Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

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A few thoughts on English and German language choices around men and women

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As I spotted when writing another text earlier today, my sources used phrases like “von Frauen und Männern” (“from women and men”), while I find it natural to stick to “men and women” in my own writings. As the situation in Germany is quite interesting (and highly unfortunate) a few words on these issues.

For starters, let us look at men and women in English:

Is it “men and women” or “women and men”, and why? Is it e.g. sexist to use the former or “progressive” to use the latter?

Looking at meaning and sentence logic, the order is irrelevant and it should (to those not subscribing to Feminist rhetoric or some extreme version of the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis) almost always be “men and women” for reasons of rhythm and smoothness—and it should be “ladies and gentlemen” for the same reason, not “gentlemen and ladies”.

Start by saying these phrases out loud a few times, and note how differently they feel. In particular, the human (or English?) ear tends to prefer* trochaic and iambic rhythms and something that allows a pattern of some sort to form. With “men and women”, we have two trochees (“MEN and WOmen”), but with “women and men” (“WOmen and MEN”) we have more random** syllables. The latter can be made to sound good, but would then require a sufficient rhythmic context (or, possibly, an exaggerated pronunciation).

*But not to exclusion. For instance, the anapest (think Dr. Seuss) can be quite catching; for instance, cf. the dactyls below. To some part, I suspect, trochees and iambs are preferred because e.g. English is naturally filled with series of these or their approximations.

**It could be seen as a single choriamb, but four-syllable metrics are not usually applied (for good reasons) and there can be no pattern with just the one choriamb. It could also be seen as a trochee followed by an iamb, but this allows no pattern either, without a larger context.

Similarly, “ladies and gentlemen” is broadly* two dactyls (LAdies and GENtlemen”, while “gentlemen and ladies” is broadly* a dactyl followed by an amphibrach (“GENtlemen and LAdies”). (And a dactyl could, in this informal context, be seen as a “long” trochee.)

*I am not entirely certain whether to treat “gentle” as a single very long or as two separate syllables, as the final “e” is silent and the vowel sound of the “l” is weak or even optional. If two, there might be some dispute exactly how the main beat is to be placed. (Poetry-wise, I am an amateur. And, no, I do not have all of the Greek names memorized.) Then again, it can be disputed whether syllables or length/morae are more important, which would leave us with dactyl or “dactyloid” anyway. Of course, in the theatrical “Laaaaaaaaaaadies aaand geeeeeeeeeentlemen”, the two syllable version is almost bound to apply.

Then Germany:

Here the situation is much more complicated and unpoetic: a simple “Männer und Frauen” (two dactyls, again) compares slightly better than “Frauen und Männer” (another dactyl + amphibrach), but not as strongly as in the two English cases. (Possibly, because of flexibility in splitting the “aue” combination in “Frauen”. I take it as au-e, as the most likely syllables are “Frau” und “en” (with a diphthong “au”), but, with the added flexibility in the pronunciation, “Frauen” can be bent to fit other patterns.)

However, if we look at current German use, we are bombarded with phrases like “Bäckerinnen und Bäcker” (“[female] bakers and [male] bakers”), “BäckerInnen” (artificial word presuming to include both sexes; note capitalization of the internal “I”), and “Bäcker*innen” (ditto; note non-footnote star in the middle).

Here poetry is usually beside the point and other concerns apply, the most notable that these attempts at “gender-inclusive” language are entirely unnecessary in almost all contexts: “Bäcker”, like most* similar male-seeming plurals, is epicene, i.e. can refer to members of both sexes. Ditto the singular in a generic context, where a baker of unknown sex might be referred to as “der Bäcker”, but the known woman would be “die Bäckerin”. This does bring some ambiguity, in that some contexts leave it open whether a certain group is single-sex or not, but in most the “not” can be taken for granted and in many it does not matter.** The same applies, obviously, to the basic English “baker” and “bakers”, because there are no even optional female forms for most “traditionally male” professions (and vice versa). Indeed, many of the problems with Feminist language manipulation go back to the refusal to consider the epicene enough—actual “social” neutrality*** is needed. (Hence, e.g. the rejection of the epicene generic “he” in favor of the neutral or quasi-neutral generic “they”, even at the price of switching from singular to plural.) It is the odder in German, however, where epicenity is very wide spread, including cases where a man is legitimately referred to as “she”. (A more extensive discussion of this in German is present in an older text on gender-neutral language. This text is also relevant to some other points.)

*Including typical professions, but usually excluding e.g. “Männer” (“men”). Even for “Männer”, the inclusion of women could be argued when we do not intend it in the sense of men-as-opposed-to-women, but e.g. members-of-a-troupe-of-X (as with the similar use of “men” in English). An army officer holding a speech to his “Männer” might well take women to be included, as the word points to a certain role or membership, not a sexual division. Context can be important, as even the singular “Mann” is occasionally applied to women, even by other women, in sloppy language—just like some U.S. women might refer to other women as “guys” or even “dudes’. For instance, it is conceivable that an irate teen girl says something like “Du hast meinen Stift geklaut, Mann!” (“You stole my pencil, dude!”, except that “dude’ is less likely than “Mann”) to another teen girl.

**“Bäcker backen Brot” (“bakers bake bread”), e.g., is obviously not single-sex. Ditto e.g. “wir stellen Bäcker ein” (“we hire bakers”; few, contrary to Feminist propaganda, care about sex over ability to bake) and “Bäcker der Bäckerei X” (“bakers of the bakery X”; might be single-sex if few enough, but it would then rarely matter). In contrast, in “zwei Bäcker schlugen sich” (“two bakers were physically fighting”) the details might well be relevant.

***Be it through use of a grammatical neutral, something inherently “non-gendered” (arguably, “they”; but it might also be considered epicene), lengthy duplications (“Bäckerinnen und Bäcker”), or artificial words or constructs (“BäckerInnen”, “Bäcker*innen”).

As an aside, I note that these solution attempts are all “binary”, which implies that the “gender-inclusiveness” is not reached by modern standards to begin with. The epicene “Bäcker” does not have that problem …

To look more in detail at the three typical workarounds-for-a-non-existing-problem:

“Bäckerinnen und Bäcker” is lengthy for no good reason, with a negative effect on readers, writers, speakers, and hearers alike. Moreover, the prefixing of the female version makes the expression clumsier yet, as the second part is a substring of the first and rarely* adds any new real information. (And I see the reverse as poetically sounder.) That the prefix is almost always the female version, even with male dominated groups, opens the suspicion that specifically women should somehow be pushed. (As to the reasons, I can only speculate. Possibilities include “we need to compensate for centuries of oppression” and “we need to show women that they, too, can be X”. Sadly, I cannot, in today’s society, rule out that some Feminists or “gender scientists” put the female form first because they actually do consider women more important.)

*It is extremely rare to see a word like “Bäckerinnen” not followed by “und Bäcker” (resp. whatever male or epicene form applies). A word like “Bäcker”, on the other hand, might well see a more informative extension, as with e.g. “Bäcker und Konditoren” (“bakers and pastry chefs [?]”). If in doubt, what follows “Bäcker” is much more likely to be something other than an “und”, which brings the sentence forward (as with the above “Bäcker backen Brot”).

Interestingly, there have been cases of “innen”-forms used where non have previously existed grammatically, and the single form was then purely single-sex to begin with. Unfortunately, I do not remember exact actual examples, but consider, hypothetically, “Modelinnen und Models”, where the “Modelinnen” is a spurious female plural of the imported “Model”. The same type of problem is possible with the other two cases below.

“BäckerInnen” is pronounced exactly like “Bäckerinnen”, despite the different implications (men and women vs. women only), so this solution is useless for the spoken language and can cause confusion when reading a written text aloud. Moreover, even the optical difference is so small that mistakes of both reading and writing are likely. Those who subscribe to the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, i.e. typically those who push this nonsense, should take great care, as this would be a school example of potential cognitive effects. Indeed, this is a case where even someone largely skeptical towards this hypothesis (e.g. yours truly) might well see a risk (I do). I have always been torn between considering use of this construct gross incompetence and an attempt to replace male/epicene forms with female or female/epicene* forms, the capital “I” being a mere alibi to use the traditionally female form. This type of internal capitalization is without precedent** and likely to cause confusion among those not used to it, including German-as-a-second-language-learners.

*Which, to avoid misunderstandings, would only acquire epicenity through this replacement.

