Dear Language Peever:
Welcome to harm•less drudg•ery! You are here because you googled something like “literally killed English” or “different than is wrong” or “irregardless not a word.” Allow me to introduce myself: I’m that lady from the dictionary that made that stupid video about “irregardless.” Behold: I am a dread descriptivist.
Before you stomp off in a fit of pique, hear me out (if only because I used the right “pique”). Many people assume you and I are on different sides of the Great Grammar Debate–in fact, you probably assume this–but we have much in common. We are both carbon-based life forms with an Internet connection, and we both care deeply about language. And I know that you, a would-be prescriptivist, are sick of defending proper English to the hoi polloi and us hippie-dippy no-rulez descriptivists. I know this because this hippie-dippy descriptivist is pretty damn tired of having this conversation with you, too.
So in a spirit of bonhomie, I’m reaching across the aisle: I’m going to give you tools to be an informed prescriptivist and then let you go on your merry, doomsaying way, never to tell you to lighten the hell up again. Here, for your erudition, are the Six Steps to Becoming a Reasonable Prescriptivist.
Step 1: Learn what prescriptivism and descriptivism really are.
Last year, Joan Acocella at the New Yorker ostensibly reviewed a book by Henry Hitchings and used it as an opportunity to trot out that delightful old canard that descriptivists are “anything goes” hypocrites, while prescriptivists are the only ones who care about good writing and proper English. She was subsequently lambasted by just about everyone, which compelled the New Yorker to publish a follow-up article that was not only equally wrongheaded, but was updated with a ludicrous caveat in an attempt to defuse the situation, then un-updated to un-defuse a non-situation.
Here is why we were all in a lather over those articles: “descriptivist” is not a slur, and neither is “prescriptivist” a title of honor (or vice versa). They are merely terms that describe two approaches to analyzing language use. They are not linguistic matter and anti-matter, and when brought together, they will not destroy the universe in a cataclysm of bombast and “ain’t”s. Good descriptivism involves a measure of prescriptivism, and good prescriptivism involves a measure of descriptivism. What good is a dictionary that enters “irregardless” but neglects to tell you that it’s not accepted as standard English? And how good is a usage and style guide that merely parrots rules with no careful consideration for the historical record of edited prose, or whether this rule does indeed produce clearer, cleaner writing?
In fact, do everyone a favor and just stop talking about “descriptivists vs. prescriptivists.” It’s a false dichotomy that only works if you construct a nonexistent descriptivist straw man as a foil to your upstanding-citizen prescriptivist (or vice versa. Prescriptivists don’t have the corner on language nastiness). For an excellent and well-reasoned take on descriptivism and prescriptivism, go read Jonathon Owen’s essay. I’d also recommend this very interesting discussion between Lane Greene (D) and Bryan Garner (P). If you want to see nerds break chairs over people’s heads, take your bloodlust elsewhere and go heckle a Scrabble tournament (wear a helmet).
Step 2: Learn what dictionaries actually do.
Something that really burns my proverbial biscuits is the musty insistence that dictionaries are the guardians and gatekeepers of the language, and when we enter a word into the Most Sacred Tomes of Webster, we lend it legitimacy. We’re putting our Seal of Approval on its unchecked use, which will eventually kill English.
If you don’t know what dictionaries really do, you can go read this blather, and please consider that people have literally (sense 1) been whining about the demise of English since the 15th century, long before English dictionaries showed up to ruin everything.
Step 3: Educate yourself.
One of the things I find fascinating about some self-proclaimed prescriptivists is that they hold to usage advice that professional prescriptivists have essentially given up on. “Stop using ‘hopefully’ as a sentence adverb! Sentence adverbs are the devil!” some folks say. But Bryan Garner, professional prescriptivist, judges that the sentence adverb “hopefully” is common in use and probably not worth the effort, even if some people still oppose its use.
The problem here is one merely of education, and is easy to remedy: buy some usage dictionaries. At least two, preferably four, written by both descriptivists and prescriptivists. Arrange them near your desk in a way that is aesthetically pleasing. There. Aren’t they nice? They are nice. NOW READ THEM.
Most modern usage dictionaries will give you a little historical overview of a contested use, and then will offer advice on how (or whether) to use it. You will be surprised to discover that many thinking prescriptivists disagree in their advice, or pass judgment on uses that are so common, no one knows they are not supposed to be using that word that way (e.g., “above” as a noun, as in “all of the above”). A reasonable prescriptivist critically reads all the evidence and advice they can, and then makes their own judgment.
Step 4: Remember that opinions and facts are two different things.
My mother, bless her, claims that when I complete a task and holler “I’m done,” I am announcing to the room that I have reached a safe internal minimum temperature and hence will not give you trichinosis. “You’re done, are you? Should I stick a fork in you to make sure?”, she will tut. “You’re finished, not done.”
Alas were it so, but the historical record shows that “done” has been used to mean “completed” or “finished” since the 14th century. The “be done” construction in particular dates back to the 18th century.
Nonetheless, my mother is of the opinion that this use of “done” is wrong, and she is welcome to that opinion. I am of the opinion that if I say “I’m done” and you really think I’m referring to cooking myself, then you have other issues we need to discuss–and I am entitled to my opinion as well. Both of our positions are equally correct insofar as any preference or opinion is “correct.” A usage preference is not a usage fact, and it should not be held as such. I prefer cake over pie and vanilla over chocolate; but cake is not empirically better than pie, nor is vanilla more correct than chocolate. Even if science proved that vanilla is more correct, as I am sure it one day will, my preference for vanilla will still be just that: a preference.
Your personal language preference is yours, and it is unassailable. I can hurl citation after citation at it with my standard-issue Lexicographer’s Trebuchet, but a personal decision you make with and keep for yourself is inviolable. “I prefer to use ‘finished’ instead of ‘done'” is a statement that no thinking descriptivist will argue with, because you are not claiming it is a universal fact everyone should subscribe to. But saying “‘I’m done’ is wrong” makes what is an opinion into a fact, and baby, my trebuchet was built for nonsense like that.
Step 5: Realize that you are not the center of the linguistic (or actual) universe.
I have a friend–well, a “friend”–who feels it is his life’s mission to let me know when I’ve used a word incorrectly. He will stop a conversation dead in its tracks to share with me that I didn’t pronounce “towards” right, or that I should stop saying “howdy” out here on the East Coast because it’s hickish. It’s not just that our conversations are stilted because I can’t finish a sentence without being grammarsplained to; it’s that he makes these judgments based on his own dialectal language patterns. His experience becomes the standard for what is right and proper and good. In other words, what he speaks is Standard English, and what everyone else speaks is Really Wrong.
In a similar vein, I can’t tell you the number of emails I’ve received over the years that explain that “phat” or \NOO-kyu-lur\ or “irregardless” is wrong and shouldn’t be legitimized in our dictionaries because no one with a modicum of common sense, class, or education would dare use them. I also can’t tell you what my unedited response to this oft-repeated drivel is because I believe it breaks obscenity laws in 33 states.
It’s human nature to make our own experiences and beliefs the standard by which we judge other people and things. But it is, to be blunt, stupid to pretend that English is a monolithic structure that does not have enough room for accent, dialect, or register variations. “Phat” is slang and you shouldn’t use it in formal speech or writing: this is not disputed advice. Are you so presumptuous as to think that a conversation you’re having with the office supplies clerk about “American Idol” is considered formal speech, and therefore the clerk shouldn’t use “phat”? Are you so provincial and backwards that you honestly believe that someone with a southern US accent who may say \NOO-kyu-lur\ instead of \NOO-klee-ur\ is uneducated or stupid? Because y’all, where I come from, we reckon that’s elitist horseshit.
No thinking descriptivist is going to disagree with you when you say that certain words should not be used in certain contexts. But a reasonable prescriptivist understands that different contexts and times often require different types of use, and they tailor their advice to the context and the era. The best practices of written English have changed dramatically over the last two centuries. Language is flexible; advice regarding its best use should be as well.
Step 6: Lighten up, Francis
Let’s say that you feel, despite the evidence I may put in front of you, that “decimate” should not be used to refer to utterly destroying something. That’s fine, assuming you’ve gone through Steps 1-5 above. But before you move in to correct the next guy who uses “decimate” to mean “to utterly destroy,” consider: is this the hill you want to die on? Do you want your legacy in life to be “That One Person Who Bitched Endlessly About ‘Decimate'”? Are you happy with a life that will be beset by smart-asses like me asking why, if you are so interested in so-called etymological purity, you aren’t also tackling “nice” and “frankfurter” and holy hell half the month names of the Gregorian calendar?
The core question here is an existential, not a grammatical, one: why are you a prescriptivist? Perhaps you’re a professional editor and you need to uphold a style sheet that demands you subscribe to dusty old shibboleths (some of which you may adore). Perhaps you’re a writer and you don’t want to drive your editors crazy. Perhaps you feel that championing best practices makes for better reading and writing. Hell: maybe you just like following rules. Those are fine reasons for being a reasonable prescriptivist. But if you are a prescriptivist because it gives you a sense of superiority and inflated self-worth, a little pillar from which you can spit on the idiot masses below, then you are the sort of prescriptivist that is giving prescriptivism a bad name. Maybe take up yoga?
Don’t get me wrong: descriptivists dislike bad writing, too, but try to put things in perspective. Yes, misused apostrophes irritate me, a descriptivist. Do I feel that people who misuse apostrophes “deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave“? No, of course not: I’m not a sociopath. Do I cringe when people use “impactful”? Oh yeah. If I were editing a piece of writing that used “impactful,” I would very likely revise it out of the text. Does “impactful” make me want to blow up the world? No, not even on a bad day when I have to goddamned write the entry for “impactful.” It is possible to love the sinner yet hate the sin, even if that sin is “impactful.”
The English language is not under attack by barbarians, and you are not her only hope. She’s taken pretty good care of herself, all things considered. Her best practices have always prevailed. In short: be cordial, humble, and hopeful. It’s so much better than being miserable and insufferable.
174 responses to “A Compromise: How To Be A Reasonable Prescriptivist”
I love this post so much. This is the post I want to marry. This post makes me squee.
“Maybe take up yoga?” is my favorite line, I think, although there were SO MANY.
Amen, a thousand times amen.
You rock, as always.
Excellent advice, Kory. And thanks for the link!
Well, it’s august after all, and just too hot to think. I’ll look for you in November, with a copy of Moby D under your arm.
Please write a book. In all seriousness you are one of my favorite writers.
As an editor and general logophile, I adore this blog, I adore this post, and I especially adore this sentence: “But saying “‘I’m done’ is wrong” makes what is an opinion into a fact, and baby, my trebuchet was built for nonsense like that.”
