Arrant Pedantry

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Is Change Okay or Not?

A few weeks ago I got into a bit of an argument with my coworkers in staff meeting. One of them had asked our editorial interns to do a brief presentation on the that/which rule in our staff meeting, and they did. But one of the interns seemed a little unclear on the rule—she said she had learned the rule in her class on modern American usage, but she had also learned that either that or which is technically fine with restrictive clauses. So of course I asked if I could chime in.

I pointed out that the rule—which states that you should always use that for restrictive clauses (except where that is grammatically impermissible, as when the relative pronoun follows a preposition or the demonstrative pronoun that)—is a relatively recent invention and that it didn’t really start to take hold in American usage until the mid-twentieth century. Many writers still don’t follow it, which means that editors have a lot of opportunities to apply the rule, and it’s generally not enforced outside the US.

My coworkers didn’t really like the perceived implication that the rule is bogus and that we shouldn’t worry about it, and one of them countered by saying that it didn’t matter what people did in 1810—the history is interesting, but we should be concerned about what usage is now. After all, the data clearly shows that the that/which rule is being followed in recent publications. And then she deployed an argument I’ve been seeing more and more lately: we all know that language changes, so why can’t we accept this change? (I’ve also heard variations like “Language changes, so why can’t we make it change this way?”)

These are good questions, and I don’t believe that linguists have good answers to them. (Indeed, I’m not even sure that good answers—or at least logically sound answers—are even possible.) In her book Verbal Hygiene, the linguist Deborah Cameron argues that it’s silly for linguists to embrace change from below but to resist change from above. What makes a “natural” change better than an unnatural one? We talk about how language changes, but it’s really people who change language, not language that changes by itself, so is there even a meaningful difference between natural and unnatural change?

Besides, many linguists have embraced certain unnatural changes, such as the movements for gender-neutral and plain language. Why is it okay for us to denounce prescriptivism on the one hand and then turn around and prescribe gender-neutral language on the other?

I haven’t come to a firm conclusion on this myself, but I think it all comes down to whether the alleged problem is in fact a problem and whether the proposed solution is in fact a solution. Does it solve the problem, does it do nothing, or does it simply create a new or different problem?

With gender-specific language, it’s clear that there’s a problem. Even though he is purportedly gender-neutral when its antecedent is indefinite or of unspecified gender, studies have shown that readers are more likely to assume that its antecedent is male. Clearly it’s not really gender-neutral if most people think “male” when they read “he”. Singular they has centuries of use behind it, including use by many great authors, and most people use it naturally and unselfconsciously. It’s not entirely uncontroversial, of course, but acceptance is growing, even among copy editors.

There are some minor thorny issues, like trying to figure out what the gender-neutral forms of freshman or fisherman should be, but writing around these seems like a small price to pay for text that treats people equally.

So what about the that/which rule? What problem does it claim to solve, and does it actually solve it?

The claim is that the rule helps distinguish between restrictive and nonrestrictive relative clauses, which in the abstract sounds like a good thing. But the argument quickly falls apart when you look at how other relative clauses work in English. We don’t need any extra help distinguishing between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses with who, where, or when—the comma (or, in speech, the intonation) tells you whether a clause is restrictive. The fact that nobody has even recognized ambiguity with restrictive who or where or when as a problem, let alone proposed and implemented a solution, argues against the idea that there’s something wrong with restrictive which. Furthermore, no language I’ve heard of distinguishes between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses with different pronouns. If it were really an advantage, then we’d expect to see languages all over the world with a grammaticalized distinction between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses.

I’ve sometimes seen the counterargument that writers don’t always know how to use commas properly, so we can’t trust them to mark whether a clause is restrictive or not; but again, nobody worries about this with other relative clauses. And anyway, if copy editors can always identify when a clause is restrictive and thus know when to change which to that, then it stands to reason that they can also identify when a clause is nonrestrictive and and thus insert the commas if needed. (Though it’s not clear if even the commas are really necessary; in German, even restrictive clauses are set off with commas in writing, so you have to rely on context and common sense to tell you which kind of clause it is.)

It seems, then, that restrictive which is not a real problem at all and that insisting on that for all restrictive clauses doesn’t really accomplish anything. Even though Deborah Cameron criticizes linguists for accepting natural changes and rejecting unnatural ones, she also recognizes that many of the rules that copy editors impose, including the that/which rule, go far beyond what’s necessary for effective communication. She even quotes one scholar as saying that the that/which rule’s “sole virtue . . . is to give copy editors more billable hours.”

Some would argue that changing which to that doesn’t take much time, so there’s really no cost, but I don’t believe that’s true. My own research shows that it’s one of the most common usage or grammar changes that editors make. All those changes add up. I also know from experience that a lot of editors gripe about people not following the rule. That griping has a real effect on people, making them nervous about their abilities with their own native language. Even if you think the that/which rule is useful enough to justify the time it takes to impose it, is it worth making so many people feel self-conscious about their language?

Even if you believe that the that/which rule is an improvement, the fact is that English existed for nearly 1500 years without it, and even now it’s probably safe to say that the vast majority of English speakers have never heard of it. Although corpus data makes it appear as though it’s taken hold in American English, all we can really say from this data is that it has taken hold in edited, published American English, which really means that it’s taken hold among American copy editors. I’m sure some writers have picked the rule up from their English classes or from Word’s grammar checker, but I think it’s safe to say that American English as a whole has not changed—only the most visible portion, published writing, has.

So it’s rather disingenuous to say that the language has changed and thus we should accept the that/which rule as a valid part of Standard English. The argument is entirely circular: editors should enforce the rule because editors have been enforcing the rule now for a few decades. The fact that they have been enforcing the rule rather successfully doesn’t tell us whether they should be enforcing the rule.