**Barring company names, and similar, which typically arose after this idiocy reared its ugly head. The construct was in use when I first arrived here in 1997. (I do not remember my first own reaction, but I might well have thought it a typo.)

“Bäcker*innen”, a very recent invention, shares most weaknesses with “BäckerInnen”, while looking ridiculous, introducing unnecessary complications for e.g. spell checkers, and moving even further outside the traditional uses of characters. Indeed, a middle-of-word use of a star is usually the mark of a censored character, as with “f*ck” for “fuck”, which raises the question what has been “starred out” and why. To someone used to regular expressions and computers, it is idiotically shaped (cf. below), while a star in other contexts often implies something questionable (e.g. a disputed mark in athletics) or a pointer to a note of some type (as, indeed, in this text). In a linguistic context, which is obviously relevant, its main use is likely to indicate a form of a word that is only hypothesized, as with e.g. Proto-Indo-European reconstructions. (To which other, but less relevant, uses can be added, e.g. as an indicator of multiplication: the overloading of this character is too large to burden it with an additional meaning without a much better reason than claimed with “Bäcker*innen”.) The one advantage is a smaller risk of optical confusion, but the net result is a worsening. (There might or might not be some advantage in speech, e.g. that this could be spoken as “Bäcker-Stern-innen” (“Stern” = “star”), but that would be clumsy indeed, and risk confusion with “Stern” in e.g. the sense of an astronomical star.

How to do it better? Well, if it is not acceptable that “Bäcker” pulls double duty as the epicene term and the male counter-part of “Bäckerinnen”, it would make more sense to me to deprecate “Bäckerinnen” and just use “Bäcker” through out, as an entirely “non-gendered” term. (Effectively, follow the path of English in just using “bakers” resp. deprecating existing terms like “actress”.) However, if someone positively, absolutely insists on introducing new formations, they* should at least follow established conventions. For instance, “BäckerInnen” would better have been “Bäcker/-innen” in a regular writing context, while the pseudo-regexp or pseudo-computerese “Bäcker*innen” would better have been “Bäcker(innen)?” (or “Bäcker?(innen)”, depending on system) or “Bäcker[innen]”.** Of course, neither of these consistency improvements remedies the confusing impression or the pronunciation issues—so stick to “Bäcker”!

*As an aside, using correct and conventional grammar, anyone would realize that “they” refers to the formations (the one plural). With the perversion of the generic “they”, it would be more likely to refer to “someone”. Here the difference in meaning would be small enough to be tolerable, but in other cases considerable misunderstandings could arise. Indeed, the pollution with the generic “they” is so pervasive that I, proof reading, for a moment actually combined the “they” with “someone”, myself. Death to the generic “they”!

**But I would be willing to accept a “*” over “?” to reduce the risk of confusion with a question mark. Otherwise, in typical regular expressions, “?” indicates an optional occurrence, while “*” indicates an arbitrary number of occurrences. “ab?” would then be either of “a” and “ab”, while “ab*” would be “a”, “ab”, ‘abb”, “abbb”, etc. The incorrectly ordered and ungrouped “Bäcker*innen” would then amount to “Bäckeinnen”, “Bäckerinnen”, “Bäckerrinnen”, “Bäckerrrinnen”, etc.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 8, 2020 at 2:22 pm

Creating leadership to raise awareness of poor language

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I recently skimmed a Wikipedia page with the almost absurd claim “[he] devoted his time to raising awareness of childhood obesity”, which leads me to have a look at a few words/phrases that have annoyed me for a long time.

To begin with, unsurprisingly, “raising awareness”:

I cannot count the number of times that I have encountered this nonsensical “raising awareness” and I cannot remember more than a small fraction of the causes for which awareness is being raised. This makes the phrase hackneyed and pointless.

I have never quite understood what “raising awareness” would amount to, the phrase is too generic, and the implications can be very different from context to context. This makes the phrase uninformative, even potentially misleading.

The number of apparent causes is so large that it makes the phrase, even the general idea, disputable (also see an excursion below): Firstly, most of the underlying issues are either too trivial to bother the broad masses with or so obvious that any even semi-educated person will already be aware of them. (As with e.g. childhood obesity in the modern U.S.) Secondly, the number of issues is too large for anyone to be seriously “aware” of more than a small fraction of them. (And the limited “awareness” is, obviously, best spent on issues with a personal relevance or where a personal effort can bring something. Someone who tries to “raise awareness” of childhood obesity with me, a childless adult, wastes my time.)

There might well be worthy actions available to those who want to help with a certain cause or issue (and there might be some causes and issues far worthier than others), but “raising awareness” will hardly ever be one of them.

If someone provides an information service, then say so.

If someone raises funds, then say so.

If someone holds speeches, then say so.

Etc.

The we have variations on the “leader” and “leadership” theme:

For instance, consider how many colleges proudly proclaim that they are “educating the leaders of tomorrow”, how many activities will “improve leadership skills”, or how many “leadership” awards there seems to be.

“Leader” seems to be increasingly used merely as a term for someone of some level of accomplishment, and not necessarily a very high one. The aspect of actually leading* is often absent or reduced to being a claimed role-model, being a “leader by example”, or having at some point led something trivial, like a handful of boy-scouts or a three-person department (as opposed to e.g. an army regiment resp. a Fortune-500 company). Indeed, the truly competent are often not found in leadership positions, e.g. because they are not sufficiently interested in self-promotion and socializing, or because their ideas are voted down by a less competent majority.

*As an aside, I have a fairly low opinion of many types of leaders and leadership ideas in general. This in particular with leaders who focus greatly on motivation and/or are poor decision makers.

A brilliant scientist, e.g., might well be a “leading scientist” and might even legitimately have “led the field”, in the sense of being a forerunner, but these meanings are only tangentially related to “leadership” and “being a leader”. Why then speak of “leadership” and “being a leader”, unless separate proof of leadership is present?

From another point of view, consider the reality of the world vs. a Lake Wobegon where everyone is a leader: How many college graduates, e.g., will ever have a leadership position actually worth mentioning? Is it not better for an engineering student to focus on becoming a great engineer than on being one of the “future leaders of the engineering profession”? For a med student to focus on becoming a great physician than on being one of the “future leaders of the medical profession”? If in doubt, very many engineers will end up in a “Dilbert” scenario, “led” by an incompetent middle-manager*, while very many physicians work endless hours to remain in the middle off the pack. Looking at non-STEM students, they are often found “leading” customers to include fries in their fast-food orders.

*As an aside, making managers and administrators more than assistants of and paper-work handlers for the core work-force might have been a grave mistake.

If in doubt, when a college degree has become the norm, calling college graduates “leaders” would result in an army with more generals than privates.

Similarly, if someone played a major part in a sports win (possibly, any part), he “led” the team to victory, while, apparently, the team’s coach did not. Going by biographies and CVs there might be teams out there with as many leaders as players …

I might go as far as suggest that the reader bans terms like “leadership” from his vocabulary. Often, they are entirely misleading; when not, more specific* words are usually better, to avoid both the taint of today’s wishy-washy meaning and the risk, when applied to oneself, of sounding self-aggrandizing.

*Which words will depend on the circumstances, but calling Trump “president”, Merkel “chancellor”, the mayor “mayor” and the major “major”, and so on, would be better than speaking of the “leader of [whatnot]”. In collectives, “heads of government” would be better than “leaders of countries”, etc. Semi-generic, but still more specific, terms like “decision maker” can work well in many contexts.

Finally, consider “create”:

Increasingly, a song-writer no longer writes songs but “creates” them; a designer no longer designs but “creates”; replace an ingredient in an existing drink, and you have now “created” the whatever-you-choose-to-call-it; etc. On one occasion, I actually read that someone had “created” the hair of some celebrity or other—not even the hair style, but the hair …

A particular negative examples is an actor “creating” a part: Never mind the preceding work of a playwright or director—if an actor takes on a new part, he “creates” it. As much as I acknowledge an actor’s ability to interpret a part, variations of “create” will hardly ever be fair and meaningful. If this was limited to the first actor to play the part, I might have been content with pointing out that “originate” would be a better word, but, no, if the play moves from London to New York, a second actor might be credited with “creating” the very same part, move to Paris and we have a third, etc.

The word is used in such a blanket manner that it is beginning to lose all meaning. (Not to mention removing nuance from the language. Compare e.g. “I wrote this text” with “I created this text”.)

And, yes, I have seen cases of the double-whammy “create awareness” … (But, in all fairness, that use of “create” is much more acceptable.)

