Arrant Pedantry

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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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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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