Huzzah! Common sense in English! Who’da thunk it? (But my preference would have been for you to avoid the construction, “A reasonable prescriptivist critically reads all the evidence and advice THEY can, and then makes THEIR own judgment.” I still prefer agreement in number and gender. Just a preference, not a rule).
You’re taking the piss, right?
My feeling too. It’s a kind of laziness, the fear of political correctness, the kind of laxity that gives descriptivists their bad name.
On the whole, this essay is too extreme. Kory Stamper’s reactions always sound too extreme. To make her writing look more interesting, she systematically indulges in overwriting.
Then, in her maelstrom of absolutes, a sense of good measure is lost. And using “elitism” as a groundless condemnation is such a cop-out. Elitism is at work in any system of selection and choice, from entry into good schools and getting a Nobel prize, or getting a high P/E ratio on Wall street. Whether Kory likes it or not, the human brain is geared to comparing and judging, all the time.
Me, overwrite? No, never! Never ever, ever.
I don’t dispute we are hardwired to judge; rather, I hope to encourage rational judgment in how we choose to use language. Judgment is an essential part of both descriptivism and prescriptivism. You are free to disagree with that statement, which was not sufficiently overwritten for my personal taste, but I’d hardly call it extreme.
Anyhoo, you are duly forewarned that this will continue to be an extreme, badly written blog. Complaining about it will not fix it. Proceed at your own risk.
I read your blogs on language, because I’m interested in words and grammar, but I’ve always found your tone to be condescending, snide and supercilious. Moreover, your sarcastic and dismissive retorts are puerile, and quite demeaning to your position as a lexicographer and editor for a leading American dictionary.
It is for this reason that I don’t take you seriously and I question your qualifications. Do you honestly feel that it’s indispensable to pepper your language with profanity and trendy words to express an idea? Your occupation is that of a lexicographer, but your language and attitude doesn’t remotely indicate that that is your true profession.
I understand that you have a fan base who think that whatever you postulate is gospel and whoever disputes your opinions is an elitist curmudgeon. But one only has to read their comments to understand this to be pure sycophancy from your cheerleading crowd who revere you as a linguistic deity; as confirmation, one of these sycophants actually claimed you to be his god. This is an insult to Murray, Fowler, Webster et al.; you’ve lowered the standards of their profession.
You offered to explain the motive for your singular “they”, but your motive is quite transparent, for you are a descriptivist, thus, no need to explain. Given that your position on language is clearly understood, there is no need to practice it on a blog that should be intended to instruct and present unbiased opinions. It’s affectatious and it diminishes your credibility.
Well, calitri, I can’t fathom why you keep reading and commenting if you find everything I write so offensive. There is a big, wide Internet out there for you to romp through; therefore, drastic measures have been taken for everyone’s benefit.
Excellent; thank you! And much more effective than General Dreedle’s abortive order to have a similarly tiresome antagonist taken out and shot (Catch 22)
@calitri, I note that you accuse Kory of being condescending, yet at the same time you tell her what her blog should be about (“a blog that should be intended to instruct and present unbiased opinions”). Leaving aside the question of who decides what passes as “unbiased” (you? Kory? me?), I would suggest that yet again your comment contains an element of semantic tension (i.e. the practical use of the word “condescending”).
For the record, I find it refreshing for lexicography to be discussed in a lively and entertaining style. As a small time lexicographer (I have been involved in two bilingual dictionaries), I enjoy the celebration of language as a living and exciting phenomenon.
I also accused her of being supercilious, which is synonymous. Does that word also create “semantic tension”? My delineation of her character was quite accurate; no need for linguistic interpretation.
I’m not opposed to the entertainment factor in the teaching of language; I’m just opposed to Kory’s smug take-it-or-leave-it attitude. By the way, Lexicography is not meant to be entertaining, even though today we tend to make everything “entertaining” rather than academically instructive.
Regardless, I’m more interested in meaningful edification, rather than impertinent digressions that provoke rancor but undermine intelligent discourse.
@calitri: Oh dear. I’ll have to ask you to forgive me for disagreeing with every single sentence in that comment.
That’s your prerogative, as is adulation.
Wisdom and panache, as usual. Bucketloads of yes.
I understand what you are saying, but I still think it is a shame that bimonthly and semimonthly can now mean the same thing.
I don’t believe they should be blown up or otherwise harmed. Shaken and told they irritate the ever-lovin’ bejeebus outta me (and most other people who have the slightest clue), absolutely!
I don’t wish to argue the point. The English language is already half-a-barbarian language; its Latin vocabulary not withstanding. Once upon a time it had inflected what-nots, scary case endings, impossible declensions–and all the earmarks of a proper language. Unfortunately it was so popular among various barbaric tribes for its rich vocabulary of expletives, that they all wanted to use it– sometimes: when bargaining, when arguing, when hurling insults at each other, stepping in stuff–or hitting their thumbs, stubbing their toes and the like…. Eventually, the English speakers in the room had the biggest sticks, so all the other little Latinized para-linguists had to convert or die. And as these speakers of other tongues died off–they took their damned rules with them.
So is Mandarin, which has no inflections or case marking either, a barbarian language?
That’s rich and entertaining, coming from someone who doesn’t know that “notwithstanding” is one word, among other, numerous amusing points. Don’t worry – September is just around the corner, and this year, in the third grade, you’ll discover just how much of your post is complete gibberish.
Hank G.: As of 1933, the OED2 was already saying that bimonthly was used to mean ‘twice a month’, though it’s not possible to pin down exactly when because the quotation evidence is ambiguous. So by “now” you actually mean “any time in the last eighty years.”
Okay, I’m bummed that for the past eighty years bimonthly and semimonthly can mean the same thing. My great-grandfather could say “bimonthly” without ambiguity.
But was it unambiguous even then? We just don’t know.
The most pitiable (and obnoxious) of language police are those who cannot refrain from correcting friends’ grammar, usage, etc., on social media sites. If there is ever written language that should escape the constraints of formality I think text on facebook etc. qualifies almost definitionally. So if your friend says they feel like their life is in “a whole” and they can’t dig out, don’t remind them that they meant hole, because you know what they meant, nobody is impressed by your gimlet eye for language (yes, we all saw it too), and you’re being an ass.
More importantly, and this is to you Ms. Stamper, while you are (obviously) correct about cake, you are only correct about vanilla ice cream as a dessert ingredient (e.g., in a Sundae or a shake). If you actually contend that plain, unadorned vanilla is better than an equally naked chocolate scoop, I’m afraid you are wrong. Please correct your preferred ice cream to chocolate and re-post this otherwise lovely and impactish article at your earliest convenience.
Well, there is a sickness — not yet recognized by the medical community — that affects some of us (editors especially, I would guess) in which A) we cannot NOT see a spelling error, typo, or some other written faux pas, and B) when we see something that ought to be fixed, we are compelled to try to fix it. If someone corrects your Facebook post, just assume it’s out of compulsion and not out of anything malign or self-congratulatory.
Pitiable is the right word.
I’m literally, like, “Wow!”.
Am I a prescriptivist if I inform you of your pronoun agreement error?
Step 5 paragraph 4: “But a reasonable prescriptivist understands that different contexts and times often require different types of use, and they tailor their advice to the context and the era.” “A reasonable prescriptivist” is singular and should be followed by a singular pronoun, he or she, not “they”.
Your grandmother’s “I’m finished” correction is not really as prescriptive as, “I have finished”, because “I’m finished” a contraction for, “I am finished” denotes failure, desperation or death. Whereas, “I have finished” indicates a task that has been completed.
Conversely, can one also be a descriptivist to attain a sense of superiority and inflated self-worth or is this pejorative analysis relegated exclusively to the elitists–the prescriptivists alter ego?
I enjoyed your article, but I discerned a slight condescension, for this reason there will always be a disparity. The separation will endure and the captions will always read: “Language is deteriorating” or “Language is constantly evolving”, and never the twain shall meet.
“We are losing our common vocabulary, built over thousands of years to help and delight and instruct us, for the sake of what we take to be the new technology’s virtues. ”
― Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night
“vocabulary built over thousands of years”????
If I were to go back MERELY ONE thousand years, I wouldn’t understand a word. In any language.
OK, I suppose there would be snippets of historical languages that I have picked up for other reasons (Hebrew, Greek, Latin), but in my native English and my adopted German I would be hopelessly lost.
They is a singular pronoun. And has been since at least the time of Chaucer.
If “they” is a singular pronoun, then the sentence: “They is going to the store”, would be correct. They is not a singular pronoun and if it was seven hundred hears ago, it is not today,(language evolves). A pronoun and its antecedent must agree in terms of number and gender. I understand there are exceptions to this rule.
Over the past few years, ‘they’ has become an accepted gender-neutral singular pronoun thanks in part to the lgbt community, who could never seem to make any other gender-neutral pronouns stick.
I get that you have an idea that you are aware of the objective nature of language but I’m afraid that it marches on regardless of your opinion.
And so we should, indeed, say “they is going to the store,” should we not?
Nope: “they” still takes a plural verb, though it’s understood semantically in those uses to be singular. There are plenty of instances in English where the subject of a sentence doesn’t match the corresponding verb in number. For example, the plural nouns that describe an area of study (“economics,” “sabermetrics,” “astrophysics,” etc.) take a singular verb, and in British English, nouns that are singular in form but describe a group of people or things take a plural verb (“The crowd are loving it.”).
And we have no trouble understanding each other when we say “you are” in reference to a single person.
“Though semantically singular or ambiguous, singular they remains morphologically and syntactically plural (e.g. it still takes plural forms of verbs).”
….which is why your “example” sentence is just silly.
” So if someone tells you that singular “they” is wrong, you can firmly tell them to go to hell.”
“If ‘they’ is a singular pronoun, then the sentence: ‘They is going to the store’, would be correct. They is not a singular pronoun.”
But replace “they” with “you”:
“If ‘you’ is a singular pronoun, then the sentence: ‘You is going to the store’, would be correct. You is not a singular pronoun.”
But “you” can most definitely be a singular pronoun. “You are going to the store” is as correct as “They are going to the store” when referring to a single person.
Compare your opinion on singular they with Brian A. Garner’s to see if you qualify as one of the reasonable prescriptivists. He finds it an increasingly more acceptable way to avoid using gender-biased language. That’s mighty generous of him considering it’s a well-established,
six-hundred-year-old usage. At least he doesn’t make the ignorant mistake of referring to it as an error based on his own personal dialectal experience.
There is no question that “a reasonable prescriptivist” is syntactically singular when it functions as the subject of the clause and takes the singular verb “understands”. But “a reasonable prescriptivist” is not a simple noun phrase describing a singular entity, it defines a class of entities. When we shift our focus to the members of the class rather from the class itself, a syntactic shift takes place, and we now find ourselves in the realm of the plural. We choose the appropriate plural pronoun–they.