Of course, that’s the fundamental problem with all prescriptions—sooner or later, you run into the is–ought problem. That is, it’s logically impossible to derive a prescriptive statement (one that tells you what you ought to do) from a descriptive one (one that states what is). Any statement like “This feature has been in use for centuries, so it’s correct” or “Shakespeare and Jane Austen used this feature, so it’s correct” or even “This feature is used by a majority of speakers today, so it’s correct” is technically a logical fallacy.

While acknowledging that nothing can definitively tell us what usage rules we should or shouldn’t follow, I still think we can come to a general understanding of which rules are worth following and which ones aren’t by looking at several different criteria:

  1. Historical use
  2. Modern use
  3. Oral use
  4. Edited written use
  5. Unedited written use
  6. Use by literary greats
  7. Common use

No single criterion is either necessary or sufficient to prove that a rule should be followed, but by looking at the totality of the usage evidence, we can get a good sense of where the rule came from, who uses it and in which contexts they use it, whether use is increasing or decreasing, and so on. So something might not be correct just because Chaucer or Shakespeare or Austen used it, but if something has been in continuous use for centuries by both literary greats and common people in both speech and writing, then it’s hard to maintain that it’s an error.

And if a rule is only followed in modern edited use, as the that/which rule is (and even then, it’s primarily modern edited American use), then it’s likewise hard to insist that this is a valid rule that all English speakers should be following. Again, the fact that editors have been enforcing a rule doesn’t tell us whether they should. Editors are good at learning and following rules, and we’re often good at pointing out holes or inconsistencies in a text or making it clearer and more readable, but this doesn’t mean that we have any special insight into what the grammar of English relative clauses should be, let alone the authority to insist that everyone follow our proposed changes.

So we can’t—or, at least, I think we shouldn’t—simply say that language has changed in this instance and that therefore we should all follow the rule. Language change is not necessarily good or bad, but it’s important to look at who is changing the language and why. If most people are changing the language in a particular way because they find that change genuinely useful, then it seems like a good thing, or at least a harmless thing. But if the change is being imposed by a small group of disproportionately powerful people for dubious reasons, and if the fact that this group has been successful is then used as evidence that the change is justified, then I think we should be skeptical.

If you want the language to change in a particular way, then the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate why you’re right and four hundred million native speakers are wrong. Until then, I’ll continue to tell our intern that what she learned in class was right: either that or which is fine.

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Skunked Terms and Scorched Earth

A recent Twitter exchange about the term beg the question got me thinking again about the notion of skunked terms. David Ehrlich said that at some point the new sense of beg the question was going to become the correct one, and I said that that point had already come and gone.

If you’re not familiar with the issue, it’s that begging the question is traditionally a type of circular reasoning. Increasingly, though, it’s being used in the newer sense of ‘raising the question’ or ‘demanding that we ask the question’. A couple of years ago, Stan Carey found that the newer sense makes up about 90 percent of the hits in the GloWbE corpus (and the percentage is even higher if you exclude mentions and only count uses).

On Language Log Neal Goldfarb wrote that the term should be avoided, either because it’s likely to be misunderstood or because it will incur the wrath of sticklers. On Twitter, many others agreed that the term was skunked, to borrow a term from Bryan Garner.

In his Modern American Usage, Garner writes, “When a word undergoes a marked change from one use to another . . . it’s likely to be the subject of dispute. . . . A word is most hotly disputed in the middle part of this process: any use of it is likely to distract some readers. . . . The word has become ‘skunked.'”

Many people find this a useful idea, but it has always rubbed me the wrong way. On the one hand, it seems helpful to identify usage problems that may attract ire or create confusion. But on the other hand, it’s often used as sort of a trump card in usage debates. It doesn’t matter which use is right or wrong—the word or phrase is now tarnished and can never be used again (at least until the sticklers all die off and everyone forgets what the fuss was about).

And in many cases it feels like a sort of scorched-earth policy: if we can’t use this term the way we think is best, then nobody should use it. Better to ruin the term for everyone than to let it fall into the hands of the enemy. After all, who’s doing the skunking? The people who use a term in its new sense and are usually unaware of the debate, or the people who use it in the old sense and are raising a stink about the change?

In some cases, though, it’s not clear what declaring a word skunked accomplishes. For instance, Garner says that data is skunked because some people object to its use with a plural verb, while others object to its use with a singular. Either way, you might annoy someone. But scientists can’t just stop writing about data—they’re going to have to pick a side.

And sometimes, as with beg the question, it almost seems silly to keep calling a new use skunked. If upwards of 90 percent of the uses of a term are in the new sense (and I suspect it’s even higher in speech), then the battle is all but over. We can’t realistically say that you should avoid using beg the question because it’s ambiguous, because it’s always clear in context. And the new sense certainly isn’t unclear or unfamiliar—how could it be if it’s the one that most people are using? The old sense may be unclear to the uninitiated, but that’s always been the case, because it’s a rather technical term. The new use doesn’t change that.

So what it really comes down to is the fact that a very small but very vocal minority don’t like the new use and would rather say that it’s been ruined for everyone than to admit defeat. The question is, should that be enough reason to declare the term off-limits to everybody? Many editors and usage commentators argue that there’s no harm in avoidance, but Geoff Nunberg calls this rationale “the pedant’s veto“: “It doesn’t matter if you consider a word to be correct English. If some sticklers insist that it’s an error, the dictionaries and style manuals are going to counsel you to steer clear of it to avoid bringing down their wrath.” (Arnold Zwicky, somewhat less charitably, calls this rationale “crazies win“.) Nunberg says that this sort of avoidance can be a wise course of action, but other times it seems a bit ridiculous.

Consider, for example, the Economist style guide, which is often mocked for its avoidance of split infinitives. It reads, “Happy the man who has never been told that it is wrong to split an infinitive: the ban is pointless. Unfortunately, to see it broken is so annoying to so many people that you should observe it.” Who are all these people who find split infinitives so annoying? And even if there are still a few people who cling to this non-rule, why should everybody else change just to make them happy? Indeed, it seems that most other usage guides have moved on at this point.

