Innovation, rules, and regulation

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John McIntyre, "I said pound sand, sticklers", 12/27/2012:

Yesterday I sent out this tweet: "Just waved through a singular 'they.' Pound sand, sticklers."

The singular they was in a sentence on The Sun's editorial page: "Although experts say only a tiny proportion of seriously mentally ill people ever resort to acts of violence, the odds of someone doing so are greatly increased if they aren't in treatment or refuse to stay in it."

John goes on to observe that the argument over singular they is "a typical liberal/conservative divide, of the kind common in disputes over usage":

The lefty is all enthusiastic about some novelty, and the righty resists until the novelty either drops off or becomes established. It's an evolutionary view of the operation of language.

But in this case the polarities are reversed. [I am] arguing for a long-established usage in English, and the sticklers are holding fast to a rule that is a relative novelty.

I made a similar argument in "Regardless whether Prudes will sneer", 12/10/2012:

[M]any people seem to believe that opinions about linguistic usage reflect attitudes towards innovation.  The story goes like this: A new word, a new form, or a new construction is invented; at first, most people reject the innovation and deprecate the innovators; but the innovation spreads all the same; eventually it becomes normal and accepted, and no one even remembers that there was a problem. While this process is underway, one side supports tradition, insists on standards, and mutters about Kids Today; the other side supports innovation, points out that many of the Best People Are Doing It, and mutters about peevish old snoots.

Historical processes of that kind certainly do happen […]. But overall, as an explanation of attitudes towards linguistic variation, this story is a failure. Usage peeving, though usually claiming to protect traditional usage, in fact aims to eliminate older forms at least as often as it tries to hold the line against newer ones.

And the insistence on regulation by prescriptive "rules", in whatever relationship to the direction of linguistic history, is another interesting inversion of the standard political metaphors as applied to matters of usage. Consider this passage from Friedrich Hayek,  Law, Legislation and Liberty, Volume 1: Rules and Order, p. 10-11:

[Constructivist rationalism] produced a renewed propensity to ascribe the origin of all institutions of culture to invention or design. Morals, religion and law, language and writing, money and the market, were thought of as having been deliberately constructed by somebody, or at least as owing whatever perfection they possessed to such design. . . .

Yet . . . [m]any of the institutions of society which are indispensible conditions for the successful pursuit of our conscious aims are in fact the result of customs, habits or practices which have been neither invented nor are observed with any such purpose in view. . . .

Man . . . is successful not because he knows why he ought to observe the rules which he does observe, or is even capable of stating all these rules in words, but because his thinking and acting are governed by rules which have by a process of selection been evolved in the society in which he lives, and which are thus the product of the experience of generations.

It would be hard to find a better statement of the descriptivist attitude towards linguistic norms.

But Hayek is using a general discussion of "all institutions of culture" to argue for a libertarian approach to economic and social policy, avoiding central planning and minimizing coercive regulatory intervention. Hayek was "one of Ronald Reagan's favorite thinkers" and an important influence on Margaret Thatcher — I think it's fair to associate these attitudes with the right-hand side of the political spectrum over the past half-century or so.

Projecting political, social, and cultural philosophies onto a single dimension necessarily yields odd juxtapositions.  But if we insist on doing it, we should try to be clear about the process and the results. Today, most people who know what the words mean would align "descriptivism" and "prescriptivism" as left and right respectively, I suppose because they associate the elitist and authoritarian aspects of prescriptivism with the political right. But the right has no monopoly on class-consciousness or on coercion. And in this case, I feel that the natural projection falls in the opposite direction.