We could resist the syntactic shift to the plural and choose a singular pronoun such as “he” to refer to a prototypical member of the class. This is a style choice which–though not without its charms–creates the undesirable side effect of unnecessarily assigning the prototypical member a gender when the class is defined as human: the choice of pronoun must be either “he” or “she”.
This archaic style choice is in serious decline, will probably one day be remembered as little more than a curious little footnote in the annals of unsuccessful attempts to artificially reform the English language, and would be best bid farewell and good riddance right now before any more time and effort is foolishly wasted on the issue of whether “singular” they is an error.
If “they” as singular, is a six-hundred year old usage then that would seem to be the archaic usage. I also counter your assertion that is is “well established”, because if it were there would not be all the controversy.
If my opinion is “ignorant” as you so civilly expressed, then every grammar book and academic who are in concurrence to my opinion must also be ignorant.
Furthermore, “a reasonable prescriptivist” followed by the singular verb “understands” does not define a “class of entities” as you mistakenly assert; it defines a single entity because the determiner article “a”, determines the singular countable noun, “prescriptivist”.
There is indeed a lot of ignorance in some grammar books.
It’s well established that our planet is millions of years old, yet some still claim it’s only 5000 years old. Holy cannoli – with all the controversy, they must be right, mustn’t they?
“They” may or may not *be* singular but it definitely has been used to refer to singular entities when necessary for any of a number of reasons, whether you like it or not. I don’t, and so I don’t use it that way, but I also don’t like to make a complete fool of myself and claim it’s “wrong”, particularly not in a post full of bad punctuation, poorly chosen prepositions and other general inaccuracies I’d be embarrassed to post. “A reasonable prescriptivist” does indeed refer to any number of people with a certain opinion/position, and I won’t write who would miss that blatantly obvious point because the phrase “a complete idiot” might come across as offensive to some.
Correct. Let’s have “we” singular, “you” singular, and “they” singular, and never, never use the dreaded pronoun “he”, which is what this is about — holy political correctness. Men as “members of the human class”? Never. Let’s build a perfect society without men, only with “they” and “they”.
Er, “you” has been singular for a number of centuries now, despite the ranters (or rather Ranters) who condemned it.
Er, er…”man” “men”, “he” and “his” have had a class sense meaning “mankind”, “people”, or any class under consideration, for as many centuries.
Pushing those words out to make room for singular “they” is some beautifying! Some enrichment! How about dumbing down for the happiness of multitudes? It is only the result of political correctness arguing that it is for “fairness” to women.
So it is a command from a new morality that dictates modification of what was naturally accepted by the language for centuries.
“The Descent of Man” was not misunderstood. It referred to the whole species. Would changing it to “The Descent of Woman” have the same meaning? Only after a lot of brainwashing. But that is the brainwashing that political correctness commands.
Willful distortions of historical developments are the result of intrusion of political intentions, not a natural development of the language. The Bolsheviks rewrote their history. So did the Catholic Church. Now we’re rewriting the language itself. Why not? Are women going to be more “empowered” with the “Descent of Woman”? Perhaps some. But this is playing mind games. Believing that modifying symbols modifies reality. Magic thinking. Reality does not change by calling a rose by any other name.
Yep, language changes, but under the influence of forces. Identifying those forces is not always easy, especially in the past. Witnessing changes by examining records is easier. But in our case, the force at play is easy to spot, since we are the enablers. We are the agents of political correctness. Even if her action is working unconsciously or willfully. Isn’t our language exciting? Isn’t she more beautiful, richer, more meaningful, with a wider scope, with singular “they” than “he” and “his”.
Any malcontent takes their bloodlust elsewhere.
Actually, The Descent of Woman was written by a different person. But neither Chaucer, nor the King James translators, nor Jane Austen were using singular they in the service of 20th-century political correctness. It is simply a standard part of the language, and can be used in sentences like “Either the husband or the wife may add their signature to this document” in which his simply will not do.
Changing names doesn’t always change realities, but it can change people’s feelings, which are also realities. What used to be called “Old Russian” is now called “Old East Slavic”, since it is equally the ancestor of modern Russian, modern Ukrainian, and modern Belarusian. The name change quieted a host of nationalist fears and claims of misappropriation.
Why on earth has the singular ‘they’, after being used for hundreds of years by just about everybody under the sun (including all the language’s greatest writers) suddenly become “wrong”? No one ever used to worry about it. A comment has already been made about this, “common vocabulary, built over thousands of years…”. This is a typical prescriptivist fallacy. The language has never been fixed, and semantic shift is a never ending process. As already mentioned, the English or any other language of a thousand years ago would be quite incomprehensible to day.
You’re erroneously asserting that the pronoun “they” is singular; it is not, it is plural. However, it can be used to refer to a single person in certain sentence constructions.
“They” used as a singular in this sentence would be ambiguous; “They lost his way” (Who lost his way, he or they?)as would, “They is going to the store”
Obviously you did not read my above comments. If the pronoun “they” has been used for hundreds of years as singular, and language has never been fixed, then can it be that “they” has shifted to the plural usage? I am just offering a hypothetical, since this seems to be a standard argument amongst descriptivists that language is constantly evolving and changing.
Furthermore, have you read all the works of the greatest writers of the English language to make such a preposterous assertion?
“This is a typical prescriptivist fallacy” Do descriptivists ever make fallacious claims? The caustic condemnations never seems to end.
“Well, no one ever said that linguistics can “settle” questions of usage; the issue is whether it can offer important insight, so that a prescriptivist is better off knowing linguistics than being ignorant of it.”
I’m a bit flummoxed as to why you seem to think the singular they HAS to take a singular verb, when it in fact does not. (As I have pointed out above – semantically singular – morphologically and semantically plural).
If someone says to me “Has the leader of Syria gone mad?” Now, presuming I don’t know who the leader of Syria is, NATURAL English would lead me to say “They probably have”. (I might guess the gender and go for a “he probably is”, but there are certainly situations in which one wouldn’t dare guess a gender and allow NATURAL English to provide the ideal solution of the singular they).
What’s so horrendous about the dual usage of they as both singular and plural? Plenty of other languages have a pronoun which serves as both a singular and plural…and it’s certainly no stranger than the “Royal ‘We'”.
I did note that prescriptivists haven’t cornered the market on nastiness, and perhaps my weariness with this whole debate is coming across as condescension; if so, I apologize. It’s not my intention.
But I’m sticking by the singular “they.” If you’re really interested in why, I’m happy to share my thoughts on it. If you’re hoping to shame me into changing it, well, I have no shame.
Fantastic post, Kory. But oh no! The etymological fallacy holds fantastic to mean “existing only in imagination” (or “pertaining to a phantasy or phantasm”, etc.), so that literally decimates my point. Well, I’m making it anyway. This may be the most quotable piece ever written on usage.
Brilliant and perfectly pitched.
Wait, what? “Different than” is wrong???
(Oh, that’s not your point…) 😉
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Your writing is such a delightful and refreshing combination of erudition and profanity. 😉 I don’t even care whether I agree with you; I just like reading your stuff.
There is only one dictionary that matters, and it isn’t Webster’s, which is more like a lexicon. The only dictionary anybody who cares about language cares about is the Oxford. It’s the universally acknowledged arbiter of the English language.
I’m troubled by your description of the OED as the “arbiter” of the English language. It is this belief that gets many prescriptivists into conniptions about what is included. The OED is a recorder of the English language. The purpose of the OED is not to instruct me about how I should speak and write: its purpose is to record how people like me do speak and write.
I have contracted an acute case of love-at-first-read; I am smitten. Thank you. This goes instantly into the personal canon.
“THE hoi polloi” is plainly a heffalump trap, so ignoring it and moving right along… Is it excessively prescriptivist to note that my friend Henry’s surname *should* be spelt Hitchings?
In the case of names, you can just call that “wrong.” I’m terribly embarrassed! Fixing now.
Any of you guys call me a prescriptivist, and I’ll kill you.
And I don’t like nobody touching my adverbs. So, hopefully, just keep your meat-hooks off. If I catch any of you linguists in my essays, I’ll kill you. Also, I don’t like nobody touching my regular verbs. Now, any of you hoi polloi’s correct me and I’ll kill you.
A reminder, delightful ones: no one likes being grammarsplained to. Be cordial.
A delightful post!
(Of course, if I were to be a curmudgeonly prescriptivist, in addition to other ‘issues’ noted above, I would also be obliged to point out that in the sentence “No, not even on a bad day when I have to goddamned write the entry for ‘impactful,'” you split an infinitive. :o) )
Well, someone has to boldly go where no one has gone before….
(I apologize in advance to anyone who may take this as condescending or otherwise offensive. I hope to contribute light, not heat.)
Concerning the number of “they”, may I say that there is a difference between grammatically plural and semantically plural? Here’s what I mean:
Consider the following sentence, not quite the same as the one Kory wrote:
“A reasonable prescriptivist critically reads all the evidence and advice they can, and then they make their own judgment.”
Neither Kory nor Chaucer would write “they makes their own judgment” here. Another example
“A reasonable prescriptivist pays attention to all the advice they are given, but uses their own judgment.”
Again, neither Kory nor Chaucer would write “they is given”.
In the _grammatical sense_ “they” is a plural pronoun. As subject it takes the same verb form that a plural noun would take, as opposed to the verb form that “he”, “she”, “it”, or a singular noun phrase would take. (It was not possible to make this point using Kory’s sentence, because the auxiliary verb “can” does not have separate singular and plural forms.)
It is not in a grammatical sense but in a _semantic_ sense that “they” is (on occasion) a singular pronoun, and has been since at least the time of Chaucer.
I hope that the word “semantic” will not be a red herring or red flag for anyone. All I mean is that Chaucer and Kory and droves of fine writers and capable everyday speakers of English sometimes see fit to use “they” to stand for one person at a time.
Introducing semantics into the argument is essentially a red herring. The meaning of Kory’s sentence is clearly understood; therefore, it is semantically correct, but the discussion is not about semantics. Furthermore you’ve also introduced a staw man argument because your two sentence examples are referring to the second clause in the sentence: “they make their own judgment”, which follows the pronoun and antecedent agreement. In Kory’s sentence the singular subject, “a reasonable prescriptivist” is followed by the singular verb “understands” and then shifts to the plural reflexive pronoun “they”. “They” is plural while “a reasonable prescriptivist” the antecedent, is singular. Thus, there is a pronoun agreement error in number.
Why not write:
“Reasonable prescriptivists critically read all the evidence and advice they can, and then they make their own judgment.” This certainly seems less ambiguous and more logical.
