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English ain't algebra

You can hear, in the dispute about singular they and other issues of grammar and usage, a complaint that a usage objected to is not logical. For example, the objection to the double negative is that two negatives make a positive. In mathematics, yes. But step up, you two-negatives-make-a positive people. I want to hear you say that the first time you heard Jagger sing “I can't get no satisfaction,” you understood him to mean “I’m satisfied.”

At the Geoffrey Pullum post on singular they at Lingua Franca that I wrote about yesterday, a copy editor writing as odarp thought he could put Professor Pullum on the spot, asking, “If ‘they’ can be singular, why does it always take a plural verb?” To this, jffoster replied, “The pronoun you can be and often is singular. But it always takes, in all standard and most nonstandard dialects of English, a plural verb are, were, .... Why doesn't that bother you?”

One of the people troubled by the singular they discussion is Andrea Behr, who commented on my post yesterday: “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.”

The fact is that subject-verb agreement and pronoun-antecedent agreement are still rules in English, and there are still rules for using whom for those who use it, which is why those who still use it often get it wrong. It’s just that the rules are not necessarily simple (and—how often must I say this?—some things that people think are rules are not).

My fellow copy editors are keen for certainty, for rules, for consistency. Some of them, particularly the AP Stylebook fetishists, would like everything to be a 1 or a 0, right or wrong. And I myself, I blush to confess, have issued rulings to writers without considering context or, for that matter, whether the house style rule made any sense in the first place.

I understand that need for certainties to cling to in this earthly and transitory life, and I understand that that need leads some people to go overboard. And if the rules you were mistakenly taught in childhood are the flotsam that keeps you above water, I wouldn’t care to see you sink.

But if you are making a living by the craft, if you are a writer or editor, it is incumbent on you to get beyond mere rule-following and make judgments. English is not some Platonic ideal that exists apart from the people who use it; it is what the people who have used it and continue to use it make of it. That is why you should pay attention to the historical and contemporary evidence that linguists like Professor Pullum produce. That is why you need to be attuned to how the language is being used today, broadly. That is why you need to periodically examine your own assumptions. Only then are you going to be able to make appropriate judgments taking into account writer, publication, audience, and occasion.

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:19 PM | | Comments (15)


I really wish more people could see that YES there are rules that you need to learn. And that mastery comes when you learn how and when to apply, or not, those rules.

If I were still a writing instructor I believe I'd make heavy use of your blog in my instruction.

A young Brazilian colleague arrived at work this morning and excitedly showed me her newly acquired copy of Strunk & White. This edition has a cute illustration of a basset hound on the cover and colorful images throughout. Didn't want to dampen her enthusiasm by telling her much of it is bunk, so I just said it's definitely a classic...

If it sounds right...

I truly thank my lucky stars that, as your header states, dear professor, "English ain't algebra". Otherwise, I'd be up the creek sans the proverbial paddle, and talking basic jibberish-101 about now. (Some may think THAT as we speak. HA!)

Being an almost strictly right-brained, creative, artistic type guy (and a lefty, to boot),, sadly all forms of right-brain-dominated grade-school/ high-school mathematics, from your basic algebra to even the more visually-based, geometry, gave me untold nightmares.

At first blush, I really thought that the discipline of geometry w/ its plethora of cool shapes, angles, lines, and forms would be a veritable snap for this kid who could pretty much draw fairly decently just a few years out of his mom's womb. ( I vaguely recall some formative abstract masterworks in crayon on our living-room walls.)

But then, of course, those darn tricky geometric theorems (yes rules, folks) had to inevitably come along, and spoil all the potential fun. Memorization was not one of my stronger suites back then. But I digress.

I do, however, subscribe to the view that we should treat our English language w/ the respect it deserves in terms of the various established rules and conventions laid down over the centuries by those erudite, and well-meaning lexicographers, and grammarians, up to our present day.

But........ and here's the BIG BUT---- Our language, in all its inherent richness, complexity, and nuance, IMHO, (keeping ever-in-mind the hard-and-fast universally accepted prescriptivist rules), should be viewed as more of a living, organic, ever-evolving entity whose 'guardians' should find enough room, or flexibility for accommodating new elements of expression, or oft-used novel words, into its lexicon; even as perhaps certain under-used words, or phrases , once of quite common usage, gradually fall away, entering that mysterious, slightly musty, almost forgotten netherworld of Arcania.

One could almost view this admittedly rather 'liberal' aforementioned perspective as kind of a postmodern democratization of our language, and yet we can't, (and hopefully won't) allow the parlance of the 'common rabble' to dictate the direction in which our shared 'tongue' is going.

