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Are you smarter than a fifth-grader?

It was, if recollection is accurate, in the fifth grade that I got my first thoroughgoing instruction in English grammar and usage. My fifth- and sixth-grade English teacher, Mrs. Jessie Perkins, and my seventh- and eighth-grade English teacher, Mrs. Elizabeth Craig, redoubtable women both, took the same attitude toward English that Miss Prism took toward Fiction: The good end happily and the bad unhappily. There are Rules, they are known, they are to be applied universally, and violators pay a price.

Mind you, I understand that simplification, even oversimplification, is necessary for instructing the young in the elements of writing. It would be sadistic and unprofitable to drop Otto Jespersen on the head of an eleven-year-old. But at the same time, we understand, or should, that English grammar and usage are a good deal more complex than schoolroom exercises can encompass, just as the world needs rather more mathematics than checkbook-balancing addition and subtraction.

Unfortunately, many people stick at the fifth-grade level in their understanding of the language, as one can see from the response of one reader to a post by Geoffrey Pullum at Lingua Franca about singular they.* “Mary,” a stickler for the Rules, wrote, “No way shall I ever be convinced to change this in my writing or listening.” And Professor Pullum can only marvel at the prevalence of dogma, what he calls “faith-based grammar” in the face of any and all evidence to the contrary.

A somewhat more sophisticated dogma is expressed in a comment on the post by Bill Reader, who professes journalism at Ohio University: “The problem is the breakdown of logic that comes with persistent, often unnecessary, conflation of singular and plural forms in a language that depends heavily on pronouns. The lax logic is counterintuitive to professional writing, particularly in the non-fiction writing common in journalism, education, public service, and research. It is lazy, unprofessional, and (worst of all) inaccurate.”

That last sentence gives the game away. Professor Reader finds singular they aesthetically affronting. That, despite all the talk about rules and logic that crops up in these harangues, is what the issue always comes down to. No one ever suggests that they do not understand the meaning of singular they constructions. It is always that the constructions are sloppy, lazy, ugly.

I do wish people would stop talking about what is “logical” in English. Languages abound in elements, such as idioms, that make no logical sense. I wish they would be clearer about distinguishing rules from personal aesthetic preferences. There are plenty of rules, like the order of adjectives or subject-verb agreement—though the latter is a good deal more complex than addressed in the fifth grade. I wish that more people were willing to throw the rubbish overboard—bogus rules, superstitions, class shibboleths.

When it comes down to those personal preferences, I wish people would be realistic about the futility of insisting that one’s personal tastes can be universalized. People who want to maintain H.W. Fowler’s recommended that/which distinction are welcome to it, so long as they understand that it’s not a rule and many people write otherwise. Professor Reader is perfectly free to decline to use they as a singular, and he can even impose his preference on his students. For a term. But the language goes where it will, and Professor Pullum is quite right to insist that the evidence of its complexities is not to be ignored.

No matter what Miz Jessie said in 1962.

 

*Stop it, just stop it. Singular they in someone, everyone, and each person constructions has been used by the educated and uneducated for centuries, filling a need for a gender-neutral pronoun that English otherwise lacks, and for which no completely satisfactory alternative has ever caught on.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:15 PM | | Comments (16)
        

Comments

love it

People who complain about the "illogic" of singular "they" have no problem with the singular "you", which takes a plural verb ("you are"). How's that for illogic?

FWIW, many people are also stuck in the 5th grade in their understanding of history and of what was probably then called "civics," too.

The linguist James Milroy has said that such rationales for or against certain usages—appeals to logic, aesthetics, and whatnot—are post hoc, and this certainly seems to hold true for singular they. People have been told it's wrong, and then they find reasons to hate it. And they never stop to ask whether the rule is valid in the first place or whence it derives its authority.

You dropped a "no" in last line.

Quite so. Fixed. Grazie.


OFF-TOPIC ALERT !!!

Yesterday, my copy-editing good buddy at the L.A. Times e-mailed me a clever lexicography-related attachment on a website called "the poke. / time well wasted". It's a rather lengthly poem , entitled "English Pronunciation" by G. Nolst Trenité. It certainly covers a lot of 'wordy' ground. (Check it out below)

A kind of introductory challenging comment states, "If you can pronounce correctly every word in this poem, you will be speaking English better than 90% of the native English speakers in the world." Really?

What say you?

Here's the poem. Give it a go........... if you dare. HA!