Excursion on the purpose of “awareness”:
From a non-language angle: What is awareness supposed to achieve? Those who are actually affected will usually already be aware—and those who are not, are unlikely to be sufficiently bright and willing to be made aware.* On the other hand, if someone never interacts with children, it will rarely matter whether awareness of childhood obesity is present. If some old lady spends her evening with concerns about all those poor obese children while she watches TV, how does that make the world better? Her evening would certainly be more pleasant without the awareness. If awareness changes voting patterns, it will usually do more harm than good, because few issues are even remotely important enough to outweigh the totality of other factors that decide a vote. If someone donates money, it might harm another charity or take away business from someone else—and money given to charities often mainly serve to keep the charity, it self, its employees, and its contractors in money. (Raising all that awareness can be quite expensive …) If more people join a march or run a marathon with a certain badge, then this achieves nothing, except, possibly, to raise more awareness.

*Take someone who is sufficiently uninformed, unobservant, or uncaring, to not prevent an obese child from stuffing himself with chips and soft-drinks. Would this someone be likely to listen to warnings against childhood obesity? Fervently write down tips for a better diet? I doubt it.

Now, if awareness was directed at truly big issues where ignorance is common, there might be a point—but it rarely is. For instance, consider formation of opinion (political opinion, in particular): if more were aware of how important it is to think for oneself, to look at both sides of a story, to read deeper accounts than what newspapers provide, to have a solid knowledge of history, to have free speech even for dissenters, …, that could have a major positive impact on the outdated or otherwise flawed opinions that plague current societies, which, in turn, could have a major positive impact on public policy. Very few* actually “raise awareness” (if that loathsome phrase is tolerated) in this area. Of those who do, hardly any are considered philanthropists, and quite a few are condemned for spurious reasons, like allegedly supporting a particular movement after merely having advocated that its members, too, must have free speech.

*I am one of the few, which explains the example.

Written by michaeleriksson

June 18, 2020 at 4:35 pm

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A few recommendations around “X began Y-ing”

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Preamble: The weird formulation family X began Y-ing has remained in the back of my head. I had gathered some resulting recommendations in a draft (almost draft-of-a-draft), which I have polished up a little below, to get the topic out of my backlog. Note that there is some overlap with and repetition of the original text.

Prefer a non-“start”* formulation, whenever it is not contrary to intentions. For instance, “he started to swim ashore” is usually** inferior to “he swam ashore”. The non-“start” formulation is both shorter and more likely to match the actual intention. (It seems to me that e.g. some Wikipedia editors throw on an entirely unnecessary “start” formulation in a blanket manner. Consider, hypothetically, “modern humans first appeared” vs. “modern humans first began to appear” or, jikes, “modern humans first began appearing”.)

*With “start”, I include equivalent words, e.g. “begin”.

**An exception is when he did not reach the shore. Another when something follows in the text that takes place before arrival, e.g. an incident with a shark or a mermaid.

Prefer a “to” formulation. For instance, “he started to swim ashore” is superior to “he started swimming ashore”. The former is grammatically sounder, less prone to ambiguity, more likely to bring the intent over, and stylistically better. Note that the most reasonable interpretation of “swimming” (in this context) is as a participle describing what he was doing when he “started”. (Be it in the sense of a sudden movement or of “began” with a missing verb indicating what began, as with “he started to drown swimming”, which, while awkward, is a possible formulation.)

Prefer a regular noun over a gerund. For instance, “he started constructION” is better than “he started constructING” (with very minor reservations for the exact contexts and intentions, seeing that there is a slight difference in meaning). As a special case, be careful not to replace a regular noun with a gerund that is the noun + “ing”, as with “he heard a moan” vs. “he heard a moaning”. (Again, with reservations for exact intention: If one moan is meant, it is “moan” and not “moaning”. However, if an on-going series of moans is intended, then “moaning” might be acceptable.)

Pay attention to prepositions: a gerund will often require one. For instance, “he began teaching of math” is logically acceptable as a gerund (even if very ugly), while “he began teaching math” implies* that “teaching” is a verb form, making “he began to teach math” the preferable version.

*Unless it is a participle, with something missing from the sentence: “he began to write on the blackboard teaching math”. (Incidentally, a good example why participles should be used with caution in English.)

Pay attention to the difference between gerunds (quasi-nouns), participles (quasi-modifiers), and verb forms. A great deal of confusion and a fundamentally flawed understanding of grammar arises when the simplistic idea of “ing” words (and, similarly, “ed” words) is used as a blanket replacement. These might all end with “ing”, but this is arbitrary and we might well have had them end with, respectively, “ing”, “ang”, and “ong”—or any other suffix, or have them be distinctive in some other manner yet. They happen to be the same in English, but that does not mean anything. The two lefts in “I left to the left” are not the same either and treating them as the same would be idiotic. “Swimming, he was swimming during the swimming” uses all three: The first is a participle, the second a (part of a) verb form, the third a gerund (if a little artificial in context). We can e.g. see that “was swimming” can be replaced with “swam” but that the others cannot; and that “was” fits with the second but not the others. The third can be replaced by e.g. “swim session”, while the others cannot. It also goes well with “the”, which the others do not. The first allows extensions like “pleasantly swimming” that are incompatible at least with the gerund use.* Indeed, the corresponding** sentences in Swedish and German display three visually (and phonetically) different words: “Simmande, simmade han under simmandet” resp. “Schwimmend, schwamm er während des Schwimmens”.***

*A gerund, as a quasi-noun, takes an adjective like “pleasant”. Participles and verb forms take adverbs like “pleasantly”.

**The commata are a little dubious in Swedish and German, but I have kept them to make the identification with the English sentence easier.

***The German version also illustrates a complication not obvious in the weakly inflected English language: Different word classes can underlie different modifications. Here the basal “[das] Schwimmen” is turned into “[des] Schwimmens” in the genitive case, which (at least in German) would affect neither the participle use nor the verb use. (The preposition “während” causes the genitive.)

Addendum on infinitives: In the original text, I spoke of how “Y-ing” in this type of formulation “logically fills the role of an infinitive”. With hindsight this was a partial misjudgment on my behalf: an infinitive is often used in such roles, but it is hardly a universal linguistic law. There might, for instance, be cases where English uses an infinitive and Latin a subjunctive, e.g. “he does it to win” vs. (with great reservations for correctness) “facit ut vincat”, not “facit ut vincere”. (This could possibly be the result of long-term confusion between “logical case” and appearance of the words involved, where one case disappears from consciousness or language because all its forms coincides with those of another case.)

Written by michaeleriksson

December 14, 2019 at 1:09 am

The loss of the grammatical number in the third person / Follow-up: Abuse of “they” as a generic singular

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Since publishing an older text on abuse of “they” ([1]), I have come to fear that the problem is far worse: the grammatical number and the feel for number is increasingly lost in the third person (possibly, elsewhere too). I suspect that the PC abuse is compounded by weak thinkers/writers simply ignoring questions of numbers and pronouns. Examples include an almost consistent use of “they” for multi-person and non-biological entities,* incongruencies that give the impression that the writer made decisions based on a coin-flip,** the extension of “they” to entities with a known grammatical gender and biological sex,*** a near consistent use of “they” with e.g. “everyone”, and the replacement of “one’s” with “their” as a companion to “one”.

*E.g. corporations or music groups. In the past, these have very often been referred to by “it”, which is also more logical in many cases. (Apparently, there used to be British vs. American divide here.) Notably, “they” might be defensible when it comes to e.g. a music group or a sports team in reference to a somewhat collective action or a situation where it is clear that we have a grouping of individuals, e.g. “Team X won. They mounted an irresistible offense.”; however, not when we have a more abstract entity or an action that is not the work of a similar grouping, e.g. “IBM increased its market share. It has had a great year.” or “Team [club] X is recruiting player Y to strengthen its defense.”.

**E.g. in that “they” is combined with singular or plural forms in a manner without an underlying logic, be it with regard to grammatical or physical number. The same author might then write “they were” (plural/plural) and “they was” (plural/singular) in two different sentences referencing the same entity or entities.

***E.g. “I met my cousin. They were happy.”. Note that this often happens when there is no sign of “non-binary identification” or similar. Certainly, the sheer number of instances is too large to be explained by such factors; certainly, it cannot explain the common use for animals.

A particular idiocy is the mixture of forms, as when a sentence or paragraph uses both “they” and phrases like “he or she”, e.g. “The white player moves first. He or she could move a pawn or they could move one of the knights.”.* (Also cf. “one” above.)