For more on this, see:

"Authoritarian rationalism is not conservatism", 12/11/2007
"The non-existence of Kilpatrick's Rule", 12/14/2007
"James Kilpatrick, Linguistic Socialist", 3/28/2008
"Querkopf von Klubstick returns", 6/10/2008
"Peever politics", 11/20'/2011
"Rules and 'rules'", 5/11/2012
"Bottum's plea", 7/16/2012

Update — Given some of the comments, I should amplify my remark about sociopolitical dimensionality reduction. In addition to the "Nolan Chart" dimensions of personal freedom and economic freedom, there are dimensions of tradition/innovation, elite/demotic, rational/mystical, and so on. (And of course, every coordinate system for this space carries debatable descriptive and evaluative assumptions.)  If you insist on somehow projecting everything onto a single "left/right" dimension, there is certain to be lots of confusion and little enlightenment.

My main goal here is to get (some) people to think in a fresh way about what sort of "rules" linguistic norms really are.

Update #2 — More from John McIntyre here.


  1. John Roth said,

    December 28, 2012 @ 10:54 am

    I personally don't see this usage of they as singular. Granted it is if you stick to the rule that the antecedent is the closest preceding relevant noun phrase (someone), but the actual governing antecedent (proportion of seriously mentally ill people) is clearly plural. See the discussion in MWCDEU about the notional antecedent.

    [(myl) In this case, the "actual governing antecedent" is someone ("the odds of someone doing so are greatly increased if they aren't in treatment").]

  2. D.O. said,

    December 28, 2012 @ 10:56 am

    There is a big difference between right's and left's attitudes on economic policy (the main focus of Hayek) and almost anything else.

    [(myl) On the contrary, Hayek's main focus (at least in Law, Legislation and Liberty, where the quotation comes from) is on culture, society, and politics, not on economics. From the book's introduction:


  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 28, 2012 @ 11:35 am

    I was not previously familiar with David Bowman (alias @PreciseEdit, and apparently the chief anti-singular-they "stickler" in the twittered controversy that followed Mr. McIntyre's proclamation), but having poked around the internet a bit I see no affirmative evidence that he is "conservative" in any useful sense of the word, much less that he has Hayekian views on economic policy questions. Perhaps that's because Bowman tries to project an apolitical persona on the internet for business reasons (no point in pissing off a subset of potential customers by gratuitously blathering about politics). However, on at least a quick skim the various clunky (or at least timeconsuming) ways he proposes on his blog of recasting sentences to avoid "singular they" do NOT recommend use of the now-controversial "generic he," an omission I consider something of a "tell" that he's not likely to be particularly right-wing. I think Bowman's online persona (which is basically a marketing spiel for his services as someone who will teach you how to write "better") is very consistent with the thesis recently advanced in other threads by Keith Ellis (isn't he from New Mexico? maybe he's crossed paths with Bowman out there) that a certain sort of rule-driven prescriptivism in the U.S. is about aspirational class mobility and the cult of self-improvement (which always seems easier if you break down complex processes of transformation into simple/simplistic lists of rules to be mechanically followed), which is a feature of U.S. society that's it's pretty hard to slot into left/right terms.

  4. Keith M Ellis said,

    December 28, 2012 @ 11:40 am

    That Hayek quote is very thought-provoking for me because it had not occurred to me to see this "deliberate artifact" versus "non-directed, evolved structure" divide in how people think about social structures. But he's surely correct, at least, to suppose that (for whatever reasons — which I would probably disagree with him and assert are various) people tend to divide in this way.

    This is very evident with regard to language — and I think it's really quite revealing because language, unlike other things such as economic systems or religions, is so clearly (at least by contrast) not a designed artifact. Yet even though most people are aware of this to at least some minimal degree, many people think about language and usage as if this were true. It seems to me this reveals a very strong tendency to think this way about the collective, structured things that people do.

    I'd argue, partly because this is a hobbyhorse of mine, that this is an example of the more general human cognitive compulsion to teleology — to comprehend the world in terms of design and purpose. We do this with the natural world — it shouldn't be a surprise that we would be even more inclined to do this with the social world. We look at human structures and think, "someone made this for a purpose", and infer a purpose and motivation by which we believe we can understand a given structure. (Some social structures were designed, and for a purpose, of course. But many were not and most exist along some continuum between the two extremes. Nevertheless, I think there's a tendency to look at what are clearly, historically, evolved and complex structures — especially those most important in our daily lives — as if they were deliberately designed to achieve particular goals.)

