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Hogarth judge

February 2018



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Hogarth judge

Not grammar, but etiquette

Mimi forwarded, from a piece by Ben Yagoda at the Chronicle for Higher Education:

Questioner No. 2 said, "My thing is when people use 'they' as a singular - like, 'Everyone should have their eyes examined once a year.'" Actually, there was no question: The audience member merely stared at the panelists, expecting universal tsk-tsking and rueful shaking of heads. But she wasn't about to get any love from this group. One of the linguists pointed out, as gently as possible, that there was nothing wrong with using "they" that way, that in fact it made perfect sense - as writers from Jane Austen to the authors of the King James Version of the Bible had realized - and that the prohibition against it was the legacy of a small group of nitpickers who, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, basically invented a bunch of usage rules that unaccountably persist.

The problem is that there is in fact a clear distinction between matters of style and linguistic etiquette on the one hand, and matters of grammar. Grammar is the province of linguists. Almost by definition, native and fluent speakers do not err in their grammar often, and if they do they can correct themselves. The language of these speakers is the object of study of linguists: the correction of the speakers' usage is beyond the scope of their authority.

On the other hand, *every* human society has privileged and common registers in their language. Privileged speech is used in religious, legal, ceremonial, and formal contexts. It is important that people who wish to function in these social milieux need to master the language found there. English speakers have been misled to believe these linguistic aspects of ritual and etiquette are matters of grammar.

The real problem is social fragmentation. The old style usage critic presumed universal standards and the approbation of his judgments of rectitude by his peers. They failed to foresee the fragmentation of the old linguistic monoculture into a variety of professional subcultures. Lawyers, academics, and businesspeople developed their own types of privileged English. And many of these new varieties were made for suspect purposes and to conceal moral failings.

Academics want to write as if their opinions are actually oracles fallen from heaven on stone tablets, so they depersonalize their prose in an attempt to get us to ignore the man behind the curtain. Businesspeople and lawyers attempt an Orwellian obscuring of responsible parties for even more reprehensible reasons. Euphemisms and Latinisms are everywhere, to soften the blow of harsh reality: "consequentialize" for "punish". Others are used out of sheer grandiosity: "impact" in the annoying sense means little more than "affect", but it sounds more concussive.

As in all ritual speech, fluency with the standard patter is a sign of belonging to the community. Almost all academic texts from the 1980s forward seem to contain ritual, and often irrelevant, nods to the concerns of identity politics. Some of their neighbors would be upset if these spandrels were omitted, so it's safer to add them in. The business world expects you to be able to juggle various TLAs and buzzwords, again as a sign of community. The technical term for all of these words that are used not for their meanings, but for decoration as status symbols, is "bullshit".

The public does need someone to address these deviants and bring their usage in closer line with expectations. They don't need linguists for this. They need Miss Manners.


What do you use, then, "she or he"?

When speaking of a multiple-personality group, we believe "they" is correct, in the sense of a rock band; the name is not the name of an individual.

Example: Led Zeppelin are playing at the Fillmore tonight.

sethrenn are going home for the weekend.

The British tend to use "it" particularly when referring to children. "When going to visit Great-Aunt Emmeline, everyone should have a clean handkerchief and remember to wear its hat." Andy, although he is Irish and not English, uses "its" in this sense.
Hmmm. I probably would use "they" as a pronoun referring to sethrenn; but not use a plural verb with the name, unless it were plural in grammatical form as well as fact, or used with an article. Unless a sether is one sethrenn, maybe.