Perhaps the biggest problem with declaring a term skunked is that it’s not clear what the criteria are. How many sticklers does it take to skunk a term? How contentious does the debate need to be? And how do we know when it stops being skunked?

I have to wonder, though, if the entire notion of skunked terms is ultimately self-defeating. The people who are most likely to heed a warning to avoid a contentious usage are also the people who are most likely to adhere to traditional usage in the first place. The people who use beg the question in the new sense, for example, are most likely unaware not only of the traditional meaning but also of the fact that there’s a debate about its meaning. If the traditionalists all start avoiding the term, then all that will remain will be the new use. By declaring a term skunked and saying it should be avoided, it could be that all we really accomplish is to drive the old use out even faster.

Ultimately, the question is, how much do we care about the opinions of that small but vocal minority? Maybe it’s just the contrarian streak in me, but I hate giving such a small group such disproportionate power over the language we all use. I’d rather spend my efforts trying to change opinions on usage than trying to placate the peevers. But I have to admit that there’s no easy answer. If there were, there’d be no reason to call a term skunked in the first place.

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For Whomever the Bell Tolls

A couple of weeks ago, Ben Yagoda wrote a post on Lingua Franca in which he confessed to being a whomever scold. He took a few newspapers to task for messing up and using whomever where whoever was actually called for, and then he was taken to task himself by Jan Freeman. He said that “Whomever Mr. Trump nominates will inherit that investigation” should have the subject form, whoever, while she said that the object form, whomever was indeed correct. So what’s so tricky about whoever that even experts disagree about how to use it?

To answer that, we need to back up and explain why who trips so many people up. Who is an interrogative and relative pronoun, which means that it’s used to ask questions and to form relative clauses. One feature of both questions and relative clauses is that they cause movement—that is, the pronoun moves from where it would normally be in a declarative sentence to a position at the beginning of the clause. For example, a sentence like You gave it to him becomes Who did you give it to? when made into a question, with the personal pronoun him being changed to who and moved to the front. Or a pair of sentences like I gave it to the woman. I met her at the conference becomes I gave it to the woman who I met at the conference. Again, the personal pronoun her is replaced with who and moved up.

Technically, both of these examples should use whom, because in both cases it’s replacing an object pronoun, and whom is the object form of who. But we often have trouble keeping track of the syntactic role of who(m) when it moves, so many people just who regardless of whether it’s syntactically a subject or object. Sometimes people overcorrect and use whom where it’s syntactically a subject, as in Whom may I say is calling?

Whoever adds another layer of complexity. It’s what we call a fused relative pronoun—it functions as both the relative pronoun and its own antecedent. Let’s go back to our example above: I gave it to the woman who I met at the conference. The antecedent of who is the woman. But we can replace both with whoever: I gave it to whoever I met at the conference.

Because a fused relative functions as its own antecedent, it fills roles in two different clauses—the main clause and the relative clause. And whereas a simple relative like who is always just a subject or an object in the relative clause, whoever can be both a subject and an object simultaneously thanks to its dual roles. There are four possible combinations:

  1. Subject of main clause, subject of relative clause: Whoever ate the last cookie is in trouble.
  2. Object in main clause, subject of relative clause: I’ll give the last cookie to whoever wants it.
  3. Subject of main clause, object in relative clause: Whoever you gave the last cookie to is lucky.
  4. Object in main clause, object in relative clause: I’ll give the last cookie to whoever I like the most.

So if whoever can fill two different roles in two different clauses, how do we decide whether to use the subject or object form? Which role wins out?

The traditional rule is that the role in the relative clause wins. If it’s the subject of the relative clause, use whoever. If it’s the object of the relative clause, use whomever. This means that the prescribed forms in the sentences above would be (1) whoever, (2) whoever, (3) whomever, and (4) whomever

The rationale for this rule is that the relative clause as a whole functions as the subject or as an object within the main clause. That is, the relative clause is treated as a separate syntactic unit, and that unit is then slotted into the main clause. Thus it doesn’t matter if whoever follows a verb or a preposition—the only thing that matters is its role in the relative clause.

I think this is easier to understand with sentence diagrams. Note that in the diagram below, whoever occupies a place in two different structures—it’s simultaneously the complement of the preposition to and the subject of the relative clause. Syntax diagrams normally branch, but in in this case they converge because whoever fuses those two roles together.

Grammatical case is governed by the word on which the pronoun is dependent, so we can think of case assignment as coming down from the verb or preposition to the pronoun. In the diagram above, the case assignment for whoever (represented by the arrows) comes from its role in the relative clause. Normally the preposition to would assign case to its complement, but in this situation it’s blocked, because case has already been assigned at the level of the relative clause.

Of course, case in English has been a mess ever since the Norman Conquest. English went from being a highly inflected language that marked case on all nouns, pronouns, and adjectives to a minimally inflected language that marks case only on a small handful of pronouns. Our internal rules governing pronoun case seem to have broken down to some extent, leading to a number of constructions where subject and object forms are in alternation, such as between you and I or me and her went to the store. The Oxford English Dictionary has examples of whomever being used for whoever going all the way back to John Wyclif in 1380 and examples of whoever being used for whomever going back to Shakespeare in 1599.

Which brings us back to Yagoda’s original post. The sentence that brought correction from Jan Freeman was “Whomever Mr. Trump nominates will inherit that investigation.” Yagoda said it should be whoever; Freeman said it was correct as is. Yagoda eventually conceded that he was wrong and that the Times sentence was right, but not before a side trip into let him who. Freeman linked to this post by James Harbeck, in which he explains that constructions like let him who is without sin don’t work quite the same way as let whoever is without sin.