    To be fair, many (or most, or all) of these structures exist in some institutional form and many of our individual interactions within these structures occur within the context of explicit authority which promulgates explicit structure. In the case of language, a part of our experience of language is that we are taught language explicitly by parents, caregivers, and teachers. Where there is an authority explicitly promulgating rules, it's especially easy to imagine that the whole thing is a designed system, for an intended purpose. And so we look to that supposed design for the supposed implicit goal — and it's no surprise that many, having inferred such a purpose, then insist that language usage conform to it.

  5. Keith M Ellis said,

    December 28, 2012 @ 11:53 am

    …is very consistent with the thesis recently advanced in other threads by Keith Ellis (isn't he from New Mexico? maybe he's crossed paths with Bowman out there)

    I am, indeed, and so is Jerry Friedman. And Mark visits NM occasionally, I believe. However, it's not as if there are only a few dozen people in New Mexico, despite the stereotypes, so, no, I've not even heard of Bowman before now.

    With regard to the Hayek stuff and conservatism and all that … I deleted a couple of paragraphs (of my admittedly already excessively long) comment because, in the end, I felt that discussions about Hayek would not be productive. Put more bluntly — experience has shown that it's a big mistake to even whisper the names of these libertarian/Austrian icons on the web because, well, you know. The topic of right-versus-left in the context of libertarianism is fraught, and often not in an interesting way, as is the topic of Hayek's critique of economics (and related) as put into service of his political ideology. (That is to say, I think the critique is interesting and valid but the ideological purpose to which it is put is tiresome and often mistaken and because it is very difficult to disentangle those two things, the resulting discourse is … disappointing.)

  6. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 28, 2012 @ 12:34 pm

    Of course, the subtext of the McIntyre post was that the appearance of a single instance of "singular they" in the pages of the Baltimore Sun (not generally stereotyped in recent decades as being under the sway of some ultrareactionary cabal) is a newsworthy event even at this late date. Isn't that sort of depressing?

    My apologies to Mr. Ellis for the small-state stereotyping, although I can assure him that on account of having grown up in Delaware I'm very used to it. (Oddly enough, Bowman blogged about my fellow Delawarean George Thorogood, whom I do not know personally, but do have mutual acquaintances with, in order to snootily chide him for not having corrected to "Whom Do You Love.")

  7. hanmeng said,

    December 28, 2012 @ 12:38 pm

    Yes, "the right has no monopoly on class-consciousness or on coercion". In fact, the platforms of the various coalitions ("left" or "right") seem to me to be shot through with ideological inconsistencies.

  8. Rod Johnson said,

    December 28, 2012 @ 12:55 pm

    The ideas of "grown order" (or "spontaneous order") and "made order" are very prominent in Hayekian/libertarian thinking, and language is usually placed in the grown order sphere, but this doesn't necessarily map to a prescriptivist/descriptivist dichotomy. See here for an example, where it is argued that some kinds of prescriptivists as just as much a part of the grown order as plain old language users.

    The discussion where that link comes from also leads to this fascinating paper by David Post (PDF), which connects Lawrence Lessig's Code to Thomas Jefferson's opinions on the conflict between what he termed "Purism" and "Neology." This distinction is obviously quite old and entangled with political philosophy in ways that go beyond simplistic left/right divisions (as does Hayek).

    It seems clear that language, like other social phenomena, is not just a transcendent order (big-G Grammar), as a caricature of prescriptivism would have it, or just the sum of a myriad of anarchic individual actions, as a caricature of descriptivism would have it, but a Durkheimian "social fact," with norms, beliefs and values that emerge out of social interaction. The problem isn't that people try to elucidate those norms, it's what they do with the results.

  9. Rod Johnson said,

    December 28, 2012 @ 12:59 pm

    (By the way, I think Glen Whitman, the author of my first link, posts here, no? And is most famous hereabouts as the coiner of "snowclone.)