Recognizing today's exponential growth in the pop-culture, media phenomenon of infotainment (for good, or ill), the sheer ubiquity of the social media technology options, and the increasing power of the internet, our world is, figuratively speaking, rapidly shrinking------- truly becoming the projected manifestation of philosopher/ scholar Marshall McLuhan's concept of the "Global Village". (No Hillary, the late cerebral Canadian thinker, McLuhan, could see that 'it takes a village' long before you ever did. Good try though. Your basic intentions were honorable.)

This inevitable resultant grand-scale melange of global ideas, and multicultural sharing (cultural cross-pollination, if you will), is bound to have a telling, and hopefully positive impact on our evolving U.S. cultural fabric , w/ our English language as one of those elements within the greater cultural equation that could be influenced to a great degree.

I guess I'm firmly rooted in the descriptivist linguistic camp. Yet I do respect, and further, see the need for maintaining the recognized prescriptivist tenets of our English tongue. I believe its mostly the stridency and intransigence of some diehards in the prescriptivist camp that riles the more accepting descriptivist among us. The notion of 'my way, or the highway', and the ill- manner in which it is sometimes expressed, is what often gets our goat......... and our dander flyin'.

Tangentially speaking, in the arts, performing, or visual, curiously it's often those daring iconoclasts who often choose to go against the established aesthetic dictums of their art-form---the established rules---- who invariably have the greatest, and most lasting impact on our culture.

Like impetuous, hyper-expressive young children who will often do the very opposite of their parents' demands, i.e. family ground rules, these aforementioned bêtes noir of the visual, or performing arts rebel against the accepted status quo, breaking into sometimes dangerous new territory within the greater artistic landscape.

Pablo Picasso, Philip Glass, John Cage, Robert Mapplethorpe, Lady Gaga, Lou Reed, Joel Peter Witkin, Sarah Bernhardt, Beatrice Wood, Salvador Dali, Antoni Gaudi, Lenny Bruce,........... all 'rebels w/ a cause', in their own right, guided by their own rules.

What say 'youse'? (That was for you. Eve. HA!)



Second blunder of the day.......... and counting. Three's a charm, no?

It's be documented that it's the right brain hemisphere that is thought to be more involved in intuitive, creative, artistic abilities, and thinking, whilst the left brain is more attuned to mathematical, scientific, and organizational acuity, and such.

I appear to have mixed up my hemispheres in that last post. My synapses were evidently double-crossed.

Interestingly, I've met a number of so-called artistic types who are not only exceptional artists, but also have strong innate mathematica/ scientific skills, and aptitudes. In those instances, I imagine both hemispheres of their noggins are working at full potential.

I could see architects having this full-brain ability, since both aesthetics, and function, requiring engineering, math, aspects of design, and spacial skills come into play w/ any architectural endeavor. Most professional musicians must also rely on both brain hemispheres firing on all circuits.

Interestingly, my fellow Canadian, creative genius, uber-architect Frank Gehry, has admitted his lack of skill in hands-on 3-D computer imaging, and prefers to delegate this key formative aspect of most of his built creations to younger, more technically literate creative staff members, who basically interpret Gehry's 2-D sketches after scanning his drawings into the computer. Gehry still directs the entire creative process, as the team refines his vision.

Gehry is much more comfortable, and directly involved in the process of constructing the preliminary architectural models-to-scale.

An early criticism of Gehry's futuristic, ofttimes gravity-defying structures, such as his Bilbao, Spain Guggenheim Museum of Art, and his L.A. Disney Hall was that the buildings' basic function was being overshadowed by extravagant exterior sculptural form. Some of his harsher detractors even argued that Gehry was essentially a sculptor at heart, and should have pursued pure sculpture as a vocation, rather than architecture.(Ouch!)

I believe Gehry has quashed most of his doubters over the past decade, or so, proving that both dramatic sculptural form, and practical function are not mutually exclusive.

Case in point, Gehry, in contemplating his design for the interior of his Disney Hall for the Performing Arts, considering the crucial aspect of optimal acoustics, (and the fact that he would be designing his ambitious wooden grand organ), early on in the project worked very closely w/ several noted acoustic experts, plus the then- L.A. Phil conductor Eka Pekka Salonen (sp.?), to make sure that he got it just right.

Somehow Gehry magically integrated the out-of-the-box, titanium/ glass/ steel/ concrete, shimmering, sweeping, curvilinear exterior w/ a much softer, more intimate, yet still grand interior, dominated by Douglas fir, and white pine elements; perhaps a subtle homage to the rustic elemental essences of his former home-and-native-land----Canada.

As usual, I've taken you folks down the path less travelled. Oh well.


On the subject specifically of which/that, I agree - alas - that Fowler's distinction is fading, and it's true that some people think things are rules that are not. The trouble is - some of those people are high court judges!