A lot of people have learned that the clause with whoever essentially functions as the object of let, but many people then overextend that rule and say that the entire construction he who is without sin is the object of let. To understand why it’s not, let’s use another syntax diagram.

Note the differences between this diagram and the previous one. Him is the object of the verb let, and who is . . . is a relative clause that modifies him. But, crucially, him is not part of that clause; it’s merely the antecedent to the relative pronoun. Its case assignment comes from the verb let, while the case assignment of who comes from its role in the relative clause.

For he to be the correct form here, its case would have to be controlled by the verb in a relative clause that it’s not even a part of. Case assignment essentially flows downhill from the structure above the pronoun; it doesn’t flow uphill to a structure above it.

But apparently Harbeck’s post wasn’t enough to convince Yagoda. While admitting that he didn’t understand Harbeck’s argument, he nevertheless said he disagreed with it and declared that he was on team “Let he who is without sin . . .”

Some of the commenters on Yagoda’s post, though, had an elegant test to show that Yagoda was wrong without resorting to syntax trees or discussions of case assignment: simply remove the relative clause. In Let him cast the first stone, it’s clear that him is an object. The relative clause may add extra information about who exactly is casting the first stone, but it’s grammatically optional and thus shouldn’t affect the case of its antecedent.

In conclusion, case in English is a bit of a mess and a syntactic analysis can help, but sometimes the simplest solutions are best.

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Prescriptivism and Language Change

Recently, John McIntyre posted a video in which he defended the unetymological use of decimate to the Baltimore Sun’s Facebook page. When he shared it to his own Facebook page, a lively discussion ensued, including this comment:

Putting aside all the straw men, the ad absurdums, the ad hominems and the just plain sillies, answer me two questions:
1. Why are we so determined that decimate, having once changed its meaning to a significant portion of the population, must be used to mean obliterate and must never be allowed to change again?
2. Is your defence of the status quo on the word not at odds with your determination that it is a living language?
3. If the word were to have been invented yesterday, do you really think “destroy” is the best meaning for it?
…three questions!

Putting aside all the straw men in these questions themselves, let’s get at what he’s really asking, which is, “If decimate changed once before from ‘reduce by one-tenth’ to ‘reduce drastically’, why can’t it change again to the better, more etymological meaning?”

I’ve seen variations on this question pop up multiple times over the last few years when traditional rules have been challenged or debunked. It seems that the notions that language changes and that such change is normal have become accepted by many people, but some of those people then turn around and ask, “So if language changes, why can’t change it in the way I want?” For example, some may recognize that the that/which distinction is an invention that’s being forced on the language, but they may believe that this is a good change that increases clarity.

On the surface, this seems like a reasonable question. If language is arbitrary and changeable, why can’t we all just decide to change it in a positive way? After all, this is essentially the rationale behind the movements that advocate bias-free or plain language. But whereas those movements are motivated by social or cognitive science and have measurable benefits, this argument in favor of old prescriptive rules is just a case of motivated reasoning.

The bias-free and plain language movements are based on the premises that people deserve to be treated equally and that language should be accessible to its audience. Arguing that decimated really should mean “reduced by one-tenth” is based on a desire to hang on to rules that one was taught in one’s youth. It’s an entirely post hoc rationale, because it’s only employed to defend bad rules, not to determine the best meaning for or use of every word. For example, if we really thought that narrower etymological senses were always better, shouldn’t we insist that cupboard only be used to refer to a board on which one places cups?

This argument is based in part on a misunderstanding of what the descriptivist/prescriptivist debate is all about. Nobody is insisting that decimate must mean “obliterate”, only observing that it is used in the broader sense far more often than the narrower etymological sense. Likewise, no one is insisting that the word must never be allowed to change again, only noting that it is unlikely that the “destroy one-tenth” sense will ever be the dominant sense. Arguing against a particular prescription is not the same as making the opposite prescription.

But perhaps more importantly, this argument is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how language change works. As Allan Metcalf said in a recent Lingua Franca post, “It seems a basic principle of language that if an expression is widely used, that must be because it is widely useful. People wouldn’t use a word if they didn’t find it useful.” And as Jan Freeman has said, “we don’t especially need a term that means ‘kill one in 10.’” That is, the “destroy one-tenth” sense is not dominant precisely because it is not useful.

The language changed when people began using the word in a more useful way, or to put it more accurately, people changed the language by using the word in a more useful way. You can try to persuade them to change back by arguing that the narrow meaning is better, but this argument hasn’t gotten much traction in the 250 years since people started complaining about the broader sense. (The broader sense, unsurprisingly, dates back to the mid-1600s, meaning that English speakers were using it for a full two centuries before someone decided to be bothered by it.)

But even if you succeed, all you’ll really accomplish is driving decimate out of use altogether. Just remember that death is also a kind of change.

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Stupidity on Singular They

A few weeks ago, the National Review published a singularly stupid article on singular they. It’s wrong from literally the first sentence, in which the author, Josh Gelernter, says that “this week, the 127-year-old American Dialect Society voted the plural pronoun ‘they,’ used as a singular pronoun, their Word of the Year.” It isn’t from last week; this is a piece of old news that recently went viral again. The American Dialect Society announced its word of the year, as it typically does, at the beginning of the year. Unfortunately, this is a good indication of the quality of the author’s research throughout the rest of the article.

After calling those who use singular they stupid and criticizing the ADS for failing to correct them (which is a fairly serious misunderstanding of the purpose of the ADS and the entire field of linguistics in general), Gelernter says that we already have a gender-neutral third-person pronoun, and it’s he. He cites “the dictionary of record”, Webster’s Second International, for support. His choice of dictionary is telling. For those not familiar with it, Webster’s Second, or W2, was published in 1934 and has been out of print for decades.