I don’t understand the reference to Chaucer, or Shakespeare, or someone more contemporary, such as Faulkner. Chaucer was a poet; his writing was poetic and creative, whereas Kory’s writing is expository. Creative writing does not necessarily adhere to grammatical usage, expository writing usually does. Faulkner’s stream-of-consciousness writing omits punctuation entirely, but we cannot use it as an illustration to defend the use in expository writing.
Interesting semantic tension between your statements. On the one hand, you agree that Kory’s original sentence with the semantically singular “they” is “clearly understood”, but on the other hand you suggest that a change to the plural “prescriptivists” to agree with “they” would be “less ambiguous”.
Do I detect a subtle semantic shift in your use of the word “ambiguous”? The last time I looked, the word “ambiguous” referred to semantic confusion rather than grammatical irritation. Or have I missed a trick here?
Ambiguous: open to more that one interpretation. Murky, nebulous.
Kory’s sentence is not ambiguous nor are many other grammatical constructions that don’t follow the pronoun agreement rule.
My argument refers to grammar, and grammatically her sentence is incorrect. There is no “trick’, and I’m referring to ambiguity in the literal sense, not in the semantic sense; you’re bringing it into the equation.
By the way, it is not referred to as the “plural prescriptivists” as you facetiously indicate. Not all grammarians are prescriptivists. Perhaps Prescriptivism is a practice that you don’t agree with, as others don’t agree with descriptivism, and never the twain shall meet.
I hope I have at least made it clear that questions of subject/verb agreement have anything to do with Kory’s assertion that “they” is a singular pronoun.
I suppose you’re right to say that noun/pronoun agreement is also a matter of grammar. So then I seem to be asserting that “they” is a (rare) example of a pronoun that always behaves as a plural as far as subject/verb agreement goes, but occasionally behaves as a singular as far as noun/pronoun (or really agreement between noun phrase and pronoun) goes.
When I introduced the word “semantic” I did not mean to raise the question of how easily understood the sentence is. I just meant that in testing a noun to see if it is singular or plural you have to know what the noun refers to: you have to look at the meanings of words. But I’m not sure that I buy that, on reflection, because noun phrases can be tested for number pretty reliably by just looking at articles, final -s, and so on.
So if I’m going to hold to a descriptivist stance here I might have to say that English has evolved a third person singular pronoun that takes the same verb forms as plural nouns. This is not as far-fetched as it sounds: the history of second-person pronouns is full of such things.
I do agree that in many instances there are easy workarounds for avoiding singular “they” and at the same time avoiding awkwardnesses such as “he or she”. I believe that Kory’s use of singular “they” above, as well as a split infinitive, was intended to make a point in a provocatively playful way. My modified examples felt artificial. But there are times when singular “they” is just the thing to use:
Mama Bear: “Somebody’s been sitting in my chair.”
Papa Bear: “Somebody’s been sitting in my chair.”
Baby Bear: “Somebody’s been sitting in my chair, and they broke it all to pieces!”
I know, I know, you’re going to say that this is experimental fiction, or that Baby Bear should have looked in the bedroom before speaking, to find out whether Goldilocks was male or female, but I don’t even know if a bear could tell that. What was I saying? Oh yes, or you’ll say that dialogue doesn’t count, because the question of how people (well, bears, I guess) really talk is not the same as the question of how people ought to write.
Seriously, I think that the real descriptivist point here is that people _do_ routinely talk that way, and that it is wrong to express this by saying that people routinely talk wrong.
Your point is well made and I cannot argue with your civil tone. A virtue that I don’t seem to possess.
Nevertheless, I shall adhere to my position concerning Kory’s post, but otherwise I am in agreement to your other observations.
I also enjoyed the “Papa bear” “Mama bear” illustration, your tone is very persuasive, thank you.
calitri, I’m glad that you find my tone civil; I’m not sure that tones ought to be persuasive.
I think what you are driving at is the distinction between notional concord and grammatical concord. Notional concord (or synesis) — where the meaning of the terms overrides the usual grammatical agreement — is common with collective nouns and other situations in English. For example:
“A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon;”
As Fowler said, when logic and grammar are in conflict, logic must prevail.
Notional concord also crops up with some plural expressions of quantity, some plural proper nouns, and some compound units with “and”. There is no reason at all to not use it with “they”.
By the way, there is obviously no need for me or any individual to have read all the great writers to know that they have all used the singular ‘they’.
“Introducing semantics into the argument is essentially a red herring. The meaning of Kory’s sentence is clearly understood; therefore, it is semantically correct, but the discussion is not about semantics. ”
The discussion isn’t about grammar, either. It’s about writing and editing. You have tacitly declared here that grammar somehow takes precedence over sematics, as if, when the two seem to disagree, grammar always wins. But it isn’t a battle. The winner ought to be the clearest text.
You can continue to insist on avoiding singular they all you want; you’ve made your choice. My choice — and the choice of many other writers and editors — is that eliminating both convoluted sentences and unintentional sexism from writing is more important than the strictures of grammar. Or semantics, for that matter.
I’ve also made my choice, as have many writers and editors, what is your point? I don’t think that the convoluted sentence is the grammatical one.
Pluralizing “they” is not sexism; no need to introduce it to the argument.
calitri, one oft-stated reason for allowing oneself to use “they” with a singular antecedent is in order to avoid the ancient and supposedly sexist practice of using “he” with a singular antecedent of unknown sex.
(But for Kory’s sake can we all please refrain from getting into a debate about whether that practice really is sexist, or whether “sexist” really is a word, or whether political views are ever a sufficient justification for breaking a purported rule of grammar?)
I meant to write “a heated debate”. But it’s hard to imagine an unheated debate on any of those topics.
“eliminating both convoluted sentences and unintentional sexism from writing is more important”. So, it all boils down to a question of morality, obeying the moral consensus of the moment that using “he” for a single person is abhorrent to the current generation. Why was it less abhorrent to previous generations? What are the religious and cultural influences at play in this new guiding rule of editing? Wherefrom the dread of “he” as a pronoun? This is not about language “evolving” but about the diktats of current morality on what is acceptable to the editor or not. The whole issue hinges on the interpretation of the moral dogmas that must be respected in a given society. “Must” being meaningful only because of the threat of penalties.
(Somebody shoot me for jumping back in.)
Andy gave two reasons for using singular “they” for a person of unspecified sex: the wordiness of “he or she” and the unfairness of “he”. Only the second of these is the kind of moral thinking that offends you so badly.
Also, Andy is following the diktat of his own conscience and calling it a personal choice. He is not telling you what to do. (In that regard he is like Thoreau–except that Thoreau paid with jail time, whereas Andy is not risking much more than the displeasure of people like you.)
So I think you are wrong about “what it all boils down to” and what it “hinges on”.
I find that you can’t please everyone. You can easily displease people who adhere unthinkingly to false or oversimplified grammar rules they learned in school, but so what? You can also easily displease people who adhere unthinkingly to newly invented politically-based rules, but so what? (You mentioned some “penalties”?)
I care more about the opinions of people who think for themselves, and to think for myself. I recommend this approach to you. See Kory’s Step 3 above. Andy appears to be someone who thinks for himself, while you do not. This tentative conclusion is not based on which “side” you are on.
Ø, you don’t get my point at all.
You bring the discussion back to the viewpoint of the individual conscience, choice, sensitivity, morality, etc..
My point is different. We cannot rule out the context of the social environment in which we are born, have learnt the language, are using the language, and communicating with our group.
In that perspective, Andy’s decisions are his own, and don’t affect my life. And no, contrary to your imputations (projecting your own sensitivity on others), “his kind of moral thinking does not offend me at all.”
For me, the whole debate is less about private choice, nor morality of “he” versus “she”, but the social pressure exercised by the community on the individual. Contrary to what you seem to think, individuals are not free in their linguistic choices and their system of communication with the group. (Note how using “individuals” retains the sense of class and avoids the use of singular they).
Your ideas of “you are wrong”, “I am right” are simplistic and proffered from a perspective of complete individualism, which is a modern illusion. It is a theory of separate existence, but it is denied by the uninterrupted need to function in society, and the impossibility of existing without it. We are conditioned by our group. And language is part of this binding.
Again, you reduce this debate to matters of “pleasing” and “displeasure”, a nearly feminine-sounding outlook.
You end up with “what you care for”, “people who think for themselves”. But that too is a kind of illusion. Most of what you think about, and me too, is influenced by our reactions to our education, family, close group, and social insertion. It is this social dimension of language and conscience you are entirely neglecting. “Someone who thinks for himself…” somebody should write a song on this theme.
Perhaps the Harvard Unabomber in Montana was such a case of near-perfect isolation from society.
To come back to the language issue, it is a fact that for most of our Western literary history (which is not very long, perhaps 3,000 years at most), there are thousands of examples of writers and communicators having no scruples using “men”, “he”, “mankind”, “humanity” to refer to people considered as a class. It is only recently that political correctness has turned into a point of cultural morality to avoid those uses for not recognizing the parity of feminine pronouns or nouns, and created the big quandary of what pronoun to use to refer to a single individual represented as an example of a whole class.
My objection to all the individualistic interpretations like yours is that it ignores the real social dimension in which social pressure is exerted to modify the use of certain words. Like Jews who were not allowed to write out or pronounce the full name of God (the comparison is only of the social pressure), or now, the taboo on the N-word, and many more. I am not disputing the value of these choices, but I am simply spotlighting the existence of social pressure leading to them, resulting from the acceptance by the group of new behaviors in language production.
Reducing the debate to matters of individual conscience or preference, or pleasure, or displeasure, etc…is an illusion, from a sociological or anthropological viewpoint. The idea that the individual is free from the pressure of his social environment is a modern ideology, which started with the Romantics of the 19th c. In history, it is the theory of the great man, in religion, it is the theory of the individual relationship to beliefs and rituals, in language, it is well, what is described by your and others right here.
But it remains an illusion, which only has the blessing of a new social pressure, which calls for conformity with new rules and expectations. Political correctness is certainly one name for this pressure. And the key word in there is “political”, i.e. the influence of the polis on the individual. Of course, there are narrow areas where a limited amount of linguistic freedom is possible, but it is always in the context of very specific social situations. The end result is the ostracizing of “he”, “man”, “mankind”, “humanity” to express the meaning of the class of “human” (sorry if I offend in using this word) beings. It is not a matter of complete free choice, but a matter of social pressure.
Then, once the dust is settled, the dictionary people, prescriptivists and descriptivists, can come along and survey the field to record what has linguistically happened. However, now, they don’t come after the fight, like the owl of Athena which takes her flight only at dusk, they intervene during the battle to influence its outcome. And we get the pleasure of the ornate prose of Kory Stamper.