  10. A6 said,

    December 28, 2012 @ 1:52 pm

    Not every change, whether invented or evolved, is an improvement. It is as legitimate to resist bad (in your opinion) changes as to encourage good (in your opinion) changes. That's part of evolution, and also happens to inventions.

    The singular "they", ignoring number agreement between subject and predicate, exists to replace the inclusive "he" for nakedly political–specifically feminist–reasons. Top-down substitutes, like "s/he" and "thon" having failed, the speech of illiterates provides something that works bottom up.

  11. GeorgeW said,

    December 28, 2012 @ 2:02 pm

    I do think that the basic values that motivate a conservative worldview (like authority, hierarchy, tradition, etc.) make it compatible with prescriptivism. But, libertarianism may be different.

  12. Ellen K. said,

    December 28, 2012 @ 2:25 pm

    A6, what's the point of your post? As is pointed out in one of the paragraphs quoted in blue, singular they is a long-established usage. It's not a change of any sort any time vaguely recently. Singuar they is in the King James version of the Bible, as noted here on Language Log several years ago:

  13. John McIntyre said,

    December 28, 2012 @ 3:13 pm

    Yes, Ellen K., singular "they" antedates feminism by half a dozen centuries. I wonder what A6 thinks of the failure of "you" to observe number agreement.

  14. noiselull said,

    December 28, 2012 @ 3:16 pm

    Just for clarification, Hayek didn't consider himself part of the right-wing of the political spectrum. See "Why I Am Not A Conservative." And thank goodness Greg Ransom hasn't found this.

    [(myl) Indeed. But note that Hayek characterizes conservatism as an "attitude of opposition to drastic change", which would exclude from the category a very large fraction of those who call themselves "conservative" in the U.S. today.

    Some clarification — or perhaps additional confusion — may also be offered by this passage from Hayek on Hayek:

    But still…]

  15. Keith M Ellis said,

    December 28, 2012 @ 3:34 pm

    The fun part is that A6 has so neatly validated Mark's argument that prescriptivists often wrongly think that they are fighting against change when, in fact, they're often doing exactly the opposite.

  16. D.O. said,

    December 28, 2012 @ 3:49 pm

    English language, of course, lacks a central authority, which can legislate about language. This brings the question whether prescriptivists are just a part of "grown order" way of growing. After all, they don't have a police, which can through people in jail or even fine them for incorrect (from their point of view) language use. Or is there a part of "grown order" paradigm which says that growing should be done completely without attempts at reflection?

    [(myl) For the purposes of this discussion, the question is what sort of "rules" linguistic norms are, not how they should be enforced.]

  17. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 28, 2012 @ 3:59 pm

    Mr. McIntyre, has "singular they" appeared consistently in the columns of the Baltimore Sun for, well, not for a half dozen centuries, but since its founding in (checking wikipedia . . .) 1837? If not, why not? Has the rate of usage of "generic he" in the columns of the Sun been approximately consistent over time, or has it declined in more recent years? If the latter, does that have any causal relationship to any possible recent increase in the perceived acceptability-for-publication of singular they?

  18. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 28, 2012 @ 4:06 pm

    I greatly admire Hayek, but he perhaps did not know his Yeats sufficiently well:

    "The Fifth. Whence came our thought?
    The Sixth. From four great minds that hated Whiggery.
    The Fifth. Burke was a Whig.
    The Sixth. Whether they knew or not,
    Goldsmith and Burke, Swift and the Bishop of Cloyne
    All hated Whiggery; but what is Whiggery?
    A levelling, rancorous, rational sort of mind
    That never looked out of the eye of a saint
    Or out of drunkard's eye.
    The Seventh. All's Whiggery now,
    But we old men are massed against the world."

    There are, perhaps, both Whiggish and Toryish modes of prescriptivism as well as both Whiggish and Toryish modes of descriptivism.