"English Pronunciation"

"Dearest creature in creation,
Study English pronunciation.
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.
I will keep you, Suzy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
So shall I! Oh hear my prayer.
Just compare heart, beard, and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
(Mind the latter, how it’s written.)
Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as plaque and ague.
But be careful how you speak:
Say break and steak, but bleak and streak;
Cloven, oven, how and low,
Script, receipt, show, poem, and toe.
Hear me say, devoid of trickery,
Daughter, laughter, and Terpsichore,
Typhoid, measles, topsails, aisles,
Exiles, similes, and reviles;
Scholar, vicar, and cigar,
Solar, mica, war and far;
One, anemone, Balmoral,
Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel;
Gertrude, German, wind and mind,
Scene, Melpomene, mankind.
Billet does not rhyme with ballet,
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.
Viscous, viscount, load and broad,
Toward, to forward, to reward.
And your pronunciation’s OK
When you correctly say croquet,
Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve,
Friend and fiend, alive and live.
Ivy, privy, famous; clamour
And enamour rhyme with hammer.
River, rival, tomb, bomb, comb,
Doll and roll and some and home.
Stranger does not rhyme with anger,
Neither does devour with clangour.
Souls but foul, haunt but aunt,
Font, front, wont, want, grand, and grant,
Shoes, goes, does. Now first say finger,
And then singer, ginger, linger,
Real, zeal, mauve, gauze, gouge and gauge,
Marriage, foliage, mirage, and age.
Query does not rhyme with very,
Nor does fury sound like bury.
Dost, lost, post and doth, cloth, loth.
Job, nob, bosom, transom, oath.
Though the differences seem little,
We say actual but victual.
Refer does not rhyme with deafer.
Fe0ffer does, and zephyr, heifer.
Mint, pint, senate and sedate;
Dull, bull, and George ate late.
Scenic, Arabic, Pacific,
Science, conscience, scientific.
Liberty, library, heave and heaven,
Rachel, ache, moustache, eleven.
We say hallowed, but allowed,
People, leopard, towed, but vowed.
Mark the differences, moreover,
Between mover, cover, clover;
Leeches, breeches, wise, precise,
Chalice, but police and lice;
Camel, constable, unstable,
Principle, disciple, label.
Petal, panel, and canal,
Wait, surprise, plait, promise, pal.
Worm and storm, chaise, chaos, chair,
Senator, spectator, mayor.
Tour, but our and succour, four.
Gas, alas, and Arkansas.
Sea, idea, Korea, area,
Psalm, Maria, but malaria.
Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean.
Doctrine, turpentine, marine.
Compare alien with Italian,
Dandelion and battalion.
Sally with ally, yea, ye,
Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, and key.
Say aver, but ever, fever,
Neither, leisure, skein, deceiver.
Heron, granary, canary.
Crevice and device and aerie.
Face, but preface, not efface.
Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass.
Large, but target, gin, give, verging,
Ought, out, joust and scour, scourging.
Ear, but earn and wear and tear
Do not rhyme with here but ere.
Seven is right, but so is even,
Hyphen, roughen, nephew Stephen,
Monkey, donkey, Turk and jerk,
Ask, grasp, wasp, and cork and work.
Pronunciation (think of Psyche!)
Is a paling stout and spikey?
Won’t it make you lose your wits,
Writing groats and saying grits?
It’s a dark abyss or tunnel:
Strewn with stones, stowed, solace, gunwale,
Islington and Isle of Wight,
Housewife, verdict and indict.
Finally, which rhymes with enough,
Though, through, plough, or dough, or cough?
Hiccough has the sound of cup.
My advice is to give up!!!

******THE END******


Reading the header I thought this was going to be a dig at Rick Perry.

A lot of this sort of thing feels to me like, "The majority view on this has changed. If you remain in the minority you are a rigid, unthinking fool."

I don't like singular "they," and I rarely use it because it always ends in awkwardness. But I have shifted enough to believe that using it isn't wrong. It feels as if many people would call me a fuddy-duddy anyway.

And yes, I understand that anyone who writes "fuddy-duddy" probably is one.

What confuses me is how do you know what's still a rule and what isn't? Why, for instance, is subject-verb agreement still a rule and pronoun-antecedent agreement isn't? If it's just a matter of how people actually use the language, why is there still a rule about when to use "whom"? (if there is) Nobody uses it in speech, and in my experience, few writers use it either.

Dagnabit, Dahlink! I wish I'd said that.

