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 Even W3 is out of date and has been replaced with the new online Unabridged; W2 is only the dictionary of record of someone who refuses to accept any of the linguistic change or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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Continua, Planes, and False Dichotomies

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

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

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

In its most extreme form, we find quotes like this one from Robert Hall, who, in defending the controversial and mostly prescription-free Webster’s Third, wrote: “The functions of grammars and dictionaries is to tell the truth about language. Not what somebody thinks ought to be the truth, nor what somebody wants to ram down somebody else’s throat, not what somebody wants to sell somebody else as being the ‘best’ language, but what people actually do when they talk and write. Anything else is not the truth, but an untruth.”1In Harold B. Allen et al., “Webster’s Third New International Dictionary: A Symposium,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 48 (December 1962): 434.

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

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

I envision the two occupying a space something like this:

graph of descriptivism and prescriptivism

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

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

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

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

Notes   [ + ]

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