s not an either-or choice. However, I don’t actually agree that prescriptivism and descriptivism occupy different points on a continuum, so I hope Erin doesn’t mind if I take this in a somewhat different direction from what she probably expected.

The problem with calling the two part of a continuum is that I don’t believe they’re on the same line. Putting them on a continuum, in my mind, implies that they share a common trait that is expressed to greater or lesser degrees, but the only real trait they share is that they are both approaches to language. But even this is a little deceptive, because one is an approach to studying language, while the other is an approach to using it.

I think the reason why we so often treat it as a continuum is that the more moderate prescriptivists tend to rely more on evidence and less on flat assertions. This makes us think of prescriptivists who don’t employ as much facts and evidence as occupying a point further along the spectrum. But I think this point of view does a disservice to prescriptivism by treating it as the opposite of fact-based descriptivism. This leads us to think that at one end, we have the unbiased facts of the language, and somewhere in the middle we have opinions based on facts, and at the other end, where undiluted prescriptivism lies, we have opinions that contradict facts. I don’t think this model makes sense or is really an accurate representation of prescriptivism, but unfortunately it’s fairly pervasive.

In its most extreme form, we find quotes like this one from Robert Hall, who, in defending the controversial and mostly prescription-free Webster’s Third, wrote: “The functions of grammars and dictionaries is to tell the truth about language. Not what somebody thinks ought to be the truth, nor what somebody wants to ram down somebody else’s throat, not what somebody wants to sell somebody else as being the ‘best’ language, but what people actually do when they talk and write. Anything else is not the truth, but an untruth.”[1]

But I think this is a duplicitous argument, especially for a linguist. If prescriptivism is “what somebody thinks ought to be the truth”, then it doesn’t have a truth value, because it doesn’t express a proposition. And although what is is truth, what somebody thinks should be is not its opposite, untruth.

So if descriptivism and prescriptivism aren’t at different points on a continuum, where are they in relation to each other? Well, first of all, I don’t think pure prescriptivism should be identified with evidence-free assertionism, as Eugene Volokh calls it. Obviously there’s a continuum of practice within prescriptivism, which means it must exist on a separate continuum or axis from descriptivism.

I envision the two occupying a space something like this:

graph of descriptivism and prescriptivism

Descriptivism is concerned with discovering what language is without assigning value judgements. Linguists feel that whether it’s standard or nonstandard, correct or incorrect by traditional standards, language is interesting and should be studied. That is, they try to stay on the right side of the graph, mapping out human language in all its complexity. Some linguists like Hall get caught up in trying to tear down prescriptivism, viewing it as a rival camp that must be destroyed. I think this is unfortunate, because like it or not, prescriptivism is a metalinguistic phenomenon that at the very least is worthy of more serious study.

Prescriptivism, on the other hand, is concerned with good, effective, or proper language. Prescriptivists try to judge what best practice is and formulate rules to map out what’s good or acceptable. In the chapter “Grammar and Usage” in The Chicago Manual of Style, Bryan Garner says his aim is to guide “writers and editors toward the unimpeachable uses of language” (16th ed., 5.219, 15th ed., 5.201).

Reasonable or moderate prescriptivists try to incorporate facts and evidence from actual usage in their prescriptions, meaning that they try to stay in the upper right of the graph. Some prescriptivists stray into untruth territory on the left and become unreasonable prescriptivists, or assertionists. No amount of evidence will sway them; in their minds, certain usages are just wrong. They make arguments from etymology or from overly literal or logical interpretations of meaning. And quite often, they say something’s wrong just because it’s a rule.

So it’s clearly not an either-or choice between descriptivism and prescriptivism. The only thing that’s not really clear, in my mind, is how much of prescriptivism is reliable. That is, do the prescriptions actually map out something we could call “good English”? Quite a lot of the rules serve little purpose beyond serving “as a sign that the writer is unaware of the canons of usage”, to quote the usage entry on hopefully in the American Heritage Dictionary (5th ed.). Linguists have been so preoccupied with trying to debunk or discredit prescriptivism that they’ve never really stopped to investigate whether there’s any value to prescriptivists’ claims. True, there have been a few studies along those lines, but I think they’re just scratching the surface of what could be an interesting avenue of study. But that’s a topic for another time.

  1. [1] In Harold B. Allen et al., “Webster’s Third New International Dictionary: A Symposium,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 48 (December 1962): 434.