  19. Steve said,

    December 28, 2012 @ 4:24 pm

    ISTM that the vast majority of speakers, whether they use singular they or peeve at it (or do none of the above) are completely unaware of the fact that singular "they" has deep roots in the English language and that the prescription against it is relatively new. I suspect that the peevers believe, falsely as it turns out, that singular they is a new development, and they object to it as a violation of a rule (subject object agreement) that seems old to them because it has been the preferred rule within the register of formal writing and speaking for as long as the have been formally speaking and writing. So, from their subjective perspective, singular they is new (again, at least in a formal context) and subject-object agreement is a venerable tradition worthy of respect and observance. I also suspect that most people who use singular they do not do so because they know it to be old: they use it because it is more convenient than tiresomely reiterating "his or her" or "he or she", while "all inclusive he" strikes them as a relic of a sexist past, while the "all inclusive she" is avoided either because it might be confusing to a reader, or because it seems overly PC, or because it just seems really odd.

    If one is using social/political conservatism as a metaphor for language conservatism/liberalness, it strikes me that the conservative/liberal polarity is NOT really reversed at all. Political and social conservatism is often grounded in a nostalgia for an idealistic past that never was, just as language conservatism is often grounded in an inaccurate understanding of the history of language usage plagued with recency illusions.

    Also, I wonder whether it is really apt to say that a they-peever is arguing for "innovation" in usage. It was certainly an innovation when the singular-they frowning first began, but it has become a fairly settled expectation in the context of formal speech and writing, if one that is commonly ignored in an informal setting and not infrequently violated even in a formal one. Is it really an innovation at this point to seek to keep that expectation in place, simply because, unknown to either the peever or the majority of the ones peeved at, that expectation is a new one in a grander historical context? Once a usage-rule or stylistic preference takes hold, those who strive to preserve it are the change-resisters, not the change-seekers, even if the roles would have been reversed had the same position (in absolute terms) been taken before the expectation became settled.

  20. Rubrick said,

    December 28, 2012 @ 5:46 pm

    @J.W. Brewer:
    Changing it to "whom" would have A) made it a terrible song, and B) been rather disrespectful to Bo Diddley, who wrote it.

  21. Lloyd Barna said,

    December 28, 2012 @ 5:47 pm

    Maybe Mr/Mrs/Miss/Ms D.O., who says,
    "After all, they don't have a police, which can through people in jail or even fine them. . . ," should remember that police can can those who throw stones.

  22. Nathan said,

    December 28, 2012 @ 5:56 pm

    Steve, I think that your claim that "it [the "rule" against singular they] has become a fairly settled expectation in the context of formal speech and writing, if one that is commonly ignored in an informal setting and not infrequently violated even in a formal one." is exactly what the descriptivists are fighting against.

    Singular they is a "long-established usage in English", in McIntyre's words. It's not a venerable archaism we're trying to bring back; it never went away. We conservatives are resisting the peevers' innovation.

    Can you provide any evidence that "it has been the preferred rule within the register of formal writing and speaking for as long as the have been formally speaking and writing."?

  23. D.O. said,

    December 28, 2012 @ 6:13 pm

    @Lloyd Barna. Are you making fun of my spelling error or what? And I appreciate your solicitude for correct salutation, but cannot keep myself from pointing out that you've omitted Dr., Rev., and The Rt. Hon. That is assuming that I'm not a comment generating bot.

  24. Viseguy said,

    December 28, 2012 @ 6:33 pm

    The singular "they" may date to the KJV and before, but is it not true that it became deprecated in standard usage but experienced a resurgence in the last 30-40 years for the reasons that commenter A6 refers to? That, at least, is my impression; I lack the skills/tools to verify it statistically and would welcome any light that others can shine on the subject.