The only reason someone would choose it over Webster’s Third, published in 1961, is as a reaction to the perception that W3 was overly permissive. When it was first published, it was widely criticized for its more descriptive stance, which did away with some of the more judgemental usage labels. Even W3 is out of date and has been replaced with the new online Unabridged; W2 is only the dictionary of record of someone who refuses to accept any of the linguistic change or social progress of the last century.

Gelernter notes that W2’s first definition for man is “a member of the human race”, while the “male human being” sense “is the second-given, secondary definition.” Here it would have helped Gelernter to read the front matter of his dictionary. Unlike some other dictionaries, Merriam-Webster arranges entries not in order of primary or central meanings to more peripheral meanings but in order of historical attestation. Man was most likely originally gender-neutral, while the original word for a male human being was wer (which survives only in the word werewolf). Over time, though, wer fell out of use, and man began pulling double duty. 1The Online Etymology Dictionary notes that a similar thing happened with the Latin vir (cognate with wer) and homo. Vir fell out of use as homo took over the sense of “male human”.

So just because an entry is listed first in a Merriam-Webster dictionary does not mean it’s the primary definition, and just because a word originally meant one thing (and still does mean that thing to some extent) does not mean we must continue to use it that way.

Interestingly, Gelernter admits that the language lost some precision when the plural you pushed out the singular thou as a second-person pronoun, though, bizarrely, he says that it was for good reason, because you had caught on as a more polite form of address. The use of you as a singular pronoun started as a way to be polite and evolved into an obsession with social status, in which thou was eventually relegated to inferiors before finally dropping out of use.

The resurgence of singular they in the twentieth century was driven by a different sort of social force: an acknowledgement that the so-called gender-neutral he is not really gender-neutral. Research has shown that gender-neutral uses of he and man cause readers to think primarily of males, even when context makes it clear that the person could be of either gender. (Here’s just one example.) They send the message that men are the default and women are other. Embracing gender-neutral language, whether it’s he or she or they or some other solution, is about correcting that imbalance by acknowledging that women are people too.

And in case you still think that singular they is just some sort of newfangled politically correct usage, you should know that it has been in use since the 1300s and has been used by literary greats from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Orwell.2I once wrote that Orwell didn’t actually use singular they; it turns out that the quote attributed to him in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage was wrong, but he really did use it. For centuries, nobody batted an eye at singular they, until grammarians started to proscribe it in favor of generic he in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Embracing singular they doesn’t break English grammar; it merely embraces something that’s been part of English grammar for seven centuries.

At the end, we get to the real heart of Gelernter’s article: ranting about new gender-neutral job titles in the armed forces. Gelernter seems to think that changing to gender-neutral titles will somehow make the members of our armed forces suddenly forget how to do their jobs. This isn’t really about grammar; it’s about imagining that it’s a burden to think about the ways in which language affects people, that it’s a burden to treat women with the same respect as men.

But ultimately, it doesn’t matter what Josh Gelernter thinks about singular they or about gender-neutral language in general. Society will continue to march on, just as language has continued to march on in the eight decades since his beloved Webster’s Second was published. But remember that we have a choice in deciding how language will march on. We can use our language to reflect outdated and harmful stereotypes, or we can use it to treat others with the respect they deserve. I know which one I choose.

Notes   [ + ]

1. The Online Etymology Dictionary notes that a similar thing happened with the Latin vir (cognate with wer) and homo. Vir fell out of use as homo took over the sense of “male human”.
2. I once wrote that Orwell didn’t actually use singular they; it turns out that the quote attributed to him in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage was wrong, but he really did use it.

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To Boldly Split Infinitives

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the first airing of Star Trek, so I thought it was a good opportunity to talk about split infinitives. (So did Merriam-Webster, which beat me to the punch.) If you’re unfamiliar with split infinitives or have thankfully managed to forget what they are since your high school days, it’s when you put some sort of modifier between the to and the infinitive verb itself—that is, a verb that is not inflected for tense, like be or go—and for many years it was considered verboten.

Kirk’s opening monologue on the show famously featured the split infinitive “to boldly go”, and it’s hard to imagine the phrase working so well without it. “To go boldly” and “boldly to go” both sound terribly clunky, partly because they ruin the rhythm of the phrase. “To BOLDly GO” is a nice iambic bimeter, meaning that it has two metrical feet, each consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable—duh-DUN duh-DUN. “BOLDly to GO” is a trochee followed by an iamb, meaning that we have a stressed syllable, two unstressed syllables, and then another stressed syllable—DUN-duh duh-DUN. “To GO BOLDly” is the reverse, an iamb followed by a trochee, leading to a stress clash in the middle where the two stresses butt up against each other and then ending on a weaker unstressed syllable. Blech.

But the root of the alleged problem with split infinitives concerns not meter but syntax. The question is where it’s syntactically permissible to put a modifier in a to-infinitive phrase. Normally, an adverb would go just in front of the verb it modifies, as in She boldly goes or He will boldly go. Things were a little different when the verb was an infinitive form preceded by to. In this case the adverb often went in front of the to, not in front of the verb itself.

As Merriam-Webster’s post notes, split infinitives date back at least to the fourteenth century, though they were not as common back then and were often used in different ways than they are today. But they mostly fell out of use in the sixteenth century and then roared back to life in the eighteenth century, only to be condemned by usage commentators in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. (Incidentally, this illustrates a common pattern of prescriptivist complaints: a new usage arises, or perhaps it has existed for literally millennia, it goes unnoticed for decades or even centuries, someone finally notices it and decides they don’t like it (often because they don’t understand it), and suddenly everyone starts decrying this terrible new thing that’s ruining English.)