I suspect that I'm whining to the choir when I say that this singluar/plural/verb tenses matching quagmire was a big, big freakin' deal in my grammar school. (Made emphatically moreso, I have always suspected, because in my post-WWII NJ hometown there were quite a lot of kids from homes where the parents spoke (gasp!) a language other than English.) I spent a very long period of my life working around this issue while aso avoiding the urge to resort to the NJ "you guys".

During my 20s, I was responsible for creating memoranda from notes left on my desk by my decidely English-not-first-language boss. I used "one" a lot. One must... One should... One might... As I reflect upon that time, I am truly stunned that I survived my own pretension.

Dogma is so often rooted in the notion that rules are unchangeable. It's nice when history can inform our prescriptive prejudices. For example Jessica Love's essay The Grammarian Was a He in a recent American Scholar. http://theamericanscholar.org/the-grammarian-was-a-he-2/

Ronald R. Rodgers, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
The University of Florida
Department of Journalism


Eve,

Respectfully, I believe we have a 'situation' here.

I do hear where you are coming from............ The Garden State. (Doh!)

Having endured at least a few choice bits of both New Jersey-based cable reality TV shows-----the trashy spectacle,"Real Housewives of New Jersey", and the equally trashy, yet skewed to maybe a slightly younger TV audience demographic, "Jersey Shore", I believe the expression you were going for in your earlier post was " 'youse' guys", not "you guys".

Perhaps famed NJ native-son Bruce Springstein would use the more refined, less streetwise, "you guys". Just sayin.

Of course those notorious Jersey mobsters, many of italian lineage, would opt for the "youse guys" expression, whilst jawing amongst their fellow hoods. That should be "good fellow" hoods, I guess. (Apologies to director Marty Scorcese.)

I've always wondered about "they" when quoting that ethereal authority presence floating somewhere out there in the great miasma. Example, " They say it might rain this weekend", or, "They say St. John's Wort is a possible anecdote for mild depression." (I guess St. John was a pretty upbeat dude, back in the day?)

Hmm..... if only we could actually track down that seemingly elusive "they". Such know-it-alls should at least get SOME due credit, no?

@Andrea Behr. "For 'Who' the Bell Tolls?" Clearly it tolls for thee.

(Yikes! Who, pray tell, ever uses the word "thee" these days. Obviously I just did. Guess that makes me an 'arcanophyle', of sorts. Or perchance I'm merely channeling either 'Papa' Hemingway, or Will Shakespeare. (That's creepy.)

I don't think the-use-of-"whom" debate is entirely closed.

*Eve, of course I only watched these two reality TV 'train wrecks' strictly towards sociological research ends. Well to be frank, maybe to catch a completely boozed-up, enraged Snookie in one of her now infamous mano-a-mano bar brawls. (Cat fight!)

Now THAT's Jersey class w/ a capital "C". (Well lower-class, at any rate. HA!)

ALEX


Oops!

There I go again.

Made the not uncommon faux pas in my last commentary---the "anecdote" vs "antidote" confusion.

I unwittingly wrote "anecdote for mild depression", rather than "antidote.........". (Maybe St. John was just getting back at me for my earlier snide comment directed his way?)

Mea culpa, nonetheless.

Thought I'd better 'fess-up pronto on this one before being pounced upon by one of my discerning fellow bloggers.

THEY said this might happen.

ALEX

Alex, in the almost 3 decades that I lived in NJ, I never heard anyone say youse guys. It does tell a great deal about those who enjoy furthering the story. Be aware.

The people featured on Jersey Shore are from Staten Island. Jersey folks have, for generations, looked down their noses and smirked at Staten Island as a place that makes Newark look classy.


Eve,

Just 'shows to go ya' how unaware I really am, and that I had nary a clue that the air-head, muscle-bound guidos and guidettes of 'Jersey Shore' actually hailed from Staten Island, NY. .

Clearly those cable TV network programming geniuses are selling us, the viewing public, a real bogus bill of goods.

In light of the facts, the show should really be called 'Staten Island Shore', no?

Now you can't deny that those New Jersey mafioso-types wouldn't be caught dead saying, "You guys"? But then again, these professional criminals aren't exactly a "classy" lot to begin with. (Maybe the use of the expression "caught dead" was an unfortunate one, considering the context.)

Nonetheless, I duly stand corrected, and will try to use your clarifying remarks to further my continuing (amateur) sociological study of various sub-groups, and subcultures of the U.S. north-eastern seaboard states. Wish me luck.

Staten Island definitely sounds promising. HA!

Eve, always enjoy you input, and comments.

ALEX

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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