  25. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 28, 2012 @ 6:41 pm

    Nathan: if there had not until quite recently been some considerable degree of taboo against singular they in the editorial columns of the Baltimore Sun and similar publications, McIntyre's tweet would have made no sense. It would have been like tweeting that the Sun was once again running a crossword puzzle in today's edition. I just amused myself by skimming a public-domain book (transcribed via Project Gutenberg) by the most famous prose stylist ever associated with the Sun (H.L. Mencken's "A Book of Burlesques", published 1920 but anthologizing pieces written somewhat earlier), and could not find a single instance of singular they, despite the fact that some of it is written as dialogue for characters who are to be taken to be rustics/yokels/uneducated, as can be seen by their comical non-standard use of "them" in sentences like "Them are the things you never can tell anything about" or "My, but them professors can put the stuff away!" He also has a clergyman comically muddle up them with thou, saying at a wedding "Wilt them have this woman et cetera?" But no instance, even comical, that I could detect of them or they as an epicene singular pronoun in the whole book.

  26. James said,

    December 28, 2012 @ 7:03 pm

    I see lots of singular theys in the Baltimore Sun, just searching the past thirty days. (Use a boolean search for someone together with they and a lot of the hits will be singular they.) For instance, here.

    Someone who's really interested could pay for a search of older records. (The Sun has a searchable data base but you have to pay for 'retrieval'.)

    About Mencken: we know that many writers studiously avoid singular they. The question is whether there is a recent(?) period in which nearly all did. At least, I think that is the question; if not, can you explain the question?

  27. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 28, 2012 @ 7:07 pm

    Rubrick: well, yeah. It is possible that Bowman was joking in a deadpan sort of way. Or it is possible he was just being ridiculous. Hard to tell with prescriptivists. (And he seemed not to be clear that Thorogood was not the original lyricist; so I may have misparaphrased to the extent that I implied that Bowman thought Thorogood should have cleaned up McDaniel's pre-existing text rather than better editing his own before sending it out into the world.)

  28. Coby Lubliner said,

    December 28, 2012 @ 7:19 pm

    When I first read the post I thought that the reference was to the newspaper that is actually called The Sun, you know, the one published in London, and the whole thing struck me as strange, because singular "they" seems to be quite normal in the UK. It was only in the comments that I realized that we were dealing with The Baltimore Sun. It reminded me of the way The New Yorker writes The Times when they (!) mean The New York Times, and The Times of London when they mean The Times.

  29. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 28, 2012 @ 7:27 pm

    James: the example you linked to seems to be the very same one McIntyre boasted about "wav[ing] through" a singular they in, where my whole assumption on sort of Gricean grounds was that he wouldn't have gotten a tweet plus blogpost out of doing so if it hadn't somehow been noteworthy. Indeed, that same story has a rather clunky "him or her" a few paragraphs farther down where a singular them would have served just fine, so maybe McIntyre is implementing his revolutionary and/or reactionary agenda gradually.

    In any event, since apparently Mr. McIntyre has been involved with copyediting at the Sun for a number of years, he would be the ideal commenter to shed light on whether there has in fact been a change (and if so when and why) in the acceptability of singular they at that particular publication. (Obviously, one could have an equilibrium where it was acceptable in direct quotes but not in impersonal third person narrative, or acceptable in breezy-sounding sports columnists but not in ponderous masthead editorials, etc.)

  30. James said,

    December 28, 2012 @ 7:44 pm

    I hadn't noticed that, JDB, but in any case there are many more. Just do the boolean search.

  31. John McIntyre said,

    December 28, 2012 @ 8:29 pm

    Mr. Brewer, I'm fairly confident, though I have not made an examination, that for many years The sun was content with "he." I can tell you that during my quarter-century on the desk copy editors have expended considerable time making sure of "he or she" constructions or recasting sentences in the plural. No doubt it will be possible to find instances of singular "they" that got past us, since it is such natural English.

    And yes, we don't alter what people say in direct quotation, and the editorial page has always been stuffier than the sports section. I'm speaking of how copy editors operated in routine news texts.

    But over the past couple of years, I've grown weary of enforcing stupid, time-wasting, and ill-founded rules. So I let singular "they" through, and American civilization, such as it is, seems not the worse for it.

  32. the other Mark P said,

    December 28, 2012 @ 8:53 pm

    D.O. said,

    English language, of course, lacks a central authority, which can legislate about language.