It’s not particularly clear, though, why people thought that this particular thing was ruining English. The older boldly to go was replaced by the resurgent to boldly go. It’s often claimed that people objected to split infinitives on the basis of analogy with Latin (Merriam-Webster’s post repeats this claim). In Latin, an infinitive is a single word, like ire, and it can’t be split. Ergo, since you can’t split infinitives in Latin, you shouldn’t be able to split them in English either. The problem with this theory is that there’s no evidence to support it. Here’s the earliest recorded criticism of the split infinitive, according to Wikipedia:

The practice of separating the prefix of the infinitive mode from the verb, by the intervention of an adverb, is not unfrequent among uneducated persons. . . . I am not conscious, that any rule has been heretofore given in relation to this point. . . . The practice, however, of not separating the particle from its verb, is so general and uniform among good authors, and the exceptions are so rare, that the rule which I am about to propose will, I believe, prove to be as accurate as most rules, and may be found beneficial to inexperienced writers. It is this :—The particle, TO, which comes before the verb in the infinitive mode, must not be separated from it by the intervention of an adverb or any other word or phrase; but the adverb should immediately precede the particle, or immediately follow the verb.

No mention of Latin or of the supposed unsplittability of infinitives. In fact, the only real argument is that uneducated people split infinitives, while good authors didn’t. Some modern usage commentators have used this purported Latin origin of the rule as the basis of a straw-man argument: Latin couldn’t split infinitives, but English isn’t Latin, so the rule isn’t valid. Unfortunately, Merriam-Webster’s post does the same thing:

The rule against splitting the infinitive comes, as do many of our more irrational rules, from a desire to more rigidly adhere (or, if you prefer, “to adhere more rigidly”) to the structure of Latin. As in Old English, Latin infinitives are written as single words: there are no split infinitives, because a single word is difficult to split. Some linguistic commenters have pointed out that English isn’t splitting its infinitives, since the word to is not actually a part of the infinitive, but merely an appurtenance of it.

The problem with this argument (aside from the fact that the rule wasn’t based on Latin) is that modern English infinitives—not just Old English infinitives—are only one word too and can’t be split either. The infinitive in to boldly go is just go, and go certainly can’t be split. So this line of argument misses the point: the question isn’t whether the infinitive verb, which is a single word, can be split in half, but whether an adverb can be placed between to and the verb. As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage notes, the term split infinitive is a misnomer, since it’s not really the infinitive but the construction containing an infinitive that’s being split.

But in recent years I’ve seen some people take this terminological argument even further, saying that split infinitives don’t even exist because English infinitives can’t be split. I think this is silly. Of course they exist. It used to be that people would say boldly to go; then they started saying to boldly go instead. It doesn’t matter what you call the phenomenon of moving the adverb so that it’s snug up against the verb—it’s still a phenomenon. As Arnold Zwicky likes to say, “Labels are not definitions.” Just because the name doesn’t accurately describe the phenomenon doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. We could call this phenomenon Steve, and it wouldn’t change what it is.

At this point, the most noteworthy thing about the split infinitive is that there are still some people who think there’s something wrong with it. The original objection was that it was wrong because uneducated people used it and good writers didn’t, but that hasn’t been true in decades. Most usage commentators have long since given up their objections to it, and some even point out that avoiding a split infinitive can cause awkwardness or even ambiguity. In his book The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker gives the example The board voted immediately to approve the casino. Which word does immediately modify—voted or approve?

But this hasn’t stopped The Economist from maintaining its opposition to split infinitives. Its style guide says, “Happy the man who has never been told that it is wrong to split an infinitive: the ban is pointless. Unfortunately, to see it broken is so annoying to so many people that you should observe it.”

I call BS on this. Most usage commentators have moved on, and I suspect that most laypeople either don’t know or don’t care what a split infinitive is. I don’t think I know a single copy editor who’s bothered by them. If you’ve been worrying about splitting infinitives since your high school English teacher beat the fear of them into you, it’s time to let it go. If they’re good enough for Star Trek, they’re good enough for you too.

But just for fun, let’s do a little poll:

Do you find split infinitives annoying?

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On a Collision Course with Reality

In a blog post last month, John McIntyre took the editors of the AP Stylebook to task for some of the bad rules they enforce. One of these was the notion that “two objects must be in motion to collide, that a moving object cannot collide with a stationary object.” That is, according to the AP Stylebook, a car cannot collide with a tree, because the tree is not moving, and it can only collide with another car if that other car is moving. McIntyre notes that this rule is not supported by Fowler’s Modern English Usage or even mentioned in Garner’s Modern American Usage.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage does have an entry for collide and notes that the rule is a tradition (read “invention”) of American newspaper editors. It’s not even clear where the rule came from or why; there’s nothing in the etymology of the word to suggest that only two objects in motion can collide. It comes from the Latin collidere, meaning “to strike together”, from com- “together” + laedere “to strike”.

The rule is not supported by traditional usage either. Speakers and writers of English have been using collide to refer to bodies that are not both in motion for as long as the word has been in use, which is roughly four hundred years. Nor is the rule an attempt to slow language change or hang on to a fading distinction; it’s an attempt to create a distinction and impose it on everyone who uses the language, or at least journalists.

What I found especially baffling was the discussion that took place on Mr. McIntyre’s Facebook page when he shared the link there. Several people chimed in to defend the rule, with one gentleman saying, “There’s an unnecessary ambiguity when ‘collides’ involves <2 moving objects.” Mr. McIntyre responded, “Only if you imagine one.” And this is key: collide is ambiguous only if you have been taught that it is ambiguous—or in other words, only if you’re a certain kind of journalist.

In that Facebook discussion, I wrote,

So the question is, is this actually a problem that needs to be solved? Are readers constantly left scratching their heads because they see “collided with a tree” and wonder how a tree could have been moving? If nobody has ever found such phrasing confusing, then insisting on different phrasing to avoid potential ambiguity is nothing but a waste of time. It’s a way to ensure that editors have work to do, not a way to ensure that editors are adding benefit for the readers.

The discussion thread petered out after that.