*While this example is fictional, I have seen at least a dozen similar examples since writing [1], most on Wikipedia. It also exemplifies the many, many instances where “they” is simply unnecessary and could have been avoided with a trivial change, without deviating from “gender-neutral” language, by using “[…] or one of the knights.” or similar.

If current trends continue (let us hope that they do not!), the third person will be reduced to “they” in just a few decades. Note: “the third person”—not “the third-person generic singular”. We will then have a system of “I”/“we”, “you”, and “they” for the first, second, respectively third persons. (Where the current calls for “he”/“she”/“it”/“they” in the third person.)

Where are the emergency brakes for language change?

Written by michaeleriksson

November 13, 2019 at 10:41 pm

Perverted couples

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There are some language errors that occur again and again. Of these, one of the most annoying to me is “a couple [X]” (instead of “a couple of [X]”). This construct is unfortunate in several regards, even formal incorrectness aside:

  1. It can make some sentences harder to parse or outright ambiguous through confusion with the use of “couple” as a (non-quantifying) noun. Consider e.g. “I watched a couple flying kites”: Did I watch a couple who were flying kites or did I watch a couple of kites that were flying?

    This especially in spoken English, where something like “a coupla” is fairly common: Is this a sloppy (or “cute”) pronunciation of “a couple” or “a couple of”? (With the “e” of “couple” or the “of” perverted.) Chances are that even the speaker is not always certain…

  2. The (often mis-)interpretation as a quantifier only becomes relevant through the removal of “of”: Look e.g. at the contrasts “a couple”–“two persons”, “a romantic couple”–“two persons who are romantic[ally involved]”, and “a couple of lovers”–“two lovers”. Considering the strong difference between the items in the first two pairings, it should be obvious that the same applies to the third too (even though it might be easy to overlook without the others): “a couple of lovers kissing” implies that (a) a couple is kissing and (b) the couple consists of lovers. In contrast, “two lovers kissing” implies that (a) lovers are kissing and (b) there are two of them. Also note how “couple” can be replaced by e.g. “pair” or “group”* in these examples, while “two” cannot.

    *Although the implications of “group” might be slightly different (even numbers aside). For instance, “a couple of lovers” would typically imply a mutual relationship, while “a group of lovers” might contain lovers of one or more people/things/whatnot outside the group.

    Once we drop the “of”, the interpretation as a quantifier in direct parallel to “two” (or “dozen”, or “few”) is a near given: “a couple lovers kissing” most reasonably implies that (a) lovers are kissing and (b) there are a (quantifying) couple of them. Once this interpretation exists, it is hard to not see “a couple of [X]” as implying quantification.

    In other words, dropping the “of” forces many uses of “couple” into a new grammatical class—and it does so for no good reason.

  3. When viewed as a quantifier, it is often unclear whether “couple” intends “two”/“a pair [of]”, or rather “a few”/“several”. (The former is historically correct; the latter seems considerably more common in modern use.)

    Here I recommend sticking to “two” or “a pair of”, unless there is a strong implication of unity*; resp. “a few” or “several”. This even for formulations that would have included the “of”.

    *Cf. the interpretation of “a couple of lovers kissing” vs. “two lovers kissing” above. Note that the etymology of “couple” has implications of things that are joined to each other, as opposed to things that e.g. merely happen to be in the same place, which opens a niche for continued use.

  4. Formulations like “a couple [X]” are inferior to “a few [X]” in terms of both length and aesthetics, making “a few [X]” a much more natural choice. Why shove in those extra letters to create something both ugly and grammatically incorrect?

    (Assuming modern use. The same principle holds for the historical use and “two [X]”.)

Written by michaeleriksson

June 24, 2019 at 6:05 am

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Weak justifications for poor language

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When it comes to grammar, common arguments from the “everything goes” school include “there are countless examples of X being correct; ergo, X should always be allowed”, “X is not an error, because Shakespeare used it”, and other analogy claims.

Such arguments are usually faulty through lack of discrimination:* It is quite possible for a certain phrasing, grammatical construct, whatnot to be correct in one situation and incorrect in another—and the analogy must only be used as justification when the circumstances are sufficiently similar. An extreme example is “over-exaggerate”: There are situations in which “over-exaggerate” is a reasonable formulation, but it remains an error of the ignorant in almost all cases. Consider e.g. a politician deliberately exaggerating a problem in order to be more convincing—but doing so to such a degree that he loses believability. He has now over-exaggerated.**

*In the case of e.g. Shakespeare, they also forget that a once valid use might now be outdated; that he, as a poet, might have taken liberties in order to improve rhyme or meter; that his language might have contained dialectal features in a pre-standardization English; and similar.

**Whether such a use of “over-exaggerate[d]” has ever taken place is unknown to me; however, until five minutes before starting this text, I had not even contemplated the possibility that it could ever be anything but wrong—and the rarity of the correctness shows the danger of superficial analogy arguments that much better. (At “five minutes before”, I read the phrase “exaggerating too much” and saw the applicability to “over-exaggerate”.)

A more common example is the use of “and”, “or”, and similar conjunctions at the beginning of a sentence. There are cases where such use could be seen as correct. For instance, “Mary had a little lamb. And everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go.” would not bring me to the barricades.* I even occasionally use incorrect** such formulations my self, in a manner that I consider acceptable in context. Correspondingly, I cannot condemn a leading “and” in a blanket manner.

*However, I would have preferred “Mary had a little lamb; and everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go.”, because the full stop implies a strong separation that the “And” then reduces, as if someone was simultaneously pressing down on the gas pedal and braking. (Alternatively, I might have tried to cut the conjunction entirely.) Generally, I always remain a little skeptical: Even when the construct can be argued as grammatically acceptable, there are often reasons of style, logic, coherence, whatnot that speak against it.

**For instance, I might use a leading “And” within brackets in situations where I (a) want to strengthen the connection to the preceding text to overcome the bracket, (b) do not consider the bracketed content important enough for more words or even fear that more words might reduce legibility in context. (Of course, others might argue that if the text was that unimportant, it should have been cut entirely…) Similarly, my footnotes are almost always intended to be read in the immediate context of the main text, and will not always be complete sentences or thoughts without that context—some footnotes and brackets could be seen as a branch on a trunk and only make sense when the branch is entered from the trunk. (Why not forego the bracket + “And”, as another case of simultaneously hitting the gas pedal and braking? Well, the bracket is often beneficial to break out less important or less on-topic thoughts, as with the current. From the point of view of the main text, the bracket serves to separate such parts. However, sometimes the connection with the unbracketed text then becomes too weak from the point of view of the bracketed, and the “And” remedies this. This argument does not hold with Mary and her little lamb.)

However, most practical uses remain both incorrect and unacceptable, and those critical of these constructs do not typically suggest a blanket ban—only a ban of incorrect cases. For instance, where someone with an even semi-decent understanding of English would write “Mary had a little lamb and a goat.”, a journalist or a pre-schooler might write “Mary had a little lamb. And a goat.”, which is incorrect by any reasonable standard.* However, the problem does not reside with the “And”, but with the way a single sentence or thought has been artificially, confusingly,, and unnecessarily divided into two parts, one of which cannot stand on its own. The error is one of interpunctuation—not of what word is allowed where. “Mary went home. And took the lamb with her.”, makes the same mistake, if a bit more subtly. A faulty separation of a subordinate clause is a common variation, and often includes a far wider range of words. Consider e.g. “John went home. Because Mary was sick.”: Both parts contain a complete sentence and the situation might be salvaged by simply removing the “Because” (at the cost of no longer having the causal connection); however, a “because” clause can come both after and before its main clause, which can cause a lot of ambiguity. For instance, how do we know that the intention was not “John went home. Because Mary was sick, Tom also went home.”, with a part of the text missing?** What if the text, as actually given, had read “John went home. Because Mary was sick. Tom also went home.”? Was it John, Tom, or possibly both, who went home because of Mary’s health?

*Notably, the complete-sentence standard; however, see an excursion for an alternate suggestion and more detail.

**This gives another reason to stick to the rules: If a text contains language errors, it is often not clear why; and by deliberately deviating from correct grammar, the ability to detect accidental errors and to deduce the true intended meaning in face of errors is reduced. Equally, a deliberate deviation can make the reader assume an accidental error where none is present, leading to unnecessary speculation. Other examples that can soon become tricky include leaving out “unnecessary” uses of “that”, “unnecessary” commas, and similar. If in doubt, doing so can lead to their exclusion out of habit in a situation where they were definitely needed.