I, for one, miss Bill Safire and Jacques Barzun. Would have loved to hear their own take on this debate.
Oh my, we seemed to have underestimated each other.
I was too ready to dismiss you as someone whose rage at feminism was interfering with his thought processes, just because you wrote things like “Men as ‘members of the human class’? Never. Let’s build a perfect society without men, only with ‘they’ and ‘they’.” Whereas in fact you are offering to bring the perspectives of anthropology, sociology, and history to our great debate.
And you apparently were too ready to dismiss me as somebody with a naive and almost feminine outlook, just because in my last comment I put individuals and their thinking and, God help us, their feelings front and center.
Look, I won’t disagree with your statement that “the whole debate is […] about […] the social pressure exercised by the community on the individual”. But this pressure is exerted through individuals, too. Kory’s post was largely a bid for exercising care in how we are agents of that pressure. In my last comment I also advocated making an effort to resist giving in to such pressure when the pressure seems unreasonable.
I am afraid that last sentence will lead you to conclude that I still don’t get it; you’re talking about pressures of a kind that aren’t so easy to resist, aren’t you? (I know I shouldn’t be so afraid. I think that must be my damn feminine side showing through again.)
What is your point? Kory should stop advocating “PC” language? (Oh, wait, she’s not.)
Seriously, I think that everybody who is reading this understands that there is, necessarily, social pressure on people’s use of language. Apart from spotlighting a particular example of that pressure which you disapprove of, what is your point?
“In Kory’s sentence the singular subject, “a reasonable prescriptivist” is followed by the singular verb “understands” and then shifts to the plural reflexive pronoun “they”. “They” is plural while “a reasonable prescriptivist” the antecedent, is singular. Thus, there is a pronoun agreement error in number.”
Wrong, simply because you are stating “they is plural” like it’s an indisputable fact. It is not (see Kory’s point above about opinions vs. facts). “They” can be singular, therefore there’s no agreement error.
“A reasonable prescriptivist critically reads all the evidence and advice they can, and then makes their own judgment”
I.e. singular subject + singular verb + direct object(s) + [implied relative pronoun] singular they + intransitive verb ….
It would be equally ok if she had said “reads all the evidence and advice they are able to”. It’s not remotely jarring, only to someone who simply refuses to acknowledge “they” as potentially singular, such as yourself. (It certainly isn’t “wrong”).
No, I’m not wrong, I did not make the rules; I’m only referring to them.
Interesting that you observe and cite those rules to establish your argument, but then you err on “…implied relative pronoun”. “They” is not an implied relative pronoun. It is a pronoun that must agree with its antecedent in three ways: gender, NUMBER, and person.
A relative pronoun introduces a relative clause and it usually comes immediately after its antecedent. In English, the main relative pronouns are who, which, what, and that.
Whether it is wrong is a subjective opinion. Semantically it is not, grammatically it is.
I’ve never presented my argument as fact, but it seems that you have. I’ve only presented my argument based on rules: ” A prescribed guide for conduct or action.”
Fact: “Information presented as objectively real.”
Oh dear Calitri.
I know what a relative pronoun is. The “implied relative pronoun” in the sentence is “that” i.e (see capitalized word)
“A reasonable prescriptivist critically reads all the evidence and advice THAT they can, and then makes their own judgment”
..it’s not actually there in Kory’s original quote, it’s a common feature of English that the relative pronoun gets elided. I certainly wasn’t calling “they” a relative pronoun.
You have totally misunderstood my post.
To Ty Kendall:
I “totally” understood your post; I just misread one item, for I was just responding to your pronoun descriptions. Regardless, the issue should not divert to pronoun descriptions, otherwise we will gradually involve all the grammatical parts of speech ad infinitum.
In Kory’s sentence there is no “implied relative pronoun”, the implied “that” that you’re referring to does not mark a relative clause. Furthermore, if the antecedent is singular ( a reasonable prescriptivist) the pronoun is also singular and thus takes a singular verb. The verb “makes” is singular and it follows the pronoun “they” and the supposed relative pronoun “that” , which are plural. So, we’re back to square one.
You seem to be quite obdurate with your position, as I am on mine. Therefore, it has become a moot point; perhaps we should leave it at that.
The trouble is that you aren’t coming at this from a place of saying “I don’t like that usage” you are just saying “it’s wrong”.
There’s nothing to stop the writer (Kory) making the first verb agree with the subject (reasonable prescriptivist), having a middle segment with singular “they” and then having another verb which actually agrees with the original subject (reasonable prescriptivist) and not with “they”. (i.e. my point here is that “makes” agrees with the original subject, not they).
You may think this sentence construction is barbaric, you’re entitled to that opinion, but there’s nothing intrinsically “wrong” about it.
*The implied “that” isn’t literally there, I never claimed it was, I claimed it *could* be inserted if you wanted.
You’re right, we’re never going to agree.
There is only one problem on this debate, you either don’t understand the rules of grammar or that you’re making them up to support your argument.
First you’re trying to rationalize and defend Kory’s choice of pronouns—as if you understand and discern precisely what she meant—and second, you make up silly grammatical rules rather than just stick to gender choice.
“There’s nothing to stop the writer (Kory) making the first verb agree with the subject (reasonable prescriptivist), having a middle segment with singular “they” and then having another verb which actually agrees with the original subject…”
I omitted the rest of your sentence, because it’s redundant and nonsensical; you’re making up your own grammar rules and they’re incongruous. Kory’s decision to substitute the generic “he” with “they” is more self-explanatory than your circumlocutions.
The sentence is not “barbaric” it’s grammatically wrong.
The pronoun and antecedent must grammatically “agree” on basic matters such as the number of people involved and their gender. That’s the rule. Do you understand? You’re ignoring those rules and arbitrarily making up your own.
Kory should have changed the antecedent to a plural; this possibility was available, but she erred by ignoring it. Why confuse her readers when all she had to do was pluralize the antecedent?
It’s not a matter of usage it’s a matter of logic.
“A reasonable prescriptivist critically reads all the evidence and advice they can, and then makes their own judgment” I.e. singular subject + singular verb + direct object(s) + [implied relative pronoun] singular they + intransitive verb ….
It’s quite clear in your above explanation that you’re certainly claiming the implied relative pronoun. You never claimed that it *could* be inserted. You’re constantly trying to defend every error you make with a distorted explanation.
Another one of your erroneous assertions:
“Wrong, simply because you are stating “they is plural” like it’s an indisputable fact. It is not (see Kory’s point above about opinions vs. facts). “They” can be singular…”
They is plural and it is an “indisputable fact”; however, it can be used as a gender-neutral singular pronoun. Nevertheless, it is a controversial usage.
If you’re going to try to justify Kory’s choice of pronouns I suggest you argue with facts rather than convoluted grammatical explanations that make no sense. Furthermore, if you’re going to argue grammar rules don’t make up your own to try to win your argument.
When I wrote something in a similar vein
I was soon stalked by a “prescriptivist” troll, so I know what you’re talking about.
My own approach to this non-war is not “Be reasonable!”, which sounds like a compromise of some kind, but to say “descriptivists” are like climate scientists, while “prescriptivists” are like sailors. Each has a distinct job to do, without expecting others to be what they are not.
When I have my own “prescriptivist” hat on, I advise that “decimate” is simply a useless word; a pretentious substitute for “destroy”, the way it seems to be used now.
Did you write this as a response to the responses of the “irregardless” video?
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It can be hard for people with a sense of language history to accept language change. “Decimate” is a fine example, although anyone with battle experience will tell you that losing 1 in 10 is devastating. I, personally, cannot cope well with the fact that, for all intents and purposes, “data” has become a singluar noun; I shall continue to to say “The data are…” till the end of my days. I come by this honestly: my grandfather, until the day he died, said he “was married” to my grandmother rather than the more modern he “married” my grandmother. (That said, he did not pull the grammar nazi bit on others. His corrections conformed to proper usage of the time but did not adhere slavishly to English as he learned it during WW1.)
You can have a lot of fun with this one. Imagine that Justice Warren Burger performed your marriage ceremony. You could say that Justice Warren Burger married you but you did not marry him. Stand back and see who realized what you just did.
I wonder if anyone ever pointed out to your grandfather the famous sentence in Jane Eyre (published 1847): “Reader, I married him.”
Oooh – however did I miss that when I was younger?! Alas, that window of opportunity has closed.
Also, anyone with a true sense of language history understands that language changes constantly, and that it is the nature of language to change. Thus, anyone with a real sense of language history will, in fact, merrily embrace the changes they see happening in the language, rather than refusing to accept them out of some idea that change is corrupting.
(And yes, that plural they with the singular antecedent was indeed deliberate. Imagine me typing it merrily!)
What a lovely pool in which to swim…or….pool to swim in…depending on how you identify in this discussion. Thank you Kory Stamper & critics. Last year I used Acocella’s “book review” to provoke debate in an AP English class. Now all I have to do is untuck a few sentences of this blog and the comments, and I’ve got writing prompts.
Still, these exhilarating interchanges don’t change the structure of “right” and “wrong” on one of the worst tests Midwestern students in the USA take every year–the A.C.T. Grammarians could band together and help design an assessment of college readiness that doesn’t punish close reading critical thinking. (And why do most of us pronounce “band together” as if it were “ban together”?)
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I *heart* you, Kory. But what I want to know is: where’s my standard issue *medievalist* trebuchet? Shouldn’t I have been given one?
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I tend to agree with what you say here, and you’ve said it clearly, amusingly, and subversively. But I’ve been wondering for a long time what it is that makes “descriptivists” try so ardently to engage or refute the “Defenders of the Language-as-they-perceive-it.” (I’m not directing this specifically to this particular post, but it’s entirely on-topic. Previous exchanges elsewhere haven’t resolved my question.)
My main point is that reading, listening, and reacting –even indignant reactions to perceived solecisms and (possibly ignorant) criticisms of lexicographers– are as much a part of Language as are writing and speaking.
Creative and/or careless speakers make errors that sometimes gain a wide following. Some of these bits of language have been around for a very long time. Descriptivists neutrally observe the activity, and the “errors” don’t matter at some point. “Pedants” participate in language by reacting to what they encounter. Some foster erroneous ideas of language (sometimes called “zombie rules”), some of which are widely known and have been around for a long time. In this case, there’s an army of descriptivists ready to refute beliefs and call names. The vast majority of the reactions to the pedants seems judgmental. (“They started it” isn’t an explanation for the behavior of scientists.) One could alternatively look at the “peeving” as merely part of the glorious tapestry of language, observed just as neutrally as “I could care less.”