I’m generally skeptical of the usefulness of invented distinctions, but this one seems especially useless. When would it be important to distinguish between a crash involving two moving objects and one involving only one moving object? Wouldn’t it be clear from context anyway? And if it’s not clear from context, how on earth would we expect most readers—who have undoubtedly never heard of this journalistic shibboleth—to pick up on it? Should we avoid using words like crash or struck because they’re ambiguous in the same way—because they don’t tell us whether both objects were moving?

It doesn’t matter how rigorously you follow the rule in your own writing or in the writing you edit; if your readers think that collide is synonymous with crash, then they will assume that your variation between collide and crash is merely stylistic. They’ll have no idea that you’re trying to communicate something else. If it’s important, they’ll probably deduce from context whether both objects were moving, regardless of the word you use.

In other words, if an editor makes a distinction and no reader picks up on it, is it still useful?

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A Rule Worth Giving Up On

A few weeks ago, the official Twitter account for the forthcoming movie Deadpool tweeted, “A love for which is worth killing.” Name developer Nancy Friedman commented, “There are some slogans up with which I will not put.” Obviously, with a name like Arrant Pedantry, I couldn’t let that slogan pass by without comment.

The slogan is obviously attempting to follow the old rule against stranding prepositions. Prepositions usually come before their complements, but there are several constructions in English in which they’re commonly stranded, or left at the end without their complements. Preposition stranding is especially common in speech and informal writing, whereas preposition fronting (or keeping the preposition with its complement) is more typical of a very formal style. For example, you’d probably say Who did you give it to? when talking to a friend, but in a very formal situation, you might move that preposition up to the front: To whom did you give it?

This rule has been criticized and debunked countless times, but even if you believe firmly in it, you should recognize that there are some constructions where you can’t follow it. That is, following the rule sometimes produces sentences that are stylistically bad if not flat-out ungrammatical. The following constructions all require preposition stranding:

  1. Relative clauses introduced by that. The relative pronoun that cannot come after a preposition, which is one reason why some linguists argue that it’s really a conjunction (a form of the complementizer that) and not a true pronoun. You can’t say There aren’t any of that I know—you have to use which instead or leave the preposition at the end—There aren’t any that I know of.
  2. Relative clauses introduced with an omitted relative. As with the above example, the preposition in There aren’t any I know of can’t be fronted. There isn’t even anything to put it in front of, because the relative pronoun is gone. This should probably be considered a subset of the first item, because the most straightforward analysis is that relative that is omissible while other relatives aren’t. (This is another reason why some consider it not a true pronoun but rather a form of the complementizer thatthat is often omissible.)
  3. The fused relative construction. When you use what, whatever, or whoever as a relative pronoun, as in the U2 song “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, the preposition must come at the end. Strangely, Reader’s Digest once declared that the correct version would be “I Still Haven’t Found for What I’m Looking”. But this is ungrammatical, because “what” cannot serve as the object of “for”. For the fronted version to work, you have to reword it to break up the fused relative: “I Still Haven’t Found That for Which I’m Looking”.
  4. A subordinate interrogative clause functioning as the complement of a preposition. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language gives the example We can’t agree on which grant we should apply for. The fronted form We can’t agree on for which grant we should apply sounds stilted and awkward at best.
  5. Passive clauses where the subject has been promoted from an object of a preposition. In Her apartment was broken into, there’s no way to reword the sentence to avoid the stranded preposition, because there’s nothing to put the preposition in front of. The only option is to turn it back into an active clause: Someone broke into her apartment.
  6. Hollow non-finite clauses. A non-finite clause is one that uses an infinitive or participial form rather than a tensed verb, so it has no overt subject. A hollow non-finite clause is also missing some other element that can be recovered from context. In That book is too valuable to part with, for example, the hollow non-finite clause is to part with. With is missing a complement, which makes it hollow, though we can recover its complement from context: that book. Sometimes you can flip a hollow non-finite clause around and insert the dummy subject it to put the complement back in its place. It’s too valuable to part with that book doesn’t really work, though It’s worth killing for a love is at least grammatical. It’s worth killing for this love is better, but in this case A love worth killing for is still stylistically preferable. But the important thing to note is that since the complement of the preposition is missing, there’s nowhere to move the preposition to. It has to remain stranded.

And that’s where the Deadpool tweet goes off the rails. Rather than leave the preposition stranded, they invent a place for it by inserting the completely unnecessary relative pronoun which. But A love for which worth killing sounds like caveman talk, so they stuck in the similarly unnecessary is: A love for which is worth killing. They’ve turned the non-finite clause into a finite one, but now it’s missing a subject. They could have fixed that by inserting a dummy it, as in A love for which it is worth killing, but they didn’t. The result is a completely ungrammatical mess, but one that sounds just sophisticated enough, thanks to its convoluted syntax, that it might fool some people into thinking it’s some sort of highfalutin form. It’s not.

Instead, it’s some sort of hideous freak, the product of an experiment conducted by people who didn’t fully understand what they were doing, just like Deadpool himself. Unlike Deadpool, though, this sentence doesn’t have any superhuman healing powers. If you ever find yourself writing something like this, do the merciful thing and put it out of its misery.

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Historic, Historical

My brother recently asked me how to use pairs of words like historic/historical, mathematic/mathematical, and problematic/problematical. The typical usage advice is pretty straightforward—use historic to refer to important things from history and historical to refer to anything having to do with past events, important or not—but the reality of usage is a lot more complicated.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, historic was first used as an adjective meaning “related to history; concerned with past events” in 1594. In 1610, it appeared in the sense “belonging to, constituting, or of the nature of history; in accordance with history”; sometimes this was contrasted with prehistoric. It wasn’t until 1756 that it was first used to mean “having or likely to have great historical importance or fame; having a significance due to connection with historical events.” The first edition of the OED called this “the prevailing current sense”, but the current edition notes that the other senses are still common.

