Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Grammar Guy: Should one accept the singular "they"? The Washington Post says, "Yes." I say "No"

Below is an interesting discussion I had with Steven Greydamus this morning on his Facebook page on the issue of the singular "they." Steven had posted an article from about the Washington Post Style Guide including the singular "they" (as a way to avoid "he" or "she" or "he/sh"/"he or she, etc. in noun/verb agreement) as an acceptable English form. Here is the discussion:

Martin Cothran Another sign of the decline of Western culture.
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Steven D. Greydanus
Steven D. Greydanus Martin: What part of "Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Lewis Carroll, Kipling, and C.S. Lewis" is confusing to you? Not to mention the King James Bible! Shakespeare and the King James Bible practically ARE the English language. Not to mention Chaucer, Spenser, Robert Lewis Stevenson, Walt Whitman, Shaw, Edith Wharton, and George Orwell. If these are all indicative the "decline of Western culture," pray tell when was the height?
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Martin Cothran
Martin Cothran I wish I could accept your noble argument. However (and the story you posted completely ignored this), the reason we are even talking about this is not because anyone is trying to mimic the greats, but because we are neutering the language. The reason we are being forced to use "they" is because it is considered politically incorrect to use the generic "he." So our choices are "he/she," "he or she," "she" (a common, mostly academic affectation), or "they." We are talking about this because of the political manipulation of our language. That may be fine with you, but I'm sticking with Jacques Barzun on this one, and they can pry the generic "he" out of my cold, dead, editor's hand.
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Steven D. Greydanus
Steven D. Greydanus Wishing to preserve generic "he" is one thing, and wishing to defend Western civilization against the forces of inclusivism may be noble; however, rejecting singular "they" as grammatically wrong because it aids the inclusivists is unhistorical and, um, aphilological? Language is what we have made it, and plural "they" is not a corruption. End of story.
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Shane Coombs
Shane Coombs It's too early on a weekend for me to decide which side of the argument this favors, but I think it's more accurate to say that ALL language is corruption. The way languages develop, just about every word and rule forms from the corruption of earlier ones.
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Martin Cothran
Martin Cothran Well, I was being intentionally hyperbolic, but I guess there was no way for you to know that. Still, I didn't know there were prescriptive philological and historical rules for the acceptance of linguistic innovations that one could be said to violate. If there are, can we change them in the name of innovation? If I were arguing for usage as the criterion upon which to judge the acceptability of linguistic innovation, I would stay away from invoking prescriptive rules. It can do nothing but undermine my argument. Language may be "what we have made it," (which is true only because it is a tautology), but the question here is whether we SHOULD change or accept a change in official English. Your argument, I think, is that we should accept it if it has precedent among the great English writers of the past. I guess I am thinking that if we use that principle, we will have opened a linguistic Pandora's Box. One look at Shakespeare's English, incredible as it was in its context, should be a warning against it. Chaucer should stop you in your tracks. For example, should we accept Shakespeare's spelling as a part of officially acceptable English?
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Martin Cothran
Martin Cothran Shane, in a sense I agree with you, but I can tell you as someone having been involved in education for a number of years that the official rules do serve a useful purpose. You can't just accept anything. It is almost a cultural necessity to have some commonly-accepted reference point to which everyone can appeal in times of dispute. I'm not arguing for slavish adherence to a set of rules that were handed down from Sinai (or that inhabit Plato's realm of the ideal forms), but I'm thinking that Catholics of all people should appreciate the role of a central authority which exercises a sort of centripetal linguistic force.
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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

MC:"Catholics of all people should appreciate the role of a central authority which exercises a sort of centripetal linguistic force."

A centripetal force keeps things moving in a circle.
Is that the intended concept?

j a higginbotham

still wondering about "or" truth tables, etc