I don’t look at pedants as people outside the language trying to run things. I think they’re just like everybody else, reacting to what they read and hear, sometimes unpleasantly, based on their personal beliefs, sincerely and intensely felt. So why aren’t widely believed “zombie rules” to be neutrally observed just as much as widely accepted idioms that originated in gross error? (I’m not by any means suggesting that these rules apply to anyone else but the speakers, regardless of what the pedants say, but it’s the non-trivial extent of belief in some of these rules that makes them “part of the language” and seemingly suitable for dispassionate study.)
One last small point that struck me: it’s hard to argue with more education and better understanding. But how would it sound to you if a language “pedant” would advise an “irregardless” user to buy a dictionary or four, even as nicely as you did (with or without your brief bit of shouting)? 🙂
It might be good to distinguish between two senses of the word “descriptivism”.
1. Descriptive grammar, i.e. “grammar” as the word is used by linguists. Or, more broadly, what you might call “descriptive linguistics”. In other words, linguistics: the dispassionate, scientific study of Language as it is.
2. Anti-prescriptivism, i.e. opposition to the browbeating of users of English with zombie rules and such.
The same person may be both an objective student of Language in its various aspects — this might even include making a dispassionate study of zombie rules, their origin and their life cycles — and at the same time a passionate opponent of browbeating.
Thanks, Ø. I agree with all that you say. Even so, one does not have to be a linguist or lexicographer to be opposed to browbeating, yet that’s the group who seems to be making the case against offensive pedantry. And the arguments against pedantry tend to be more about the things linguists and lexicographers know, rather than about tenets of good behavior. So it’s hard to see your distinction in practice. The best arguments against browbeating have nothing to do with being right or wrong on the facts, history, or rules, or logic.
One more thing: I also see from some descriptivists the hope that editors won’t embrace zombie rules. That’s not an issue of offensive behavior, but it seems to me to be a pure language issue. In that case it does seem like advocacy for certain language elements. I believe everyone has the right to do that, but it’s not neutral observation.
In a sense there are “battles” going on with regard to individual features of the language. The winners will not be the ones with the best logic, or the best understanding of history or language, or even with the best behavior.
I agree that the best arguments against (any kind of) browbeating are moral arguments. On the other hand, the best resistance to succumbing to a pedantic browbeating may be a knowledge that the pedants don’t even have the facts right. From that point of view linguists and lexicographers have something special to offer to the rest of us, for which I am grateful.
I will confess that I sometimes suspect a distant kinship between the manner of a peevish language pedant gleefully spouting zombie rules (bad) and the manner of a language expert gleefully demolishing peevers on the facts (good). Everybody likes to be right, and many of us exult in it, but that doesn’t mean that there is no difference between right and wrong.
Ø, I’ll agree that the kinship is not direct, but I don’t always see it as all that remote. But that’s the issue of glee and superiority. Beyond the realm of feelings and behavior, it seems to me that there’s also a kinship, albeit more remote, between “that’s not a word” and “that’s not a rule.” If enough people believe in it that it gets on your nerves, the in a sense such a rule exists, although not exactly the kind of rule that they believe it is.
calitri, are you equally ticked off that people wrongly use “you” as a singular?
Thank you, John! This is the sort of thing I had in mind when I wrote “… English has evolved a third person singular pronoun that takes the same verb forms as plural nouns. This is not as far-fetched as it sounds: the history of second-person pronouns is full of such things.”
To Ø; “… may be a knowledge that the pedants don’t even have the facts right.”
That’s quite a presumptuous statement. A pedant might be obsessed with rules and precision, but that does not make him always wrong.
“Well, no one ever said that linguistics can “settle” questions of usage; the issue is whether it can offer important insight, so that a prescriptivist is better off knowing linguistics than being ignorant of it.”
“Browbeating” is hyperbolic, not everyone who corrects someone’s grammar is browbeating. I’m grateful to the many times my grammar was corrected (browbeaten) in grammar school.
Linguistics cannot settle questions of usage anymore than prescriptivists can. Lexicographers certainly have something special to offer, compiling and editing a dictionary, but that is not relevant to this debate.
Keep in mind, we are only debating opinions.
calitri, I never meant that every pedant, or every prescriptivist, has the facts wrong, though I can see that it might look like I said that (especially if you quote half of a sentence).
And I never meant that all of the prescriptive usage advice in this world qualifies as browbeating. I said that the kind of “descriptivism” which might more usefully be called “anti-prescriptivism” is “opposition to the browbeating of users of English with zombie rules and such”. I meant opposition to harmful misguided inflexible usage advice presented as instruction as to what is and isn’t English. Yes, I suppose “browbeating” is hyperbole: not every recipient of harmful misguided inflexible usage advice presented as instruction as to what is and isn’t English feels like they were hit over the head.
I truncated your sentence because the beginning does not alter the ending clause.”…the pedants don’t even have the facts right.” It seems you’re referring to all pedants.
Whatever you meant does not alter the obvious implication. Clearly, this is a descriptivist’s forum and my viewpoint is anathema to the ideology of descriptivism. Furthermore, It seems that all the browbeating is on your end. Prescriptivism is not always about browbeating, and their rules are not always dead and buried grammar rules.
There is an obvious difference between right and wrong, but it seems that your beliefs and rules are positioned confidently on the right and you’re not willing to give prescriptists the benefit of the doubt.
As I claimed in a previous post, not all pedants are wrong, nor are they to be derided. The tautological reference to English and its constant metamorphosis (a metaphorical expression, for language is not biological) is not always the right answer.
I do not think for a second that “zombie rules” corroded the English language, on the contrary I think that the flouting of those rules has certainly had a more corrosive effect.
I noticed that you cherry-pick your arguments on my posts. I submitted a quote from Steven Pinker—he’s on your side—a quote regarding usage and the fact that linguistics cannot settle questions of usage, nor do I think anyone on this post can.
Mr.McIntyre erroneously presumed that I was the one who is “ticked off” The contrary seems to be true; I’m only defending my position, while everyone else is attacking it.
Okay, we get it… Descriptivists, prescriptivists…you’re all really smart. You know your relative pronouns. You know all your declensions. Now, can we all just agree to disagree and move on? Shouldn’t we be bringing all this brainpower to bear on something *really* important…like, say, “twerking”?
When I wrote “On the other hand, the best resistance to succumbing to a pedantic browbeating may be a knowledge that the pedants don’t even have the facts right,” I really did mean “On the other hand, the best resistance to succumbing to a pedantic browbeating may be a knowledge that the pedants who are browbeating you don’t even have the facts right.”
I regret that I used the word “pedant” at all. I picked it up from someone else in this thread. I wish I had stuck with “language peevers”. It’s not the same thing at all. I have nothing against pedants except that they can be tiresome. By “pedant” I usually mean someone who has the facts (about something) but goes on too long about them.
I’m not simply against “prescriptivism”. I’m not against well-judged usage advice. I don’t assume that your teachers did wrong when giving you rules for good writing. I’m sure Kory Stamper would agree. Look, read her post again: she isn’t against prescriptivism, she’s against bad prescriptivism. I was guilty of a little more hyperbole when I offered “anti-prescriptivism” as a brief synonym for “descriptivism” in the relevant sense. But look how I defined it.
When you speak of “deciding questions of usage” what do you mean? If you mean deciding how people should use the language, then: no, linguistics cannot decide that and does not pretend to or claim to.
I appreciate the clarification, thank you.
You’re welcome. I think I will be quiet now. Oh, wait, no, I just remembered one other thing I was thinking of in the middle of the night! After I get that off my chest, I’ll be quiet.
“Andy gave two reasons for using singular ‘they’”. Those two reasons, however, cannot counter the numerous reasons one should not engage in pronoun/antecedent and verb disagreement, and the many examples of plural “they” that would lead to ambiguity and an illogical grammar construction.
Andy certainly has the right to follow the directive of his conscience and calling it his personal choice. However, when he employs erroneous claims then he’s vulnerable to admonishment.
“ The discussion isn’t about grammar, either. It’s about writing and editing.” His claim is misguided; logically grammar does take precedent over writing and editing in the context of expository writing. Proper grammar does not necessitate editing, unless it involves prolixity. Regardless, the debate is on “grammar” not writing and editing.
Your statement: “ You can easily displease people who adhere unthinkingly to false or oversimplified grammar rules they learned in school…” is condescending. What are these false or oversimplified grammar rules and why are people who adhere to them doing so thoughtlessly? Moreover, how is the pluralization of “they” intrinsically more judicious, and more regulated than the prescribed grammar rules?
People, such as Andy, do not necessarily think for themselves, because thinking ideologically rather than pragmatically is usually a conformist mindset predicated on overconcerned ideas about political correctness rather than coherent grammatical structure. Therefore, people, such as Andy, ardently follow the diktat of the proletariat, the dissenters, but not the educators, whom they refer to as elitists.
By the way, the sentence: “Andy is following the diktat of his “own” conscience…” he can only follow his “own” conscience; therefore, “own” is superfluous. Just an observation from a logophile, not trying for punctiliousness.
McIntyre: I prefer “thou”, but then who would take me seriously.
I want my Lexicographer’s Trebuchet.
Reblogged this on like an apple and commented:
“Do you want your legacy in life to be “That One Person Who Bitched Endlessly About ‘Decimate’”” I loved this piece on attempting to end the prescriptivist/descriptivist debate once and for all.
My perspective is to encourage my students to think about the signal they send with their choice of grammars. If they choose to use a certain construction, in a certain environment, the listeners in that environment will begin to form beliefs about the speakers background, education, intelligence, and sense of decorum. If they you an alternative construction or are speaking in a different environment, the listeners will make different suppositions. The right grammar for speaking in court is probably different from the right grammar for talking to bunch of young people out down at the playground, which is probably different, again, from a job interview.
Of course, if you don’t know the differences, you give up all ability to choose, and that comes with consequences.
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“Irregardless” isn’t in Chambers. Is that a flaw in their dictionary? I don’t think so myself.
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Fantastic post. To me it’s extremely helpful to understand that language is simply a natural phenomenon, it has evolved along with us. A science of language can only describe it, not tell it how to work.
Prescritpivism is useful, I think, in the context of establishing where we draw the (arbitrary) lines between one dialect and another. Too often though people talk past each other, one assuming that of course we’re talking in the context of x dialect, the other all too aware that the context needs to be made explicit otherwise you perpetuate some of the problems of the prescriptivist approach when it’s applied without an understanding of the baggage it can bring with it.
Brilliant. An intelligent, need I say friendly, approach to an issue on which emotions often boil. Have you considered running for Congress?
At least I am free of one old language taboo that Roo Bookaroo mentioned: I can say the name of my God out loud, and I can even spell it with all the letters: K-O-R-Y S-T-A-M-P-E-R.
