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16 Comments

  • It’d be interesting to compare Gwynne’s absurd dictums (or dicta, as he’d probably insist) with a corpus of spontaneous speech by him. Or maybe he doesn’t speak spontaneously, because he always has to stop before he opens his mouth and figure out the proper Gwynnesque way to say what he wants to say?

  • As Geoffrey Pullum has said on Language Log more than once, grammar is one subject in which anyone can claim expertise and almost no one will check your credentials.

  • While we may be “casual” in the norms of everyday speech and use language forms that are genuinely accepted, we must be careful. The most important reason is to be precise and clear to convey the meaning intended. The word peruse, for example means to read carefully. The incorrect meaning “to skim,” is now so widely used, it is included in many dictionaries. If I ask my students to peruse a certain essay for homework, they may skim it and probably will not be prepared for the class discussion or quiz. Once we drop the standards, we are headed for chaos. Our speech and writing should reflect respect for the language. We should assume that those to whom we speak or write respect it as well. To do otherwise indicates sloppiness, and whether right or not, many of our listeners draw conclusions about us by our manner of speech and grammar. One might also argue that careful grammar simply sounds better. “If anyone wants a ticket, he or she should contact the theater directly,” simply sounds better than “If anyone wants a ticket, they should contact the theater directly,” even if it does take a little more effort to write or say it. Actually it could be more simply worded: ” Anyone desiring a ticket should contact the theater directly.”

  • Interesting that a very similar argument (“how dare dictionaries put the wrong meaning of ‘literally’ in!”) is currently bouncing about the Twittersphere.

  • Thanks for your observations, Snow. You are right of course that the first requirement in any interaction is that we make our meaning clear. Extensive analysis of corpus data suggests that genuine ambiguity is extremely rare.The question of whether ‘correct grammar simply sounds better’ is a more complex one: it depends on how we define ‘correct’, and you will have seen from my post that Mr Gwynne and I have very different ideas about that!. But here’s a test case. Imagine that you see an unknown umbrella lying around in your classroom: a likely comment might be: “Oh, someone has left their umbrella behind. I wonder who it belongs to”. To me, this seems unexceptionable (and certainly natural), but it violates no fewer than three of Mr Gywnne’s rules: the someone/their combination; ending a sentence with a preposition (to); and using ‘who’ rather than ‘whom’. An alternative might therefore be: “Someone has left his or her umbrella. I wonder to whom it belongs”. Different people will have different responses, but to me this is not so much correct as hypercorrect and completely unnatural. People do, as you say, “draw conclusions about us by our manner of speech”. And in this case my conclusion would be that the speaker was being unnecessarily fussy. But of course, it’s a personal matter.

  • Just because a lot of uneducated people use a word or phrase wrong doesn’t make it correct, or even ok. Sure, it’s ok in the sense that in many people’s lives, communicating in an uneducated, sloppy or disrespectful way doesn’t necessarily impact them negatively.

    But for people who want to be seen as mature, respectful adults, who maybe want to grow and learn and progress in their lives, maintaining relationships with people who are inspiring and interesting, well then, just lazily following linguistic pop culture within a society that’s increasingly all about short term, instant, gratification, may not be the best basis of what’s “right” or “wrong”.

    I certainly wouldn’t suggest that all of Mr. Gwynne’s opinions of word usage are gold, but the point that a language in fact DOES have rights and wrongs, or at least betters and not as goods, is completely valid.

    We shouldn’t dumb down the language to accommodate the lowest common denominator — even when that denominator represents the majority of the population. This is called cultural degradation.

  • Allen: .I was following your argument and had some sympathy with it, until I got to the last part. You say that, as users of language, we shouldn’t simply “accommodate the lowest common denominator”, and I wouldn’t disagree. But we part company when you continue: “even when that denominator represents the majority of the population”. I’m not sure if that even makes sense. The corpus evidence that underpins our decisions as lexicographers comes from a diverse range of sources, which include serious newpapers and journals, literary fiction, and academic textbooks. When we observe that a particular usage is widespread across a range of text-types, the inference must be that it has become a norm (and it would be irrational for us to ignore this). The use of ‘they’ and ‘their’ when referring back to a singular subject is a case in point: it was not uncommon even in the 18th and 19th centuries, but in the 21st it is clearly the norm.I don’t see this as “lazily following linguistic pop culture”, Since the days of Dr. Johnson and James Murray, lexicographers have never seen it as their job to ignore or suppress the evidence of widespread usage.

  • Hi Michael, thanks for commenting on my post. I largely agree with you. In my reference to “people” I was more referring to, literally, people in the street. Kids who use the language in a trendy way either because of a lack of education, or because of the normal way that kids define their culture, their fight against those that came before. And although some of this will make it’s way into the general language, much of it is just a chopped up version of English. Using this language in fact becomes a mark of being of a certain cultural strata, of being “cool”–intentionally making the language different as to exclude “outsiders”, which would include most adults and certainly anyone with an academic background.

    This is the language I was referring to in my overly critical, roundabout sorta way.

  • re: snow’s comment – ”One might also argue that careful grammar simply sounds better. “If anyone wants a ticket, he or she should contact the theater directly,” simply sounds better than “If anyone wants a ticket, they should contact the theater directly,” – this is purely subjective. For me ‘they’ sounds much more natural, especially if the pronoun has to be repeated several times – “If anyone needs their expenses allowance increased, could they contact their line manager as soon as possible” – that would be a bit top heavy with ‘he or she’.

    I teach foreigners English, and singular they is seen as absolutely standard after anyone etc.

  • It seems to me more fruitful and revealing to ask ‘What is best?”, rather than ‘What is correct?’

  • I am tempted to buy a copy of this book.
    The rules of good grammar are like the rules of good manners. Objectively, both may be entirely arbitrary and unnecessary, but nevertheless it is a good idea to try to stick to them.