Someone criticizing such sentences usually does so, directly or indirectly, because of the division—of which “And” is just a result. Even if we were to say that sentences are allowed to start with “and”, “or”, whatnot, these sentences would still be wrong, because they still make an absurd and ungrammatical division. As an analogy, if someone has a viral infection accompanied by a fever, the infection does not go away because the patient’s body temperature is declared normal. More generally, we must not focus on superficial criteria, like a temperature or an optical impression of a sentence—we actually have to understand what goes on beneath the surface and we have to ask the right questions. Above, the right question is “Is the interpunctuation correct and reasonable?”—not whether a sentence starts with an “and”.

Excursion on my historical take on “and” et al. and on the reverse mistake:
I my younger days I belonged to the “never acceptable” school, largely through committing the opposite error of “sometimes wrong; ergo, always wrong”—something equally to be avoided. My opinions have become more nuanced over the years. However, I still feel that these constructs should be left to those with a developed understanding, because (a) by simply resolving to never start a sentence with “and” et al., a great number of other mistakes will be far less likely to occur (cf. above), (b) even most grammatically acceptable uses are better solved in other ways (cf. footnote above). I would also argue that a grammar which does categorically forbid these constructs would be perfectly valid and acceptable—it just happens that established English grammar does not. (In contrast, a grammar that allows e.g. “Mary had a little lamb. And a goat.”, while conceivable, would make a mockery of the concepts of full stop and sentence. The purpose of these are to give the reader information about the text not necessarily clear from the words themselves; and it would be a lesser evil to abolish* them entirely than to spread misinformation through them.)

*while interpunctuation is a wonderful thing writing systems tend to start without it uptothepointthatthereisnotevenwordseparation we do not need interpunctuation but do we really want to forego it fr tht mttr nt ll wrtng sstms s vwls still misleading information, is even worse

Excursion on complete sentences:
A typical criterion for the use of full stops is that all sentences are complete, typically containing at a minimum subject and verb. However, I would argue that it is more important to have a thought* of sufficient completeness** and sufficient context to understand that thought. For instance, this is the case when someone takes a fall and says “ouch”; a soldier shouts “incoming” or a surgeon says “scalpel”; a (compatible) question is answered with “yes”, “no”, “probably”, “the red one”, …; one opponent exclaims “son of a bitch” to the other; any number of imperatives are used (“buy me an ice cream ”, “assume that X”); etc. Indeed, a subject–verb criterion might not even make sense in all languages. Many Latin sentences, e.g., will only contain an implicit subject, implying that at least an explicit subject cannot be a universally reasonable criterion. (The English imperatives could also be seen as a case of an implicit subject.)

*I see myself supported by the more original and non-linguistic meanings of “sentence”, which are strongly overlapping with “thought”. Also cf. “sense” and “sentiment”.

**I deliberately avoided “complete thought”, which could imply that the entirety of a thought is expressed. This, in turn, is only rarely the case with a single sentence. (Cf. [1].)

However, these examples are only valid given the right context: Go up to a random person on the street and say “yes”, and chances are that he will be very confused.

“And a goat.” will usually fail this criterion, because it is so heavily tied* to something else that it cannot stand alone. Usually, this something is the preceding own statement (“Mary had a little lamb.”), and the best solution would be to integrate the two (“Mary had a little lamb and a goat.”) or to complete the missing portions (“Mary had a little lamb. And she had a goat.”). However, there are some cases that can be argued, mostly relating to immediate interactions (spoken word, texting, and similar). Consider e.g. “And a goat.” as an afterthought** to a previous complete thought or as an interjection by a second speaker—and compare it with “Oh, wait, it just occurred to me that I would also like to have a goat.” resp. “I agree with the previous speaker, but would like to add that we should also buy a goat.”, and similar overkill. In contrast, “Mary had a little lamb. And everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go.” has two separate and independent thoughts, both of which are complete subject–verb sentences, both of which could be taken as stand-alone claims with minimal context. (Except as far as the “And” sends a confusing signal and would be better removed in a stand-alone context; however, the result remains a perfectly valid sentence even in the traditional sense.)

*Interestingly, just “A goat.” is more likely to be a valid thought, because the “And” points to something else that must already have been communicated.

**With sufficient delay that the afterthought cannot be integrated into the whole: If someone is currently writing an essay and sees the sudden need to add a goat to the discussion, there is no justification for “And a goat.”—there is more than enough time to amend the text before publication.

However, in most cases, I would recommend sticking to the traditional “complete sentence” criterion, because it makes a useful proxy and can serve to avoid sloppy mistakes when trying to be clever.

Excursion on full-stops for effect:
Full-stops are often deliberately (mis-)used for e.g. dramatic effect or to imitate the spoken word. For instance, “Mary had a little lamb. And a goat.” might arise in an attempt to put extra emphasis on the latter, to simulate a “dramatic pause”, or similar. I recognize that there is some benefit to this effect—but not to how it is achieved. I strongly recommend using the “m-dash” (“—-”) for such purposes—and do so myself all the time.* To boot, I would strongly advice against striving for a literal pause, seeing that the written and spoken word are not identical in their character. Notably, most proficient readers do not “sound out” the words in such a manner that an intended pause would actually occur.

*To the point that even I cannot deny overuse… Then again, I do not suggest that others change the frequency of their use of the effect, just that they replace one means of achieving it with another. Some might raise objections against this use of the m-dash, e.g. based on historical use for parenthesis; however, I do not use the old semantics, there are other means to achieve a parenthesis effect, and the m-dash is otherwise fairly rare in modern English.

A particularly idiotic use is the insertion of a full-stop after every word, to indicate that each words is heavily emphasized and separated in time, e.g. “Do. Not. Do. This.”: The only situation where this might even be negotiable is when spoken word is to be (pseudo-)transcribed, e.g. as part of a dialogue sequence in a book. For a regular text, including e.g. a post on a blog or in a forum, textual means of emphasis should be used (italicization, underlining, bold type, …)—the written word is not a mere transcription of the spoken.

Excursion on full-stops in long sentences:
I sometimes have the impression that an artificial full-stop has been inserted to prevent a sentence from being too long, by some standard. (Possibly, some journalists write a correct sentence, see it marked as “too long” by a style checker, and just convert a comma to a full-stop to land below the limit. Then again, some journalists appear to use a full-stop as the sole means of interpunctuation, even when length is not a concern…) The result is a completely unnecessary hindrance of the reader: Because valuable hints are now absent or, worse, misleading, it becomes harder to read the sentence. (Note that there is no offsetting help, because the actual thought expressed does not magically become shorter when a few full-stops are inserted.) For instance, when reading the FAZ (roughly, the German equivalent of the New-York Times), I have often encountered a complete sentence of a dozen or more words, followed by “Because”/“Weil” at the beginning of a subordinate clause of another dozen words—and then a full-stop… The result is that I, under the assumption that the grammar is correct, “close” the first sentence, absorb the second with the expectation of applying the causality to a later main clause, and am then thrown entirely off track. I now have to go back to the first sentence, (at least partially) re-read it, make the causal connection, re-think the situation, and then scan forwards to the end of the subordinate clause again, to continue reading. It would have been much, much better to keep the subordinate clause joined by the grammatically correct comma—the more so, the longer the sentences.

Meta-information:
My use of full-stops and capital letters in the above examples is deliberately inconsistent. Mostly, I have tried to avoid them in order to not complicate matters around the resulting double* interpunctuation. However, many examples have required them to be understandable. When it comes to standalone “And” vs “and” (quotation marks included), I have used “And” when it appeared thus in the example, and “and” when speaking of the word more generically.

*Examples like ‘abc “efg.”, hij’ are awkward and can be hard to read. I also categorically reject some outdated rules around interpunctuation and quotes that originated to solve pragmatical problems with equally outdated printing technology.

I found the asymmetry of “Mary had a little lamb and a goat.” a little annoying, and considered adding a “g-word” before “goat”; however, a reasonable “g-word” was hard to find* and some of the later stand-alone examples became awkward.

*The most orthographically and semantically obvious example is “giant”, but it is typically pronounced differently. Other candidates made too little sense.

Written by michaeleriksson

September 21, 2018 at 12:11 am

X began Y-ing

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Disclaimer: I set out to write a text just two or three paragraphs long. I was soon met with a series of grammatical complications and aspects that I had hitherto not considered—and I raise the warning that there could be others that I still have not discovered. However, my main objection is one of style—not grammar. (No matter what impression the text could give: It only takes so long to say “it is ugly”.)