THE IMPLICIT BACKGROUND OF THE IDEOLOGICAL POWER OF POLITICAL CORRECTNESS IN THE USE OF SINGULAR “THEY” AND “THEIR”
In The “Descent of Man”, and “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals”, Darwin addressed “The question whether mankind consists of one or several species”.
Now, in zoology parlance, “Man” as a species has become “Homo sapiens”, his genus “Homo”, his family “Hominidae”, his order “primates”, and his class “Mammalia”. Zoologists define “man” as a primate, a mammal, an “animal”.
Still, in non-zoological jargon, in all of historical uses of English, well recorded by OED, “man” in the singular ALSO has the meaning of “class of men”. Even if a specific individual, your father, can be called a “man” referring to his male sex, it also means that he is a member of the class defined in zoology as “Man”.
So, in this sense, “man” refers to men, women, children, old people (“old” is another shibboleth of political correctness. Nobody is ever “old” in this ideological universe), transsexuals, sick people with congenital malformations, etc…
So the use of “man” and “he’ to refer to the class of animals in “mankind” is attested by thousands of quotations from literature, not just Darwin, but Shakespeare, David Hume, Thackeray, Melville, Hemingway, etc.
This use of “man” or “men” comes naturally to the fingers of a writer, and it is only in a second step, after pausing and reflecting, that “he” (again meaning a class of writers, including women and children writers) may consider avoiding “he” and replace it with the awkward “they”.
At least users of the singular “we” are consistent in their choice (“We are discontent with your use of ‘he’ in that paragraph, and you shall soon feel the measure of our displeasure”), whereas PC writing will start with “The subject”, “the observer”, “the victim” and then blithely use “they” or “their” in the same sentence.
This second step of self-correction is the kind of inhibition that PC wants to ingrain into people (indoctrinating young children in schools, writing lengthy articles in the media) so as to engineer a new learned response.
Will PC editors ever dare to change the title of “Descent of Man” into “the Descent of Homo Sapiens”?
The Bolsheviks, once in power in Russia, decided to change the spontaneous, historical development of agriculture by forcing collectivisation of fields.
The Catholic Christians, once granted exclusivity in the Roman Empire by the Edict of Thessalonika of Emperor Theodosius (380) decided to embark on the obliteration of all other forms of religious worship, be they Christian or pagan cults.
Similarly, political correctness wants to enforce the suppression of the historical use of “man” and “he” as referring to a class of people, and replacing those terms with “they”, “their” by simple political diktat. The success of this enforcement and rectification of historical usage relying exclusively on power — power that can take many forms of rejection, ostracism, condemnation.
Religion used to be controlled by the state. Now it is language itself. Editors go along, playing the part of agents of the power of the new ideology, bowing to the pressure of readers’ letters, or calls to the TV station, or the threat of lawsuits, and adopting a preferred use of “they” and “their” for the historical “man” and “his’.
When are they going to tackle the “man” in “mankind”, “humans”, and “humanity”? What are they going to do with “man” in “woman” or “male” in “female”.
This is the latent, implicit, aspect of the debate discussing the use of singular “they” to refer to a class introduced in a sentence by a singular name. This is an aspect that Kory Sampler, cautiously and wisely, leaves unmentioned by reducing the discussion to matters of simple personal choice. But many of the forces acting on historical development remain implicit and unconscious, even when the ideology they express becomes stridently and threateningly vocal.
I’m glad you brought up “Mammalia”: Kory is too cautious and wise to come right out and say this, but someone’s got to. That word is demeaning to women, not to mention females of thousands of other species, because it reduces them to mere suppliers of milk. I’m writing to my congressperson!
To Kory Stamper:
I love your varied vocabulary: bonhomie, doomsaying, bloodlust, musty, trichinosis — all enchanting words to encounter in a language use column. I adore your “grammarsplained” for its unspeakable ugliness. You omit to mention that “irregardless” has the unexplained effect of inducing a reflex of regurgitation in many patients. The name of this disease has not yet been finalized in the Manual of Digestive Disorders. “Nu-kyu-lar” has the strange property of sending otherwise decent-looking people into fits of dementia. Again science is at a loss to explain the mechanism. A subject for future Ph.D.s .
Elitist horseshit is a wonderful coinage. The Harvard Board of Directors is considering whether to use it as a motto on all correspondance and literature of the University. Funds are being raised for a special inscription on the main entrance to the Yard.
But the tussle about “decimate” is one of those battles that you so perspicaciously describe as not worth fighting.
Shibboleth is such a lovely word, and so useful. We should thank those Hebrew bible writers for it.
I loved your comment about “parroting rules with no careful consideration for the historical record of edited prose”. Yep, then why no careful consideration of the historical record of the uses of “man”, “men”, “he”, as referring to the class of people, all sexes, ages, and malformities, included? Why the pressure to get rid of them and replace “he” with “they”, dressing it up as an acceptable, logical substitute?
I love your advice that some battles are not worth the effort, true in law as in language. But the unlearned have a hard time understanding wisdom and experience.
I love your advice to get four dictionaries. Hopefully, they will include the SHORTER OED, and the incomparable Random House Unabridged Dictionary, 2d edition (1987, 1993). Hard to find, but accept no substitutes or imitations. Perhaps include the “Dictionary of Modern English Usage” by H.W. Fowler, just to get an understanding of what the tension between “common usage” and “good usage” is about. And the Dictionary of American Slang by Robert Chapman will add some pizzazz to what could easily become a dreary study.
I love the fact that you nicely observe that ordinary people confuse their own sensitivity to words and phrases for objective “correct” rules of language. There, you kept silent about the incorrectness of using “man” or “men” to represent a class of people, and the incongruity of using “his” to refer to an anonymous example of a class of people. This certainly applies to “they is” (!?), or “A student will take their exams when they are ready”. “Your personal language preference is yours, and it is unassailable”, sure, except when you are in front of a judge, a policewoman, the president of your company, or making a TV presentation of your hobbies.
The admonition #5 is wisdom straight from the Hebrew book of Proverbs “Realize that you are not the center of the linguistic (or actual) universe.”
Now, if you need examples of language mavens that want to inflict their rules on us, “because it gives [them] a sense of superiority and inflated self-worth, a little pillar from which [they] can spit on the idiot masses below” you need not go far. There are some cases right here in this posting, and they are not hard to find.
It is a great joy to learn that the “English language” is a female. The old Hebrew writers already thought that “Wisdom” (Sophia) was a female, the right arm of God in creating the world and instilling knowledge into stupid men’s brains. They would have reacted with wild enthusiasm if told that their “Logos” was too an attractive and powerful female.
You mention Joan Acocella, another linguist. Why so many language observers are now female? Where are the descendants of Mencken, Robert Graves, E.V. Lucas, Jon Winokur, Richard Lederer, James Thurber, William Roylance, Morton Freeman, Stuart Flexner, David Crystal, Tom Dalzell, William Zinsser, Bill Safire, Jacques Barzun, Bill Bryson ? Thank god for Bryn Garner, but who are his companions-in-arms?
You must have in your computers the list of all the language columns in the US, and perhaps Britain and Canada. How many authors are now male, and how many females?
Is there a trend to a takeover by females on the study of language usage and advice? Are we witnesses to a dramatic upheaval in the study of language use?
Roo, you didn’t read the bit about Joan Acocella. She is not a linguist. More of a journalist, really. But you’re right: there are some female linguists by now.
Where are the descendants of Richard Lederer? Well, that famous word lover seems to be still alive, and Wikipedia informs me that his only son is a world-famous poker player. Were you interested in his daughters, too? It seems that one of them is also a world-famous poker player. Another male bastion has fallen.
I’m thinking of ending this dialogue now, but I do have to comment on something you wrote, because it reminded me very much of something else. You described the state of mind of a person who has a perfectly good word ready to write but is inhibited by rules inculcated by the tyrannical feminist culture of victimhood. What it reminded me of is things that off-duty linguists say when they are railing against what they call “zombie rules”: they describe the state of mind of a person who is so afraid of committing a split infinitive or a sentence-final preposition that, instead of fluently using the language he is fluent in, he gets stuck in a state of “nervous cluelessness”.
Think about it: these PC types may be considered a new class of prescriptivist, and some of your arguments against them are classic anti-prescriptivist stuff.
That’s it. Over and out. I don’t need to have the last word.
The problem with your stuff is that what’s clear in your mind is not clear to the reader. You seem never to have learnt precision in what you are saying. Only shooting for effect and sounding impressive, but you pay with obscurity.
I have not learnt one thing from you, whereas Kory Stamper has, from long professional experience, learnt the hard way to make sure that what she wants to say comes across as what she is saying – even when embellished with unusual words that she’s learnt in her dictionary work.
It’s much more difficult than you seem to believe. Shooting from the hip about anything that comes to your mind and strikes you as funny may simply raise eyebrows in a listener or a reader. You’re far too much into yourself, into your emotions, to be interested in clarity for your readers.
Did I miss something? “Irregardless,” “Hopefully,” “decimate” – these are all words I once had trouble with, a long, long time ago, in a land, far, far away, in a universe which no longer exists. Anyone familiar with this language would trouble themselves with them.
As I have actually encountered them:
1) Stick to the historical method, recorded over the long history of English literature: Keep using “man”, “men”, “he”, “his” as words with a collective, class meaning. That is the style that the political correctness ideology tries to obliterate, rewriting the rules of good usage.
2) If the text mentions many cases of using anonymous singular names to represent a class, “the patient”, “the student”, “the athlete”, “the advocate”, be fair, and vary the use of pronouns, “he” and “his” in one paragraph, “she” and “her” in another.
3) The option of using “he/she”, “his/her” can be used occasionally, but repeated in a long text, it becomes frightfully awkward and boring.
4) If you happen to be an ardent feminist still raging at the unfairness of past centuries, use systematically “she” and “her”, ignoring the possibility of any male representative in the targeted class of people.
5) If you want to avoid the awkward “they” and “their” to refer to a singular name, change the subject to the plural form: “Ph.D.s complain that their degrees can’t get them an academic job”. Very often an easy and elegant solution to the dilemma.
6) Human Kinetics, a major publisher of physical therapy and training books, has adopted the radical method of no longer using “he”, “his”, “she” , “her”: “The patient keeps the spine flexed”, “the patient returns to the standing posture”. This way they are sure not to alienate potential female buyers.
7) Banish all worries, and use the awkward “they”, “their”, as your mood suggests. If you’re writing in a blog, nobody will give you grief.
