Arrant Pedantry

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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 Even W3 is out of date and has been replaced with the new online Unabridged; W2 is only the dictionary of record of someone who refuses to accept any of the linguistic change or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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Why Descriptivists Are Usage Liberals

Outside of linguistics, the people who care most about language tend to be prescriptivists—editors, writers, English teachers, and so on—while linguists and lexicographers are descriptivists. “Descriptive, not prescriptive!” is practically the linguist rallying cry. But we linguists have done a terrible job of explaining just what that means and why it matters. As I tried to explain in “What Descriptivism Is and Isn’t”, descriptivism is essentially just an interest in facts. That is, we make observations about what the language is rather than state opinions about how we’d like it to be.

Descriptivism is often cast as the opposite of prescriptivism, but they aren’t opposites at all. But no matter how many times we insist that “descriptivism isn’t ‘anything goes’”, people continue to believe that we’re all grammatical anarchists and linguistic relativists, declaring everything correct and saying that there’s no such thing as a grammatical error.

Part of the problem is that whenever you conceive of two approaches as opposing points of view, people will assume that they’re opposite in every regard. Prescriptivists generally believe that communication is important, that having a standard form of the language facilitates communication, and that we need to uphold the rules to maintain the standard. And what people often see is that linguists continually tear down the rules and say that they don’t really matter. The natural conclusion for many people is that linguists don’t care about maintaining the standard or supporting good communication—they want a linguistic free-for-all instead. Then descriptivists appear to be hypocrites for using the very standard they allegedly despise.

It’s true that many descriptivists oppose rules that they disagree with, but as I’ve said before, this isn’t really descriptivism—it’s anti-prescriptivism, for lack of a better term. (Not because it’s the opposite of prescriptivism, but because it often prescribes the opposite of what traditional linguistic prescriptivism does.) Just ask yourself how an anti-prescriptive sentiment like “There’s nothing wrong with singular they” is a description of linguistic fact.

So if that’s not descriptivism, then why do so many linguists have such liberal views on usage? What does being against traditional rules have to do with studying language? And how can linguists oppose rules and still be in favor of good communication and Standard English?

The answer, in a nutshell, is that we don’t think that the traditional rules have much to do with either good communication or Standard English. The reason why we think that is a little more complicated.

Linguists have had a hard time defining just what Standard English is, but there are several ideas that recur in attempts to define it. First, although Standard English can certainly be spoken, it is often conceived of as a written variety, especially in the minds of non-linguists. Second, it is generally more formal, making it appropriate for a wide range of serious topics. Third, it is educated, or rather, it is used by educated speakers. Fourth, it is supraregional, meaning that it is not tied to a specific region, as most dialects are, but that it can be used across an entire language area. And fifth, it is careful or edited. Notions of uniformity and prestige are often thrown into the mix as well.

Careful is a vague term, but it means that users of Standard English put some care into what they say or write. This is especially true of most published writing; the entire profession of editing is dedicated to putting care into the written word. So it’s tempting to say that following the rules is an important part of Standard English and that tearing down those rules tears down at least that part of Standard English.

But the more important point is that Standard English is ultimately rooted in the usage of actual speakers and writers. It’s not just that there no legislative body declaring what’s standard, but that there are no first principles from which we can deduce what’s standard. All languages are different, and they change over time, so how can we know what’s right or wrong except by looking at the evidence? This is what descriptivists try to do when discussing usage: look at the evidence from historical and current usage and draw meaningful conclusions about what’s right or wrong. (There are some logical problems with this, but I’ll address those another time.)

Let’s take singular they, for example. The evidence shows that it’s been in use for centuries not just by common folk or educated speakers but by well-respected writers from Geoffrey Chaucer to Jane Austen. The evidence also shows that it’s used in fairly predictable ways, generally to refer to indefinite pronouns or to nouns that don’t specify gender. Its use has not caused the grammar of English to collapse, and it seems like a rather felicitous solution to the gender-neutral pronoun problem. So at least from a dispassionate linguistic point of view, there is no problem with it.

From another point of view, though, there is something wrong with it: some people don’t like it. This is a social rather than a linguistic fact, but it’s a fact nonetheless. But this social fact arose because at some point someone declared—contrary to the linguistic facts—that singular they is a grammatical error that should be avoided. Here’s where descriptivists depart from description and get into anti-prescription. If people have been taught to dislike this usage, it stands to reason that they could be taught to get over this dislike.

That is, linguists are engaging in anti-prescriptivism to counter the prescriptivism that isn’t rooted in linguistic fact. So when they debunk or tear down traditional rules, it’s not that they don’t value Standard English or good communication; it’s that they think that those particular rules have nothing to do with either.

To be fair, I think that many linguists think they’re still merely describing when they’re countering prescriptive attitudes. Saying that singular they has been used for centuries by respected writers, that it appears to follow fairly well-defined rules, and that the proscription against it is not based in linguistic fact is descriptive; saying that people need to get over their dislike and accept it is not.