I currently spend more time than usual reading fiction. This leads me to again, and again, and again encounter one of the most ugly formulation patterns in the English language: X began Y-ing.

He began running. She started turning. It commenced raining. Etc.

Not only are they very ugly, they are also potentially misleading, because a Y-ing construct* usually has the implication of something (already) ongoing, as with “John, running, began to tire” or “John began to tire [while] running”**. This is particularly bad with “started”, because “she started turning” could be read as “she experienced a start while turning”. The much sounder construct is “to” and an infinitive—“John began to run” over “John began running”. Indeed, I often find myself suppressing a snarky question of “What did X begin to do, while Y-ing?”, even knowing what was meant. In some cases and contexts, other formulations might be suitable, e.g. “John began with running [to lose weight]” or “John began his running [for the day]”. An entirely different road is also possible, e.g. “John broke into a run”, or “John took up running” (as a smoother alternative for the weight-loser above).

*The main cases usually are participles (or, in a noun context, gerunds). I am uncertain how “Y-ing” in “X began Y-ing” should be classified, especially since it logically fills the role of an infinitive. Conceivably, it is a gerund (cf. an excursion on “stopped” below), which would give it some grammatical justification, but would not reduce its ugliness or potential ambiguity. The matter is complicated by e.g. “John began running slowly”, which would point to a participle, not a gerund. (It might be explained as intending “John slowly began running”, but that would change the meaning.) To boot, the same string of characters can sometimes be interpreted in different roles and meanings in a given sentence—and the gerund–participle division seems very vulnerable to this (but I will ignore such complications in the rest of the text).

**This example is equally ugly and not something that I would recommend (at least not without the “while”). The purpose of the examples is solely to illustrate the potential confusion.

Moreover, even a construct using “began” is often just a waste of space—a simple “John ran” will often do the trick. That he began to do so will often be clear from context, redundant, or simply not interesting in the overall situation. Consider e.g. “John walked along the path.* A bear burst out of the woods and John ran.”: The use of “began to run” (or “began running”) adds nothing but length to the text.

*This sentence makes the issue crystal clear. However, it is not always necessary, because (a) John is more likely to have walked than to have run, and (b) what he did before the encounter with the bear is usually of secondary importance to a work of fiction (but the increased precision might be beneficial in non-fiction). In a pinch, that John was already running could be brought over by “John ran faster”. In other cases, a “began to Y”/“began Y-ing” brings no value at all, as with “John jumped into the water and began to swim”—he was hardly swimming before, so “[…] and swam” is better. The variation “John jumped into the water and began to drown” / “[…] drowned” only sees a significant difference when the event/action/whatnot was not completed, here e.g. because John was rescued. Often the action is so short that its commencement will almost always imply its conclusion—using “she started to turn” over “she turned” is hardly ever justifiable.

My advice: The first attempt should use a single, ordinary verb, e.g. “John ran”. If this does not work in the overall context, go with “began to”, e.g. “John began to run”. Never use “began Y-ing”.

Excursion on “stopped” and similar words:
What about the mirror image “John stopped running”? I consider this formulation more acceptable, but also suboptimal, and would not see it as a justification for e.g. “X started* Y-ing”. This case differs in several regards: Firstly, the absence of strong alternatives. (There is no mirror image to “John ran”**, and “John stopped to run” is both uglier and more ambiguous than “John stopped running”.) Secondly, the lesser ambiguity. Thirdly, being less ugly in my eyes. Fourthly, having a greater grammatical justification, seeing that an interpretation as something ongoing is reasonably compatible (unlike with “start”): “John stopped running” could, if somewhat generously, be seen as “John, currently running, stopped doing so”. (Contrast this with a hypothetical and paradoxical “John, currently running, started doing so”…) Alternatively, an interpretation as gerund is less awkward than above, e.g. as “John stopped [the activity of] running”.***

*For better symmetry with “stop”, I will use “start” in this excursion. The main text mostly uses “began”, because I have seen “began” much more often in the last few days (and likely generally).

**“John stopped” would be a possible solution when only one activity is ongoing, and especially for activities that imply a movement in space (e.g. “running”). However, this will not work generally: For instance, “John sang while walking down the road. Feeling a sneeze coming on, he stopped.” is not unique enough: Did he stop singing, walking, or both? (Note that this ambiguity is more likely to affect the story than whether John ran, walked, or rested before meeting the bear above.)

***Then again, this might be better saved for more ongoing activities, states, whatnot. I would find this formulation less natural with someone who is at this very moment running, and more natural with someone who runs from time to time for exercise. Similarly, “John stopped smoking” would normally imply that he gave up smoking, rather than that he extinguished a cigarette. The same applies to the use of a gerund with “start” (“John started running to lose weight”—not “John started running to escape the bear”). In both cases, a reformulation using “gave up” resp. “took up”, or similar, is beneficial both to reduce ambiguity and to reduce ugliness. (Note that “John took up running” definitely implies a gerund. Also note that “John took up sports” works better than “John began sports”.)

A way out is to avoid “stopped” in favour of e.g. “ceased”: “X ceased to Y” is less problematic than “X stopped to Y”. For the moment, I suggest to either use this way or, when the context allows it, just “X stopped”—never “X stopped Y-ing”.

Constructs like “John continued running” are somewhere between the “start” and “stop” cases: On the one hand, the “ongoing” semi-justification holds similarly to “stop”; on the other, there are alternatives similarly to “start” (“John continued to run” and “John ran”, the latter actually being stronger than for “start”). These alternatives are my recommendation.

A “John continued running” might have some justification with a different intention, as with “John [who was originally walking] continued [now] running [because he saw a bear]”, but here a formulation like “John continued at a run” is usually better.

Excursion on “to … to …”:
A minor potential ugliness when using “to” is variations of “John wanted to begin to run”, where a “to” + infinitive appears repeatedly. The temptation to use “John wanted to begin running” is understandable, but I would recommend a greater restructuring. In the given example, the best solution is usually to just drop “to begin” entirely—“John wanted to run”. Alternatively, something like “John wanted to take up running” works again.

Excursion on other verbs:
My draft contained the following as a backup argument:

Of course, other non-auxiliary* double-verb constructs usually** follow the “to” pattern: “John wanted to run”, not “John wanted running”—conjugated verb, “to”, infinitive verb.

*An auxiliary verb could indeed use Y-ing as a participle, e.g. “John is running”—or use some other variation, e.g. “John must run” (an infinitive without “to”). Generally, some caution must be raised due to the different roles of verbs, which could imply different grammatical rules.

**A potential group of exceptions is those like “stop”, cf. excursion. While no other group of exceptional verbs occur to me, they might exist.

During proof-reading, exceptions like “loved running”, “disliked running”, “ran celebrating”, and my own uses of “took up running” belatedly occurred to me. These make the issue of precedence trickier, and I would rather not do the leg-work on the issue. However, limited to these cases:

“Took up running” is a strict gerund phrase, to the point that it can be disputed whether it is even a double-verb construct. (“Took up sports”, again, works much better than “began sports”, pointing strongly to a verb–noun construct. A gerund is, obviously, a quasi-noun. “Took up to run” is not even a possibility. ) Due to its character, there is also much less room for ambiguity.

“Ran celebrating” serves more to exemplify my objections against “began running” than to conquer them: Here two activities take place simultaneously (running and celebrating) that are not that closely connected. Someone is in a state of celebrating (e.g. having just won a track race) and is running while being in this state (e.g. during a lap of honor). Prior to winning, he was running without celebrating; after the honor lap, he will not be running but still be celebrating. Indeed, “he began, celebrating, to run” shows how awkward a formulation lie “he began celebrating” is. Even when the connection is strong, the modification by the one verb (a participle) is not necessarily on the other verb, but more (or wholly) on the actor in all cases that I can think of at the moment, e.g. “he slept dreaming” (broadly equivalent to “he slept and was dreaming”; and as opposed to “he slept dreamingly”, broadly equivalent to “he slept and did this dreamingly”).

As for “loved running” (ditto “disliked running”), it is usually solidly in the gerund territory and refers to more general activities than e.g. “John began running” typically does, e.g. “John loved running as a means of exercise”. In contrast, even if we allowed “John loved running from the bear” (referring to that one situation), it would make John a bit of a freak—and it could easily be replaced by “John loved to run from the bear”. Then again, I am skeptical to allowing “John loved running from the bear” in the first place: While it is not as ugly and ambiguous* as “John started running”, the gerund** issue arises and the construct brings no additional value over “John loved to run from the bear”.