    Pretty much every language lacks such a thing.

    Do you really think that the Academie Francaise has any chance of actually legislating the way people speak French? That the French parliament decides whether to convict and punish people who use "le makeover".

    At best a handful of languages have a central authority – usually self-appointed authority – that has some power to enforce formal writing. Nowhere have they much chance of actually directing how the other (95%) of communication is done.

    The French peevers try desperately to stem the flow of English words, but the mass sweeps them away. They are already losing very, very badly, and will continue to do so.

  33. Julie said,

    December 28, 2012 @ 9:41 pm

    Steve: I think most people who use "singular they" use it because it sounds natural to them. I use it because my parents use it, and my grandparents (the American ones) used it. It's that simple. A university education led to some minor changes in my speech, but that isn't one of them.

  34. marie-lucie said,

    December 28, 2012 @ 11:19 pm

    Note these common ways of referring to an unidentified person:

    (1) Someone phoned and asked for you. – Who was it?

    (2) Someone phoned from your office. – What did they say?

    (3) I'll have him/her phone you back. – Who was that?

    (1) uses non-human it, (2) uses singular they, and (3) uses all-purpose that, yet no one seems to object to (1) and (2).

    As possible alternatives, "he or she" in (1) and (2) would be at best extremely awkward, and impossible (I think) in (3). "The person" would sound somewhat stilted, a deliberate attempt to avoid a pronoun.

  35. Keith M Ellis said,

    December 29, 2012 @ 12:56 am

    @marie-lucie, at the risk of repeating observations that have appeared here before, the frightening thing about your comment is that there's a non-negligible probability that someone, somewhere will read it and decide that you've revealed some usages which must be corrected.

  36. The Ridger said,

    December 29, 2012 @ 1:55 am

    Also, besides singular "you are", non-subject/verb-agreement never seems to bother those who say things like "aren't I?" And sure, that's the solution to a different problem (the taboo "ain't") but it results in a prescribed lack of agreement…

  37. LDavidH said,

    December 29, 2012 @ 5:27 am

    Yes, as an ESL speaker, I remember being very surprised when learning that you say "aren't I" – it seemed so arbitrary. Although "amn't I" is quite a mouthful…

  38. Geoff Nathan said,

    December 29, 2012 @ 7:14 am

    Mark (and others), you might be interested in the work of Rudi Keller, who has written at least two books on a Hayekian view of language change (specifically calling language a system that is a result of human intentions, but not of human design). He's at Dusseldorf:

    Keller, Rudi. 1994. On Language Change: The Invisible Hand in Language (trans) B. Nerlich. London ; New York: Routledge.

  39. Breffni said,

    December 29, 2012 @ 10:48 am


    "amn't I" is quite a mouthful

    As usual, that depends on whether you're used to it. 'Amn't I' (two syllables in 'amn't') is firmly part of my own Irish English dialect, and in fact I remember as a child being corrected by my parents when I said 'aren't I'. I don't think I learned until adulthood that 'aren't I' was a prescriptive norm elsewhere.

  40. John Walden said,

    December 29, 2012 @ 11:58 am

    Idealist prescriptivists that say "It should be thus because it would be better if it was" (although they'd say "were", I suppose) are being more honest than ones that want to return to an imagined dreamtime when one of their strictures was adhered to, although it wasn't really of course.

    Is there a prescriptivist peeve that can in fact claim ancient precedent? Was "can" once not used for asking permission, or was the nonsense of "I shall drown and nobody will save me" ever part of real usage? Crystal seems to suggest the second was a made-up rule in the 17th century.

    [(myl) Peeving about (putatively) new coinages is often (though not always) accurate. See here for a couple of examples where the deprecated usage really was new, and here for some examples in the other direction.

    As for can used to indicate permission, the OED's earliest citation is Tennyson in 1879.]

