In case you haven’t heard, it’s National Grammar Day, and that seemed as good a time as any to reflect a little on the role of evidence in discussing grammar rules. (Goofy at Bradshaw of the Future apparently had the same idea.) A couple of months ago, Geoffrey Pullum made the argument in this post on Lingua Franca that it’s impossible to talk about what’s right or wrong in language without considering the evidence. Is singular they grammatical and standard? How do you know?
For most people, I think, the answer is pretty simple: you look it up in a source that you trust. If the source says it’s grammatical or correct, it is. If it doesn’t, it isn’t. Singular they is wrong because many authoritative sources say it is. End of story. And if you try to argue that the sources aren’t valid or reliable, you’re labelled an anything-goes type who believes we should just toss all the rules out the window and embrace linguistic anarchy.
The question is, where did these sources get their authority to say what’s right and wrong?
That is, when someone says that you should never use they as a singular pronoun or start a sentence with hopefully or use less with count nouns, why do you suppose that the rules they put forth are valid? The rules obviously haven’t been inscribed on stone tablets by the finger of the Lord, but they have to come from somewhere. Every language is different, and languages and constantly changing, so I think we have to recognize that there is no universal, objective truth when it comes to grammar and usage.
David Foster Wallace apparently fell into the trap of thinking that there was, unfortunately. In his famous Harper’s article “Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage,” he quotes the introduction to The American College Dictionary, which says, “A dictionary can be an “authority” only in the sense in which a book of chemistry or of physics or of botany can be an “authority”: by the accuracy and the completeness of its record of the observed facts of the field examined, in accord with the latest principles and techniques of the particular science.”
This is so stupid it practically drools. An “authoritative” physics text presents the results of physicists’ observations and physicists’ theories about those observations. If a physics textbook operated on Descriptivist principles, the fact that some Americans believe that electricity flows better downhill (based on the observed fact that power lines tend to run high above the homes they serve) would require the Electricity Flows Better Downhill Theory to be included as a “valid” theory in the textbook—just as, for Dr. Fries, if some Americans use infer for imply, the use becomes an ipso facto “valid” part of the language.
The irony of his first sentence is almost overwhelming. Physics is a set of universal laws that can be observed and tested, and electricity works regardless of what anyone believes. Language, on the other hand, is quite different. In fact, Wallace tacitly acknowledges the difference—without explaining his apparent contradiction—immediately after: “It isn’t scientific phenomena they’re tabulating but rather a set of human behaviors, and a lot of human behaviors are—to be blunt—moronic. Try, for instance, to imagine an ‘authoritative’ ethics textbook whose principles were based on what most people actually do.”
Now here he hits on an interesting question. Any argument about right or wrong in language ultimately comes down to one of two options: it’s wrong because it’s absolutely, objectively wrong, or it’s wrong because arbitrary societal convention says it’s wrong. The former is untenable, but the latter doesn’t give us any straightforward answers. If there is no objective truth in usage, then how do we know what’s right and wrong?
Wallace tries to make the argument about ethics; sloppy language leads to real problems like people accidentally eating poison mushrooms. But look at his gargantuan list of peeves and shibboleths on the first page of the article. How many of them lead to real ethical problems? Does singular they pose any kind of ethical problem? What about sentential hopefully or less with count nouns? I don’t think so.
So if there’s no ethical problem with disputed usage, then we’re still left with the question, what makes it wrong? Here we get back to Pullum’s attempt to answer the question: let’s look at the evidence. And, because we can admit, like Wallace, that some people’s behavior is moronic, let’s limit ourselves to looking at the evidence from those speakers and writers whose language can be said to be most standard. What we find even then is that a lot of the usage and grammar rules that have been put forth, from Bishop Robert Lowth to Strunk and White to Bryan Garner, don’t jibe with actual usage.
Edward Finegan seizes on this discrepancy in an article a few years back. In discussing sentential hopefully, he quotes Garner as saying that it is “all but ubiquitous—even in legal print. Even so, the word received so much negative attention in the 1970s and 1980s that many writers have blacklisted it, so using it at all today is a precarious venture. Indeed, careful writers and speakers avoid the word even in its traditional sense, for they’re likely to be misunderstood if they use it in the old sense” Finegan says, “I could not help but wonder how a reflective and careful analyst could concede that hopefully is all but ubiquitous in legal print and claim in the same breath that careful writers and speakers avoid using it.”
The problem when you start questioning the received wisdom on grammar and usage is that you make a lot of people very angry. In a recent conversation on Twitter, Mignon Fogarty, aka Grammar Girl, said, “You would not believe (or maybe you would) how much grief I’m getting for saying ‘data’ can sometimes be singular.” I responded, “Sadly, I can. For some people, grammar is more about cherished beliefs than facts, and they don’t like having them challenged.” They don’t want to hear arguments about authority and evidence and deriving rules from what educated speakers actually use. They want to believe that there’s some deeper truths that justify their preferences and peeves, and that’s probably not going to change anytime soon. But for now, I’ll keep trying.
-  David Foster Wallace, “Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage,” Harper’s Monthly, April 2001, 47. ↩
-  “Bryan A. Garner, A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995). ↩
-  Edward Finegan, “Linguistic Prescription: Familiar Practices and New Perspectives,” Annual Review of Applied Linguistics (2003) 23, 216. ↩