*But it has some ambiguity: John might e.g. have been filled with love for his wife while running.

**Replacing “running” with “sports” gives us the non-sensical “John loved sports from the bear” speaking against a gerund, while variations like “John loved running speedily from the bear” point to a participle. Can the use be justified if it is not a gerund? Would it not be better to consistently use a “to” + infinitive?

Written by michaeleriksson

September 7, 2018 at 4:36 am

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Abuse of “they” as a generic singular

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Preamble:
I had gathered ideas and individual paragraphs for this post for a few weeks without actually getting to the point of writing it. In order to finally get it done today, I have pushed quite a lot of what should or could have been parts of the integrated text into detached excursions at the end of the text and made some other compromises in terms of structure and contents.

One of the greatest annoyances in current English is the growing* tendency to abuse “they” as a generic third-person singular (including secondary forms, notably “their”). Below I will discuss some of the reasons why this abuse is a bad idea and give alternatives for those who (misguided, naive of the history of English, and/or unable to understand the abstractness of a language) oppose to use of “he” in the same role. An older article on “gender-neutral language” covers some other aspects, usually on a more abstract level (and some of the same ground; however, I have tried not to be too duplicative). Some other articles, including one on language change, etc., might also be of interest in context.

*While this has a fairly long history, I regularly saw people being corrected for committing this error even some five or ten years ago. To boot, cf. below, there are strong reasons to suspect that the main motivation has changed from simple ignorance or sloppiness to a deliberate abuse for PC reasons.

Below, I will largely discuss practical aspects. Before I do so, I am going to make a stand and call this abuse (when done for PC reasons) outright offensive.* It offends me, and it should offend anyone who cares about language and anyone who opposes political manipulation through newspeak. More: This is not just a question of good language or newspeak. The abuse of “they” is also a direct insult towards significant parts of the population, who are implicitly told that they are that easy to manipulate, that they and their own opinions matter so little that they deserve such manipulation, and that they need to be protected from the imaginary evils of “gendered language”. Moreover, this abuse is** often dehumanizing and deinvidualizing, in a manner disturbingly similar to what took place in the dystopian novella “Anthem”.

*I am normally very careful when it comes to words like “offensive”—unlike the PC crowd I actually understand the aspects of subjectiveness involved and how misguided such argumentation usually is. However, since “offensiveness” is used by them in such a systematic and, mostly, irrational and unjustifiable manner, I will not hold back in this case.

**At least if we were to apply PC “logic” in reverse, which, again, is something that I would likely not do, had the PC crowd not gone to their extreme excesses.

Now, discounting the evils of PC abuse, per se, the worst thing about abusing “they” is the risk of entirely unnecessary confusion and misunderstandings*: In a very high proportion of the cases I encounter, additional context or even guesswork is needed to connect “they” with the right entity/-ies; often this choice is contrary to what would be grammatically expected; occasionally there is so much ambiguity that it is impossible to be certain what was meant. Consider something like “My friend went with Jack and Jill to see their parents”: Unless they are all siblings (or went to see multiple sets of parents), this really must mean that they went to see the parents of Jack and Jill; however, in a modern PC text, it could just as easily be the friend’s parents. Or take something like “Monopoly is played by two to six players, one of which is the bank. They [the `bank’] handle most of the money.”: Without already knowing the rules, the second sentence is impossible to understand when “they” is abused (and stating something untrue when it is used correctly).

*There are situations where ambiguities can arise even when using correct grammar, especially with a sloppy author/speaker; however, the proportion is considerably lower, the probability that the ambiguities are resolved through context is higher, and the added confusion caused by the uncertainty whether a given author/speaker abuses “they” is absent. (Note that the argument that “if everyone spoke PC this would not be a problem” is flawed through failing to consider the great number of existing texts as well as the necessarily different adoption rates in different countries and generations.)

A few days ago, I encountered a particularly weird example, in the form of an error message, when I was trying to clean-up unnecessary groups and users* on my computer:

*In Unix-like systems, “users” (accounts) can be assigned “groups”. With extremely few exceptions, every user should correspond to at most one physical user. (Some users are purely technical and do not have any physical user at all.) A group, however, can be assigned to arbitrarily many users and, by implication, arbitrarily many physical users. As a special case, it is common for every user to be a member, often the sole member, of a group with the same name as the user name. Below, this is the case for the user “gnats”.

/usr/sbin/delgroup: `gnats’ still has `gnats’ as their primary group!

Here it is impossible to delete the group “gnats”, because the user “gnats” belongs to this group; however, this fact is obscured through the incompetent error message that uses “their”, giving the impression that the group is meant… In many cases, say with the user “gnats” and the group “audio”, this would not have been the end of the world, but when the names coincide, it is a horror, and interpretation requires more knowledge about the internals of the system than most modern users will have. This example is the more idiotic, because the pronoun is entirely unnecessary: “[…] as primary group!” would have done just fine. Even given that a pronoun was wanted, “its” would be the obvious first choice to someone even semi-literate, seeing that the user “gnats” is an obvious it*—regardless of whether the physical** user behind it is a he or a she.

*Similarly, a bank account remains an “it”, regardless of the sex of the account owner.

**As case has it, “gnats” is one of the users that do not have a physical user at all (cf. above footnote), making “it” the more indisputable.

The use of “their” instead of “its” is just one example of the many perverted abuses that occur. A very similar case is using “they” instead of “it” for an animal*. Mixing “one” and “they” is yet another (e.g. “one should always do their duty”, which would only be correct if “their” refers to some people other than the “one” ). A particular extreme perversion is using “they” when the sex of the person involved is actually known (or a necessity from context), as e.g. in “my friend liked the movie; they want to see it again”.**

*Whether “it” is more logical than “he”/“she” for an animal can be disputed, but it is the established rule. Going with “they” over “it” gives only disadvantages. (Even the pseudo-advantage of “gender neutrality” does not apply, because “it” already had that covered.)

**As aside, there might be some PC-extremists that actually deliberately use such formulations, because they see every sign of sex (race, nationality, religion, …) as not only irrelevant in any context, but as outright harmful, because “it could strengthen stereotypes”, or similar. Not only would this be a fanaticism that goes beyond anything defensible, it also severely damages communications: Such information is important in very many contexts, because these characteristics do have an effect in these contexts. (And it is certainly not for one party do selectively decide which of these contexts are relevant and which not.) For instance, if someone cries, the typical implications for a male and a female (or a child and an adult) are very different. Ditto, if a catholic and a protestant marriage is terminated. Etc.

Assuming that someone absolutely does not want to use “he”, there is still no need to abuse “they”. Alternatives include:*

*What alternatives are usable when can depend on the specifics of the individual case. I can, however, not recall one single abuse that could not be resolved better in at least one way. Note that I have not included variations like “he or she” or “(s)he” in the below. While these are better than “they”, and can certainly be used, they are also fairly clumsy and the below works without such clumsiness. (I have no sympathies at all for solutions like using “he” in odd-numbered chapters and “she” in even-numbered ones. They bring little value; do not solve the underlying problem, be it real or imagined; and, frankly, strike me as childish.)

  1. Use a strict plural through-out, e.g. by replacing “everyone who wants to come should bring their own beverages” with “those who want to come should bring their own beverages”.
  2. Using “one” (but, cf. above, doing it properly!), e.g. by replacing “everyone should be true to themself” with “one should be true to oneself”.
  3. Similarly, rarely* using “you”, e.g. by having “you should be true to yourself” as the replacement in the previous item.

    *Cf. another older article why “you” is usually best avoided (for completely different reasons).

  4. Using “who” or another relative pronoun, e.g. by replacing “My friend is nice. They came to help me.” with “my friend, who came to help me, is nice”.*

    *But in this specific example, the sex is known and it would be better yet to use “he” or “she” as appropriate. This applies equally in any other examples where the sex is known.

  5. Avoiding the pronoun altogether, e.g. by replacing “every student should bring their chosen book” with “every student should bring a chosen book”, or “someone asked me to describe the painting to them” with “someone asked me to describe the painting”.
  6. Using the passive, e.g. by replacing “they* brought the horses back to the stable” with “the horses were brought back to the stable”. (If there is fear of information loss, we could append a suitable “by X” at the end of the replacement, just making sure that “X” is not “them”.)