And this is precisely why I think descriptivism and prescriptivism not only can but should coexist. It’s not wrong to have opinions on what’s right or wrong, but I think it’s better if those opinions have some basis in fact. Guidance on issues of usage can really only be relevant and valid if it takes all the evidence into account—who uses a certain word of construction, in what circumstances, and so on. These are all facts that can be investigated, and linguistics provides a solid methodological framework for doing so. Anything that ignores the facts reduces to one sort of ipse dixit or another, either a statement from an authority declaring something to be right or wrong or one’s own preferences or pet peeves.

Linguists value good communication, and we recognize the importance of Standard English. But our opinions on both are informed by our study of language and by our emphasis on facts and evidence. This isn’t “anything goes”, or at least no more so than language has always been. People have always worried about language change, but language has always turned out fine. Inventing new rules to try to regulate language will not save it from destruction, and tossing out the rules that have no basis in fact will not hasten the language’s demise. But recognizing that some rules don’t matter may alleviate some of those worries, and I think that’s a good thing for both camps.

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More at Visual Thesaurus

In case you haven’t been following me on Twitter or elsewhere, I’m the newest regular contributor to Visual Thesaurus. You can see my contributor page here. My latest article, “Orwell and Singular ‘They'”, grew out of an experience I had last summer as I was writing a feature article on singular they for Copyediting. I cited George Orwell in a list of well-regarded authors who reportedly used singular they, and my copyeditor queried me on it. She wanted proof.

I did some research and made a surprising discovery: the alleged Orwell quotation in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage wasn’t really from Orwell. But if you want to know the rest, you’ll have to read the article. (It’s for subscribers only, but a subscription is only $19.95 per year.)

But if you’re not the subscribing type, don’t worry: I’ll have a new post up today or tomorrow on the oft-maligned construction reason why.

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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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It’s Not Wrong, but You Still Shouldn’t Do It

A couple of weeks ago, in my post “The Value of Prescriptivism,” I mentioned some strange reasoning that I wanted to talk about later—the idea that there are many usages that are not technically wrong, but you should still avoid them because other people think they’re wrong. I used the example of a Grammar Girl post on hopefully wherein she lays out the arguments in favor of disjunct hopefully and debunks some of the arguments against it—and then advises, “I still have to say, don’t do it.” She then adds, however, “I am hopeful that starting a sentence with hopefully will become more acceptable in the future.”

On the face of it, this seems like a pretty reasonable approach. Sometimes the considerations of the reader have to take precedence over the facts of usage. If the majority of your readers will object to your word choice, then it may be wise to pick a different word. But there’s a different way to look at this, which is that the misinformed opinions of a very small but very vocal subset of readers take precedence over the facts and the opinions of others. Arnold Zwicky wrote about this phenomenon a few years ago in a Language Log post titled “Crazies win”.

Addressing split infinitives and the equivocal advice to avoid them unless it’s better not to, Zwicky says that “in practice, [split infinitive as last resort] is scarcely an improvement over [no split infinitives] and in fact works to preserve the belief that split infinitives are tainted in some way.” He then adds that the “only intellectually justifiable advice” is to “say flatly that there’s nothing wrong with split infinitives and you should use them whenever they suit you”. I agree wholeheartedly, and I’ll explain why.

The problem with the it’s-not-wrong-but-don’t-do-it philosophy is that, while it feels like a moderate, open-minded, and more descriptivist approach in theory, it is virtually indistinguishable from the it’s-wrong-so-don’t-do-it philosophy in practice. You can cite all the linguistic evidence you want, but it’s still trumped by the fact that you’d rather avoid annoying that small subset of readers. It pays lip service to the idea of descriptivism informing your prescriptions, but the prescription is effectively the same. All you’ve changed is the justification for avoiding the usage.

Even more neutral and descriptive pieces like this New York Times “On Language” article on singular they ends with a wistful, “It’s a shame that grammarians ever took umbrage at the singular they,” adding, “Like it or not, the universal they isn’t universally accepted — yet. Its fate is now in the hands of the jury, the people who speak the language.” Even though the authors seem to be avoiding giving out advice, it’s still implicit in the conclusion. It’s great to inform readers about the history of usage debates, but what they’ll most likely come away with is the conclusion that it’s wrong—or at least tainted—so they shouldn’t use it.

The worst thing about this waffly kind of advice, I think, is that it lets usage commentators duck responsibility for influencing usage. They tell you all the reasons why it should be alright to use hopefully or split infinitives or singular they, but then they sigh and put them away in the linguistic hope chest, telling you that you can’t use them yet, but maybe someday. Well, when? If all the usage commentators are saying, “It’s not acceptable yet,” at what point are they going to decide that it suddenly is acceptable? If you always defer to the peevers and crazies, it will never be acceptable (unless they all happen to die off without transmitting their ideas to the next generation).

And furthermore, I’m not sure it’s a worthwhile endeavor to try to avoid offending or annoying anyone in your writing. It reminds me of Aesop’s fable of the man, the boy, and the donkey: people will always find something to criticize, so it’s impossible to behave (or write) in such a way as to always avoid criticism. As the old man at the end says, “Please all, and you will please none.” You can’t please everyone, so you have to make a choice: will you please the small but vocal peevers, or the more numerous reasonable people? If you believe there’s nothing technically wrong with hopefully or singular they, maybe you should stand by those beliefs instead of caving to the critics. And perhaps through your reasonable but firm advice and your own exemplary writing, you’ll help a few of those crazies come around.

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