Monday, April 30, 2007

Grammaring around

Grammarians divide quite neatly into two types. Prescriptivists focus on how language should be spoken or more usually written; descriptivists on how it is written. Descriptivists have the advantage that time proves them right: languages shift in usage because people use words in different ways; prescriptivists have the advantage of being (a little) useful, in that they can help bring clarity to communication. Words are negotiations between speaker and listener, writer and reader. I encode a message and you decode it. The meaning you derive may or may not coincide with the one I intended. Fixing meaning -- fixing usage -- can aid that process of negotiation, in an obvious way.

I am a descriptivist, as are most people with training in linguistics but few editors, who tend to mistake house style guides for commandments from above rather than the prejudgements of difficult-to-negotiate words that they really are. However, descriptivists might be permissive, but they still have a notion of right and wrong. "Correctness" in usage surely means -- if it means anything -- broadness of use. If most people mean a certain thing when they say a word, that's what that word means. It's possible to frame notions such as agreement in number by this metric (although it's a lot easier simply to say that it's mandatory in English without discussing why). Plural nouns agree with plural verbs in English because most people make them agree. Language is pretty much "democratic" in this sense: if you are in a minority, you are wrong, and the smaller the minority, the wronger you are. It's clear, or should be, that there will be a spectrum of "wrongness" (or spectra, because what is wrong in one context or for one group is often correct for another: so it is "wrong" to write "color" in English but correct to do so in American English). There are reasons to weight the "votes", of course, so that if the usages favoured by the better educated, or newspapers, or similar sources that use language in particular ways, are not more correct, they are felt to be by most speakers. An example of this spectrum: using "thus" to mean "because of this" is only slightly wrong (probably a minority of writers use the "correct" usage and it's only the weightedness that pushes it into "correctness"); but using "the dog are barking" is as wrong as you can get in standard English, spelling errors aside.

I don't think that an extreme descriptivism works. In
this post, a descriptivist misanalyses a speech act. Let's deal first with the misanalysis.


If you look to the right, Treasure Island's having their show right now.

"their" is not used because "Treasure Island" has indeterminate gender but because collective entities are often used with a plural verb by English speakers. This happens even in sentences that have already displayed correct agreement. It's a simple outcome of confusion over whether entities that are aggregations of people should be treated as plurals or singulars. (I noted this in a previous post, which I can't find, but "Treasure Island" can be compared with "the crowd" or "the committee".)

Even if this analysis were correct though, I do not see how finding one example of a usage makes that usage correct. If every other speaker of a language denies it as a correct usage, how can one person's usage be elevated to the status of the other billion's?

In any case, for inanimates, there is a readymade alternative to he and she where gender is not known, and the speaker would, by this analysis, be considered wrong by nearly all speakers of English not to have used it. It's it.

I use the singular they, and in my view it's the best candidate for the nongender-specific pronoun. But is it a good substitute for "it"? No, I don't think so.


Anonymous Sour Grapes said...

The thing that bothers me about that sentence is that looking to your right and Treasure Island's show are in no way connected. I know there's a "you'll see" implied there, but it's a little too unspoken for my liking.

By the way, I scared the shit out of myself when I clicked on your blog's shortcut and saw Alan Johnston's mush staring out at me. I thought I was looking at my own blog. Where I put a sweet little link to yeah whatever, you'll be delighted to learn, ya crybaby.

April 30, 2007 at 4:52 PM  
Anonymous Dr Zen said...

Well, it was a speech act, in which the laws are somewhat different. I think this construction is quite common, particularly in tourguidese. But yeah, I wouldn't recommend it to a SOESL.

I rarely have issue buttons on this blog, as you know. I'm not read widely enough to feel there's much point. But I do feel moved by Johnston's plight and wanted to show solidarity in a small way. After all, I've been a journo of sorts too.

As for linking, man, you just don't get it. The web is all about links. Anyway, I am feeling downcast about having such a small readership, even though I never provide any decent content, so you'll have to live with the whining, old son.

April 30, 2007 at 4:59 PM  
Anonymous high-in-the-sky said...

"Authors are the cruellest minds, breeding
ideas out of the dead words, mixing
quantities and tense"

You might think that you have a small readership, but what you should take heart from is that they have such enormous intellects. There, there's a mish-mash of singulars and plurals for you:)

April 30, 2007 at 10:27 PM  
Anonymous Paula Light said...

"all about links"

I agree! ;)

May 1, 2007 at 2:10 AM  
Anonymous O' Tim said...

editors, who tend to mistake house style guides for commandments from above rather than the prejudgements of difficult-to-negotiate words that they really are

To assuage the frustration I often suffer from due to these rather arbitrary guides, I keep an amusing image in my head. It's of a group of nearly fossilized codgers arrayed around the conference table of a huge, dusty penthouse board room, replete with cobwebs laced between parts human and inanimate. They stir approximately every six months to declare a new rule in their gold standard or discuss things like the importance of avoiding a squinting modifier.

And though I become a minority of one, I will forever stand against the injustice foisted by the use of "irregardless."

May 1, 2007 at 4:42 AM  
Anonymous Lucy said...

Radio and broadcast media is great because you kan spel like crap and it doesn't matter because the only person who reads it is the presenter and they want everything thats even slightly difficult spelt phonetically. Grate stuff.

May 1, 2007 at 9:18 AM  

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