    *Assuming that this is intended as a singular. If “they” is actually used for a plural, it is perfectly fine.

  7. In many cases, it is possible to use either “he” or “she” as a semi-generic singular from context. For instance, when generalizing based or semi-based on a man/woman, “he”/“she” can often be used accordingly without losing much genericness and without upsetting any but the most extremist of the PC crowd. For instance, “If a beginner like you cannot succeed, they should still try.” would be better as (male counter-part) “[…], he […]” resp. (female counter-part) “[…], she […]”.

    (Of course, when all of those we generalize to belong to a single sex, the appropriate of “he” and “she” should be used, analogously to the Thalidomide example below.)

Excursion on “it” vs. “they”:
Using “it” rather than “they” (as a replacement for “he”) would have made much more sense, seeing that it actually is a singular and that it actually is in the neutral gender*. Many of the arguments against “they” would still apply, but if someone really, really wanted to use an existing word as a replacement, “it” really is the obvious choice. I could have had some understanding and sympathy for “it”, but “they” is not just idiotic—it is obviously idiotic.

*“They” has some (all?) characteristics of a neutral gender in English, but whether it actually is one is partly depending on perspective. In English, it might be better to consider it a mix-gender form; in other languages, there might be different words for a third-person plural depending on the grammatical genders of the group members; whatnot.

The somewhat similar (but off-topic) question of whether to use “it” or “they” for e.g. a team, a company, or a band is less clear-cut. I would weakly recommend “it” as the usually more logical alternative, as well as the alternative less likely to cause confusion; however, in some cases “they” can be better, and I probably use “they” more often in my own practical use.

Excursion on “everyone”, etc.:
Errors that originate in ignorance or sloppiness are far more tolerable than those that originate from PC abuse. The most common (relating to “they”) is probably to take “everyone” to be a grammatical plural (logically, it often is; grammatically, never), resulting in sentences like “everyone were happy with their choices”, which is almost OK and unlikely to cause confusion considerably more often than a strictly correct sentence. In contrast, a PC abuse would result in “everyone was happy with their choice”, which is ripe with possibility for misunderstanding.

Excursion on PC language in general:
It is not uncommon that other attempts to “be PC” or “gender-neutral” in language cause easily avoidable problems. For instance, parallel to writing this post I skimmed the Wikipedia article on Thalidomide, which among other claims contained “Thalidomide should not be used by people who are breast feeding or pregnant, trying to conceive a child, or cannot or will not follow the risk management program to prevent pregnancies.”—leaving me severely confused. Obviously, if we look at “breast feeding or pregnant”, this still necessarily* refers only to women**—but what about the rest of the sentence? If a man tries to conceive a child with his wife, does he too have to stay clear of Thalidomide?*** If the author of the sentence had left political correctness (and/or sloppiness) at home and spoken of “women” instead of “people” where only women were concerned, and then of “people” where both sexes were concerned, there would have been no problem present. This is the more serious, as such pages will inevitably be used for medical consultation from time to time—no matter how much their unsuitability for such purposes is stressed.

*There are rare cases of men lactating, but I have never even heard of this being used for breast feeding. If it has happened, it is too extraordinarily rare to warrant consideration here.

**Implying that speaking of “people” would be at best misguided and unnecessary, even for this first part. However, since no actual confusion or miscommunication is likely to result, this alone would be forgivable.

***Later parts of the page make clear, very contrary to my expectations, that men are included, “as the drug can be transmitted in sperm”. (I still suspect, however, that the risks are smaller for men than women, due to the smaller exposure from the fetus point of view.)

Excursion on Wikipedia:
Wikipedia, which used to be exemplary in its use of language (and strong in other “encyclopedic” characteristics) has degenerated severely over the years, with abuse of “they” being near ubiquitous. Unfortunately, other language problems are quite common; unfortunately other PC problems are quite common, including that an entirely disproportionate number of articles have a section of feminism, the feminist take on the topic, the topic’s relation to feminism, whatnot, somewhere—even when there is no particular relevance to or of feminism. (Including e.g. many articles on films with a section on how the film is interpreted using “feminist” film analysis.)

Excursion on duty to correctness:
Human acquisition and development of language is to a large part imitative. When people around us use incorrect language, there is a considerable risk, especially with young people, that the errors will be infective. For this reason, it could possibly be argued that we have duty to be as correct as possible (within the borders of our own abilities). When it comes to e.g. teachers, TV, news papers, … I would speak of a definite such duty: They have the opportunity to affect and, possibly, infect so many people that it is absurd to be sloppy, especially seeing that many of them have the resources to use professional checkers, e.g. copy editors. (Of course, sadly, these also have other duties like proper research, “fairness in reporting”, and whatnot, that are neglected disturbingly often.)

Excursion on logic of language:
Much of language is illogical or arbitrary, or seems to be so, because of remnants of long-forgotten and no longer used rules; however, much of it is also quite logical and a great shame today is that so many people are so unable to see patterns, rules, consequences, whatnot, that should be obvious.* Failing to keep numbers consistent is one example. Others include absurdities like “fast speed”, “I could care less”, “in the same … with …”, “try and”. That someone slips up on occasion is nothing to be ashamed of—I do too**. However, there are very many whose language is riddled with such errors, and there appear to be a very strong correlations between such errors and low intelligence, poor education, and simply not giving a damn.

*Not to be confused with the many language errors that arise from e.g. not remembering the spelling of a certain word, having misunderstood what a word means, not knowing the right grammatical rule, … These are usually easier to forgive, being signals of lack of knowledge rather than inability to think. Other classes of errors not included are simple slips of the pen/keyboard and deliberate violations, say the inexcusable practice of abusing full stops to keep the nominal length of a sentence down, even at the cost of both hacking the sentence to pieces that cannot stand alone and making it harder to understand.

**I have a particular weak spot for words that sound similar, e.g. “to”, “too”, and (occasionally) “two”: Even being perfectly aware of which is the correct in a given context, I sometimes pick the wrong one through some weird automatism. The difference between a plural and a possessive “s”-suffix is another frequent obstacle.

Written by michaeleriksson

May 27, 2018 at 7:41 am

My favourite word

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I have repeatedly heard “cellar door”w called the most beautiful word of the English language. Few people would argue that there is any particular merit to its meaning; others would protest that it is, in fact, two words. Yet, others make the case that the pure sound and flow of the pronounced word would make it stand-out.

They have a point—with the right pronunciation. Obviously, among the countless dialects of English, not all yield the same result. In my ears, even using a too rhotic pronunciation would break the word.

Looking at my native Swedish, however, there is very similar word of excelling beauty: Pärlemor.

With a similar flow and many almost-matches in vowel and consonant sounds, it is equally pleasing phonetically. (As a rough pronunciation guide, join together “pair”, the “le” of “lemon”, and “moor”.) In a twist, it actually works quite well with the Swedish rhotic pronunciation.

When we go beyond the pure sound, however, there is no comparison: On the one hand, something boring and mundane, often even ugly. On the other … mother-of-pearl. (Both in part and as a whole: “Pearlsmother” would be the literal translation.)

Mother-of-pearl is a material of beauty in its own right and the source of even greater beauty; and that beauty is salient through the “pearl”/“pärle” part of the word. Even the way that it creates valuable pearls from an intruding irritant has something poetic and symbolic about it. Further, “pärla” (the base form of the noun) is also a verb, meaning to purl or to sparkle, “en pärlande bäck”—“a purling brook”, “ett pärlande vin”—“a sparkling wine”. In a way, the word it self flows from the lips in a way that makes me think of water flowing through a shallow bed, breaking over small rocks, and glittering with reflected sunlight. My associations to water are strengthened both by the aquatic nature of oysters and by the story “Bäckahästens pärlor”, which I encountered as a child. (I believe this story to be “The kelpie’s pearls” by Mollie Hunterw. “Bäckahäst” literally means “brook horse”, similar to the Scottish “water horse” each uisgew.)

Now, when I hear “pärlemor”, my mind is filled with images of pearls and mother-of-pearl, purling water, sparkling wine, … When I hear “cellar door”, well, in a best case scenario, I see a door—in a worst case, it may be the hatch to an earth cellar. Indeed, as “pärlemor” is my favourite word, “mother-of-pearl” may well be my favourite English word: It brings me many of the same associations as “pärlemor” and is not without “phonetic beauty” of its own.

Written by michaeleriksson

March 4, 2011 at 7:49 pm