In all cases, remember that language, in its original production, is never used in the abstract manner of the uninvolved lexicographer, who examines, records, and analyzes only dead language, after the fact of its active life. Language, in the act of creation, is always part of a “Sitz im Leben”, as the Germans say, that is, an existential situation, where language has the biological function of communicating live with a defined group.
So speakers or writers have to use common sense, sensitivity, knowledge, and artistry, to take into account their situation in life, and develop an awareness of the beliefs and expectations of their social environment, audience or public. They want to be understood, but also liked and accepted. Look at Obama. It’s above all his rhetorical talent that propelled him to the Presidency.
“If you’re writing in a blog, nobody will give you grief” (see above).
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Here’s an immediate example of how language speakers resolve word ambiguity all the time. When I first read this part: “So in a spirit of bonhomie, I’m reaching across the aisle: I’m going to give you tools[…]”, I assumed that “you tools” was addressing all the prescriptivists who act like tools. But after I read the following words, “to be an informed prescriptivist”, I soon reinterpreted “tools” as the object given.
I absolutely loved your post! I particularly liked your “I’m done” versus “I’m finished” debate description. I took a communication course in college in which some of the coursework focused on “socially constructed media.” Nowadays language and speech are similar. In all reality, meanings of words come from what society’s usage of them are. For example…new words such as emoticons have come to be part of society’s language and speech with the introduction of the internet.
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Thoroughly enjoyable. Too long? “Nonexistent” modifying “straw man” brings it to one word too many, but I’d love to be corrected on that.
Hi Ms. Stamper – I was on the Guardian website and saw an article written by someone named ‘Kory Stamper’. I wondered how I knew the name. Then I remembered your videos from Merriam-Webster. I was so excited to see you writing for the Guardian. I have always enjoyed your wry humor and steady demeanor. I always look forward to anything you publish. Thank you. You had a level of quality that is greatly enjoyed.
Very strictly speaking, “nonexistent straw man” is a redundancy. In this context, though, I like it. I really like it.
Thank you. I enjoyed this post very much and agree with comments asking you to write a book. I am a scientist by trade and we often over look little things like complete sentences and proper use of be verbs. However, my Chicago-born supervisor, insists on telling me I can’t use “y’all” in casual emails to colleagues. Why? We live in Houston, Texas. It is not inappropriate; “y’all” is sincere and homey and comfortable and welcoming in a way that “you guise” could never be. Also, EVERY time she says “irregardless” I want to hit her with something. If I want to say that the homeless person outside our office accosted me, I should be allowed to, right? Accost is not hyperbole; she used her body to block me from getting to my car. I didn’t say assault. At this point, after 5.5 years, comments about my language choices seem more like bullying.
Music to my ears. Can you tell me where I can get my hands on a Lexicographer’s Trebuchet? It would make the perfect Christmas present for my husband who studies the development of language. 😀
LOVE this. Thanks for making me feel a little less weird for being a descriptivist in a world of prescriptivists. Thanks for the great links, too!
Where have you been all my life?! Specifically, where were you for the 16 years I taught high school English, as a lone and lonely descriptivist in a flock of dyed-in-the-wool prescriptivists? Lord, even the MATH teachers were more obsessive about words than I was. My office mate and I nearly came to blows over “alot” (of which apparently even WordPress’s spell check disapproves, in spite of the fact that it has been an acceptable variant of “a lot” for a couple of decades according to some dictionaries.
Excellent example. Nothing like maths to make you realize the value and usefulness of exact definitions. Without them, no mathematical demonstration is possible. Try INFINITY, ZERO, LIMIT, PARALLEL.
The application of a similar method to current language is just impossible. Most abstract words cannot be subject to a single, short definition. Each one is the nexus of a multitude of connotations that are not delivered by simply speaking or writing the word, but in making explicit the full network of potential connotations, a neuronal activity that requires TIME.
Saying an abstract word simply does not deliver its meaning immediately. Try, for instance, to define MAN. This word does not deliver its meaning in the half-second it takes to say it. The illusion is that the meaning of an abstract word is wrapped up in the word like a chocolate praline. This is why debates can be never-ending.
David Foster Wallace wrote a great essay about this. I really enjoyed the read. Followed!
A good take on what is going on. I taught in a school where they tried to correct the words and ended up speaking Ebonics instead. What a fiasco. I find the dictionary fascinating but now they have added common words that reflect the direction of the ignornant.
Redundant: exactly right (aaaggghhh!)
Funny post, though.
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A very interesting read, including the comments.
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Thank you for the delightful reading experience. Cheers.
I agree with your point that each side must have a little of the other in order to be good or sensible. I will just state that I live in Texas and I close my eyes in shame anytime I hear someone say /NOO-kyu-ler/ because I do not understand where that pronunciation came from. Either way it is only my preference that is causing me to act like I have a bug up my ass. I realize this, and most of the time I keep my mouth shut. The language debate is one rabbit hole that I am avoiding, for now.
This is one of the most entertaining and wonderful posts I’ve read recently. As an English teacher and a lover of language….well done.
Reblogged this on mchendry.
Great post! In addition to the links you offered, I would highly recommend Robert Lane Greene’s marvelous book You Are What You Speak–truly impactful 😉 I haven’t encountered a more thorough, scientific account of the (false) pre/descriptivist “antagonism”. The true answer to the debate, it seems to me, would include the spirit of “render unto Caesar…” As you stated, there are occasions in which (a particular notion of) formality is advisable, when prescriptivism can guide a more restricted usage. Most communication, however, operates on a basic principle: “y’know whadda mean?” Apparently meaning is pretty elusive from atop a high-horse (if there’s an effort to understand at all). The irony is, the only sure way the linguistic apocalypse foretold by prescriptivist dogmatists could come about would be for their fantasies to come to fruition. Take care! 🙂
“The irony is, the only sure way the linguistic apocalypse foretold by prescriptivist dogmatists could come about would be for their fantasies to come to fruition. ”
“linguistic apocalypse”: a strawman
“fantasies to come to fruition”: What does that mean? How can “fantasies” ever “come to fruition”, if they are authentic fantasies?
This kind of loose thinking and loose writing is good enough only to scare the unlearned.
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Such a well-reasoned take on this issue. Thank you!
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In my humble opinion, a Descriptivist is to a Prescriptivist, one that does not have or can not have what they should have.
A Prescriptivist is to a Descriptivist, one that has what they could have but do not want , which is the condition of being a pedantic turd.
Of course, I only use the term “pedantic turd” to be descriptive.
At the link – http://begthequestion.info/ – one finds the following:
“While descriptivists and other such laissez-faire linguists are content to allow the misconception to fall into the vernacular…”
Here is yet another author attributing supernatural agency to an infamous be-all & end-all equal & tolerant opposition to the free-of-sin linguists on their continual crusade to conquer the mouth-breathing masses.
The most delicious aspect of that sentence segment is that it begs the question. (On the other hand, it does raise an entirely different one in my mind: Is there a “no true descriptivist” argument?)
[amended to add the following]
Look at the whole statement:
“While descriptivists and other such laissez-faire linguists are content to allow the misconception to fall into the vernacular, it cannot be denied that logic and philosophy stand to lose an important conceptual label should the meaning of BTQ become diluted to the point that we must constantly distinguish between the traditional usage and the erroneous “modern” usage. This is why we fight.”
Not that I want to make an argument for you, but if the descriptivist (trickle-down school or otherwise) failed to note these distinctions, would it not be more likely that the important conceptual label would be lost amid a lack of distinguishing history?
It’s like you’ve managed to express everything I feel about the English language in a single blog post. I’m showing this to everyone I know, whether they want to see it or not.
I am very late to the party with these never-to-be-read observations, but what the heck…
The original prescriptivists were school teachers. Descriptivists, I suspect, are adults who still remember having their knuckles rapped with a ruler when they were schoolkids.
The more serious point here is that the schoolroom was a place where standard English was to be spoken and written. Anything other than standard English in that context was wrong (or “wrong”, depending on your perspective). The much-abused straw figure “Mrs. Grundy” in fact knew perfectly well that dialects and non-standard usages exist, that they have a place in human culture and society, and that these forms change over time. The classroom simply wasn’t the place for them. Certain parents decided that the home wasn’t the place for them, either.
The troubles really began when, in an era of mass media, non-standard usage saw increasing use in journalism, broadcasting, and other forms of mass communication. Some took umbrage at this, fearing that the balance between standard and non-standard English was being shifted too far in the former direction. I, for one, don’t disagree.
So, my impression is that Kory, like most descriptivists I have read, doesn’t adequately address the issue of standard versus non-standard usage. What she seems to understand perfectly well, though, is that what should be the relative role of each rests on a value-judgment, and therefore finding a consensus will be difficult, if not impossible.
Now, to close with a few more obviously polemical points, in keeping with the spirit of the thread. 😉
It is not a “canard” to suggest that there are certain inconsistencies in the descriptivist position. When lexicographers label a usage “archaic”, they are making a prescriptive judgment. When otherwise unqualified linguists lend their imprimatur to a non-standard usage, they are making a making a prescriptive judgment. Etc.
A good modern dictionary will continue to distinguish between standard and non-standard usages.
The OED is a historical dictionary, and is not an “arbiter” of anything. However, it also isn’t to be used to prove descriptivist tenets (“Jane Austen used the ‘singular they’. I win!!!”). To believe otherwise is to commit the “OED Fallacy” (a variant on the well-known logical fallacy of appeal to authority).
Linguists are no better qualified to make judgments or offer opinions about language usage than the “language mavens” they ignorantly criticize. The job of a linguist is to describe and classify language using a specialized vocabulary, and to record the history and variety of languages, dialects, grammatical structures, and usages of world languages. That’s all.
Finally, linguists would receive far more respect if they would stop trying to rehabilitate solecisms retroactively by inventing entire categories of usage out of whole cloth, or distorting existing ones beyond all recognition. An example of this is the so-called “sentence adverb”. The descriptive linguist thinks, “Hmmm, I want to defend the use of ‘hopefully’ at the beginning of a sentence; how can I do that? I know! [light bulb illuminates overhead]. I’ll use my authority as a Ph.D. in linguistics to create a category of usage that never existed before–let’s call it a ‘sentence adverb’–and then say that ‘hopefully’ is simply an example of that. If those benighted prescriptivists object, then I’ll just point to my doctorate–aka, my license to baffle with bullshit”. (Cf. the entire “Language Log” crew for examples of this tactic, ad nauseam).
The defense of prescriptivism is not a defense of non-standard usage, archaic or otherwise, and the label “archaic” is not a prescriptivist judgment but a descriptivist one, which is the point: The lexicographer does not place a value judgment on it; they simply categorize it and allow you that freedom, which you apparently embrace.
P. S. The use of “finally” in the last paragraph was intended as a joke, in case that didn’t get through.