When I was a legal books editor, I became aware of just how big a deal restrictive and non-restrictive clauses are in the legal profession. Indeed, some legal authors were so in fear of accidentally creating a non-restrictive clauses with commas that they submitted whole manuscripts almost unpunctuated.

And the advice on observing the which/that distinction is actually explicitly spelt out in drafting advice issued by departments of justice, such as this example from Canada:

'Drafters are reminded that while English grammar allows "which" to be used in either a restrictive or a non-restrictive relative clause, the use of "which" for both types of clauses could result in some cases in ambiguity as to whether the meaning is intended to be restrictive or non-restrictive. As English grammar allows "that" to be used only in restrictive relative clauses, drafting practice is to use only "that" for restrictive relative clauses and to use "which" only for non-restrictive ones, which tend to be rare in legislation in any case.'


And that's more like the sphere that we journalists operate in. Of course the DoJ aren't fully up to speed on this issue, but it hardly matters: they are the ones that dish out the fines, the libel damages and the jail terms.

Pace Professor Pullum, but I wouldn't like to be relying on Language Log in a defamation suit with a hidebound jurist and the Rules of Drafting ranged against me. And that's one of the reasons why copyeditors are keen for rules - the stakes are higher, the deadlines are closer and the authorities far less enlightened than is the case for an LL blogpost, more's the pity.

Exactly. Instead of rules--and let's distinguish between rules and conventions--to be applied universally, there are conventions to be observed in different kinds of writing for different audiences. Legal, scientific, and technical writing have exacting conventions that are not necessarily appropriate in other kinds of writing. That is one of the places where judgment comes in.

As linguists and lexicographers, editors and writers, we should note that there is no real "battle" between descriptivists and prescriptivists. Rather, the two schools perform different functions, and what friction there is often stems from violations when one steps upon the other's bailiwick.

Thus the one side functions more like taxonomers, cataloging the language as they find it in the wild; the other group works in the realm of the critic, looking at language both from an artistic standpoint and from the perspective of artisans.

Say, with regard to "singular they," here's an example from something I'm evaluating right now: "Almost every character associated with this story insisted that someone else, and not them, be featured on the cover of this magazine."

What say you? I cry foul on this "they" first because the sentence would be perfectly fine without the parenthetical phrase. But also, it is decidedly unhappy because of the singular emphasis created by "every character" (singular) and "someone else" (singular). This doubled-down focus on the individual shines a spotlight on the plural pronoun and calls it into question.

When "singular they" works well, it's usually pulled off like so much slight-of-hand, with a dash of misdirection and played sotto voce. The writer has to get away with the commission of the petty crime and hope nobody notices.


That's an interesting example. Right now, I'm getting more tripped up by the idea that the word in the parenthetical phrase ought to be "they" instead of "them". Or am I looking at this all wrong?

Laura: Yes, if you make the subject plural, i.e., "All the subjects..." then you would use "they." Yet, if you use "they" in the target sentence, it looks even more out of place than "them" does.

The item in question, by the way, was published in a rather well-regarded magazine for financiers.

Agreed, GSBsuper. Either way, it ain't easy on the ear. I suppose financiers have bigger things to worry about than sentence structure.

"They" doesn't work because the nominative pronouns in English are decidedly clitic-like - they need their verb right next to them. (Also, the old genitive of negation comes into play here, something only noticed with some pronouns.)

"Them" works because "every character" is decidedly plural in notional agreement, which is what English likes. This isn't singular they. "Every character" is more than one, by definition, isn't it?

And "not algebra"? I ask people who insist that "two negatives make a positive" if they then approve of "I don't know nothing about nothing" since three negatives make a negative. They don't - approve of it, that is - which means their argument is specious.

"Specious"--now there's an underused word!

The Ridger,

Hmm... so say we kinda grammatically upgrade your aforementioned phrase to read, "I don't know anything* about anything."?

Does that translate to the more jargonistic, "I don't know nuttin' 'bout nuttin'."----- the semi-literate (alleged) killer's reply to the interrogating detective's pointed query, "So if you didn't shoot the deceased, then explain to me how your fingerprints are all over exhibit "A"....... this here smokin' gun?"

Alleged killer replies, "Sorry, can't help you there, boss. Next question?"

(Oops!. Sorry. I got all carried away there. Must have been channeling nouveau-noir 'mysterians' Walter Mosley, or Kinky Friedman. It won't happen again, I promise ....... at least in this post.)

*Technically, the word "anything" is not a negative, and to me the phrase "I don't know nothing about nothing seems grammatically awkward at best, or perhaps just plain wrong, at worst?

But 'Ridger', I can see where you have offered this hypothetical construct of three strung-out negatives, as it were, to in effect, bolster your argument re/ the upshot of having a triple negative scenario all contained in a singular sentence. So I guess you did make your point, after all.

Rather miss this commenting mechanism.

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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
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