The history of historical isn’t much clearer. It first appeared as an adjective meaning “belonging to, constituting, or of the nature of history; in accordance with history” (sense 2 of historic) in 1425, though there aren’t any more citations in this sense until the mid- to late 1500s, about the same time that historic began to be used in this sense. Also in 1425, it appeared in the sense of a work that is based on or depicts events from history, though this sense also didn’t appear again until the late 1500s. In the broader sense “related to history; concerned with past events”, it appeared in 1521, several decades before historichistoric appeared in this sense.

In other words, both of these words have been used in essentially all of these senses for all of their history, and they both appeared around the same time. It’s not as if one clearly came first in one sense and the other clearly came first in the other sense. There is no innate distinction between the two words, though a distinction has begun to emerge over the last century or so of use.

Other such pairs are not much clearer. The OED gives several senses for mathematical beginning in 1425, and for mathematic it simply says, “= mathematical adj. (in various senses)”, with citations beginning in 1402. Apparently they are interchangeable. Problematic/problematical seem to be interchangeable as well, though problematical is obsolete in the logic sense.

But rather than go through every single pair, I’ll just conclude with what Grammarist says on the topic:

There is no rule or consistent pattern governing the formation of adjectives ending in -ic and -ical. . . .

When you’re in doubt about which form is preferred or whether an -ic/-ical word pair has differentiated, the only way to know for sure is to check a dictionary or other reference source.

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Overanxious about Ambiguity

As my last post revealed, a lot of people are concerned—or at least pretend to be concerned—about the use of anxious to mean “eager” or “excited”. They claim that since it has multiple meanings, it’s ambiguous, and thus the disparaged “eager” sense should be avoided. But as I said in my last post, it’s not really ambiguous, and anyone who claims otherwise is simply being uncooperative.

Anxious entered the English language in the the early to mid-1600s in the sense of “troubled in mind; fearful; brooding”. But within a century, the sense had expanded to mean “earnestly desirous” or “eager”. That’s right—the allegedly new sense of the word was already in use before the United States declared independence.

These two meanings existed side by side until the early 1900s, when usage commentators first decided to be bothered by the “eager” sense. And make no mistake—this was a deliberate decision to be bothered. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage includes this anecdote from Alfred Ayres in 1901:

Only a few days ago, I heard a learned man, an LL.D., a dictionary-maker, an expert in English, say that he was anxious to finish the moving of his belongings from one room to another.

“No, you are not,” said I.

“Yes, I am. How do you know?”

“I know you are not.”

“Why, what do you mean?”

“There is no anxiety about it. You are simply desirous.”

Ayres’s correction has nothing to do with clarity or ambiguity. He obviously knew perfectly well what the man meant but decided to rub his nose in his supposed error instead. One can almost hear his self-satisfied smirk as he lectured a lexicographer—a learned man! a doctor of laws!—on the use of the language he was supposed to catalog.

A few years later, Ambrose Bierce also condemned this usage, saying that anxious should not be used to mean “eager” and that it should not be followed by an infinitive. As MWDEU notes, anxious is typically used to mean “eager” when it is followed by an infinitive. But it also says that it’s “an oversimplification” to say that anxious is simply being used to mean “eager”. It notes that “the word, in fact, fairly often has the notion of anxiety mingled with that of eagerness.” That is, anxious is not being used as a mere synonym of eager—it’s being used to indicate not just eagerness but a sort of nervous excitement or anticipation.

MWDEU also says that this sense is the predominant one in the Merriam-Webster citation files, but a search in COCA doesn’t quite bear this out—only about a third of the tokens are followed by to and are clearly used in the “eager” sense. Google Books Ngrams, however, shows that to is by far the most common word that immediately follows anxious; that is, people are anxious to do something far more often than they’re anxious about something.

This didn’t stop one commenter from claiming that not only is this use of anxious confusing, but she’d literally never encountered it before. It’s hard to take such a claim seriously when this use is not only common but has been common for centuries.

It’s also hard to take seriously the claim that it’s ambiguous when nobody can manage to find an example that’s actually ambiguous. A few commenters offered made-up examples that seemed designed to be maximally ambiguous when presented devoid of context. They also ignored the fact that the “eager” sense is almost always followed by an infinitive. That is, as John McIntyre pointed out, no English speaker would say “I was anxious upon hearing that my mother was coming to stay with us” or “I start a new job next week and I’m really anxious about that” if they meant that they were eager or excited.

Another commenter seemed to argue that the problem was that language was changing in an undesirable way, saying, “It’s clearly understood that language evolves, but some of us might prefer a different or better direction for that evolution. . . . Is evolution the de facto response for any misusage in language?”

But this comment has everything backwards. Evolution isn’t the response to misuse—claims of misuse are (occasionally) the response to evolution. The word anxious changed in a very natural way, losing some of its negative edge and being used in a more neutral or positive way. The same thing happened to the word care, which originally meant “to sorrow or grieve” or “to be troubled, uneasy, or anxious”, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Yet nobody complains that everyone is misusing the word today.

That’s because nobody ever decided to be bothered by it as they did with anxious. The claims of ambiguity or undesired language change are all post hoc; the real objection to this use of anxious was simply that someone decided on the basis of etymology—and in spite of established usage—that it was wrong, and that personal peeve went viral and became established in the usage literature.

It’s remarkably easy to convince yourself that something is an error. All you have to do is hear someone say that it is, and almost immediately you’ll start noticing the error everywhere and recoiling in horror every time you encounter it. And once the idea that it’s an error has become lodged in your brain, it’s remarkably difficult to dislodge it. We come up with an endless stream of bogus arguments to rationalize our pet peeves.

So if you choose to be bothered by this use of anxious, that’s certainly your right. But don’t pretend that you’re doing the language a service.

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