  41. John Roth said,

    December 29, 2012 @ 6:55 pm

    I think I wasn't clear about my point: the grammatical antecedent is indeed "someone." This isn't in dispute. However, what MWCDEU calls the notional antecedent is earlier since someone is a pronoun that also has to agree with its antecedent. To quote the end of the several page discussion of they in MWCDEU (p 735ff.) (errors in transcription are mine):

    "They, their, them are used in both literature and general writing to refer to singular nouns when those nouns have some notion of plurality about them. [Example from Shaw bypassed.] Notional agreement is in control, and its dictates must be followed."

    The point I was trying to make is that notional plurality is established by "a tiny proportion of seriously mentally ill people." It comes from the more general discourse frame, not from the specific grammar that says "someone" is the antecedent which must match in number.

    To quote MWCEDU again:

    "As most commentors note, the traditional pronoun for each of these cases is the masculine third person singular: he, his, him. This tradition goes back to the 18th-century grammarians, who boxed themselves into the position that the indefinite pronouns must always be singular." p.734, col 2.

    What Mirriam-Webster seems to be saying here (although they don't quite get there) is that the indefinite pronouns, including someone, actually have indefinite number as well as indefinite gender, regardless of the prescription that they must be singular. Again to quote:

    "The use of the plural pronouns to refer to indefinite pronouns— anyone, each, everyone, nobody, somebody, etc. — results from the concurrence of two forces: notional agreement (the indefinite pronouns are usually plural in implication) and the lack of sexual identification that indefinite pronouns share with they, their, them."

    This entire discussion, of course, doesn't have anything to do with the habit I've seen of using they to refer to a specific person of known gender. That's a separate issue, and I'm firmly with the prescriptivist camp on that one.

  42. Dave K said,

    December 30, 2012 @ 9:20 am

    @John Roth:
    I've never seen they used for "a specific person of known gender". What it is used for frequently is refering to a person whose gender isn't known or refering to an indefinite person whose gender could be either: "a doctor", "a teacher", "a child", etc.

  43. Ellen K. said,

    December 30, 2012 @ 12:15 pm

    I've sometimes seen "they" used when talking about an individual where the speaker knows who it is, including gender, but is talking about them in a generic way.

    [(myl) See e.g. "They are a prophet", 10/21/2004; or "Singular they trudges on", 1/24/2010.]

  44. Keith M Ellis said,

    December 30, 2012 @ 3:07 pm

    I've never seen they used for "a specific person of known gender".

    I will sometimes do exactly that when I wish to avoid calling attention to someone's gender (because I believe it is both irrelevant and the awareness of that information is fraught in that particular context).

  45. Ken Brown said,

    December 30, 2012 @ 9:36 pm

    I sometimes use "they" for a person of known gender, and I think I have all my life. Others around me do as well. It doesn't seem strange to me at all. Completly natural to me.

    For what its worth I was born in Brighton in the south-east of England in the 1950s, I now live in South London, and I'm a native speaker of what I don't like calling "Estuary English".

  46. Mark F. said,

    December 31, 2012 @ 1:55 pm

    I'm still not convinced the usage evidence is fine-grained enough to rule out the possibility that there is a natural tendency (however that may be defined) against singular they in more formal registers. I think to make the question meaningful you have to look at the language in the era before there were style guides prohibiting it, and I know that has been done. But, for instance, it seems to be used quite rarely in the KJV; maybe only once, if I understood and remember a post on the topic correctly.

    [(myl) Not sure about your understanding, but your memory is not right.]

    That proves the usage was alive at the time, but it's also at least consistent with the possibility that there was some discomfort with it.

    Right now, given how much formal prose has been published in which it was avoided, I'd be leery of using it a whole lot in something like a grant proposal. Sometimes you want to avoid having too informal a vibe.

  47. David J. Littleboy said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 10:18 am

    "Changing it to "whom" would have A) made it a terrible song, and B) been rather disrespectful to Bo Diddley, who wrote it."

    Tom Rush, being a Harvey, would occassionally toss in "Whom do you love" a time or two as a joke. It did make it a terrible song.

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