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A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘grammar

Comparative, superlative, and correct thinking

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During my visits to Sweden, I re-encountered some old grammar material, including the old bull-shit that a comparative compares two entities and a superlative three or more.

This is a good example of how undue dumbing-down* can hurt the students’ ability to think correctly and to gain a correct understanding of the matter:

*Or is the teacher or book author that lacking in own understanding?

The respective character of the comparative and superlative is quite different, and the above descriptions are outright contrary to accepted use:*

*I make some reservations for different situations in different languages, but this applies to at least Swedish, German, and English.

The comparative compares with no regard for numbers. For instance, all of the following are grammatically correct: “I am taller than Tom, Dick, and Harry.”, “I and Tom are taller than Dick and Harry.”, “I, Tom, and Dick are taller than Harry.” Equally correct is: “No-one among the four whose name begins with a ‘Q’ is taller than I am.”—even though there is no object to compare “I”/“me” with. Even dropping to comparing nothing to nothing is possible: “No woman taller than fifty feet is shorter than any man taller than sixty feet.”*

*There are neither women nor men of that size. Note that the paradoxical statement is actually truthful, not just grammatically correct, as long as at least one of the sets is empty.

In contrast, the superlative makes a statement about who in a certain set has a certain characteristic to the highest degree. For instance, “I am the tallest of us four.” says that “I” have the characteristic of being tall to a higher degree than any other element of this set of four. Again, this applies with no regard for numbers: “Out of Tom and Dick, Tom is the tallest.” implies a comparison between two entities—the alleged realm of the comparative. Indeed, even “Out of those among the four whose name begins with a ‘T’, Tom is the tallest.” is correct, despite an implied comparison involving just a single entity. In the same one-person set, Tom is obviously also the shortest, oldest, youngest, thinnest, fattest, best and worst educated, … (It could be argued, however, that the superlative fails on empty sets, due to the resulting weakness of formulation. If so, I would see it more as a matter of syntax than of logic, in that the concept extends to empty sets but is harder to formulate using e.g. English.)

From another perspective, it might* be sensible to view the comparative as comparing two** different sets and the superlative as discussing one single set. (In which case the “two vs. three” thinking is turned into “two vs. one”.) For instance, “I am taller than Tom, Dick, and Harry.” could be seen as “Everyone in set A is taller than everyone in set B, where set A consists of me and set B consists of Tom, Dick, and Harry.”. (And so on, for the other above examples.) The superlative formulation “I am the tallest of us four.”, in contrast, amounts to “In the set A, I am the tallest element, where set A consists of me, Tom, Dick, and Harry.”. Here we also see the futility of thinking in terms of the number of individual elements, as any of these sets could contain 0***, 1, 2, 3, or e.g. 534 elements.

*Reservations: (a) This might be a too abstract approach for people without prior exposure to set theory. (b) This is a spur-of-the-moment idea, which might have weaknesses that I am not yet aware of. (c) The implied use of “taller” on two levels of recursion in this paragraph should be understandable, but would be unsuitable for a formal definition.

**An extension to more than two might seem plausible in as far as e.g. “All elements of the set A are taller than all the elements of set B and C.” is an acceptable formulation. However, this is still better seen, I suspect, as a comparison between just two sets, one of them being the union of B and C.

***With the above reservation for the superlative and empty sets.

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Written by michaeleriksson

September 16, 2019 at 11:36 am

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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A few thoughts on the word “gender”

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The abuse of “gender” for “sex” has long annoyed me, but I have taken the view that the use for “self-perceived sexual identity” (or similar) was acceptable or even beneficial—if nothing else, the latter is a separate concept and using a separate term for a separate concept is usually a good idea.* However, I unconsciously based this view on a faulty premise: that the grammatical gender was inherently a division into masculine/feminine/neuter or something along similar lines (e.g. just masculine/feminine or masculine/feminine/neuter/common; while an apparently genderless language can equally be viewed as having exactly one gender**). Using this premise, an application to similar*** divisions in other areas would not be absurd—if a good word was not already present.

*Indeed, one of my more common complaints about the PC crowd is the high-jacking of words to mean something different from what would be historically expected and/or expected among other speakers, e.g. (in the same area) that “man” and “woman” would refer to self-perception instead of biology. It would be much better to introduce new words for these new concepts. Even worse is deliberate re-/mis-definition for purposes like manipulation, as with e.g. “racism” and “rape” in some circles.

**At least, assuming that it follows a pattern somewhat similar to the typical Indo-European languages, as e.g. a version of English where “they” (“them”, etc.) was abused as a full replacement for “he”, “she”, “it” (“him”, etc.)—which is where, regrettably, English seems be heading. (The abuse as a generic third-person singular is already dominant.) A sufficiently different language might behave too differently (but is then unlikely to be relevant in this context).

***I stress that e.g. a grammatical “masculinity” does not automatically imply a physical or biological “masculinity”, which is obvious from languages with a more differentiated system than English—hence, “similar” above. This differentiation is another reason not to use “gender” for “sex”—grammatical gender and biological sex are not always coinciding. (In German, words for things can be grammatically masculine, feminine, or neutral, even when a logical neutral might be expected. Words applied to men can be feminine (e.g. “die Person”/“the person”); words applied to women can be masculine (e.g. “der Mensch”/“the human”); words for either can be neutral (e.g. “das Individuum”/“the individual”. Of course, the gender changes based on what word is used—not based on the entity referred to.)

This, however, is not strictly the case: it happens to be true in many languages, including English and German, but other divisions are possible. For instance, Proto-Indo-European might have had an animate/inanimate division. Even my native Swedish deviates through a somewhat arbitrary division into utrum and neutrum:* The members of these genders, for all practical and modern purposes, only differ in what indefinite (“en”/“ett”) and definite (“den”/“det”) article is used and whether an “-en” or an “-et” is to be suffixed in certain situations.** Indeed, they were more often referred to as “en-ord” och “ett-ord” (“ord” = “word(s)”) than “utrum” and “neutrum” in school.

*The discussion of actual Swedish grammar in school was superficial, incomplete, or even incorrect—a problem that native speakers of other languages might also have encountered. For this reason, I had simply never really reflected on the implications of the Swedish deviation until today. As an added complication, there are several different perspectives on Swedish genders (above, I discuss the most common) and the situation was historically different.

**E.g. “en sak”/“a thing” vs. “ett träd”/“a tree” and “den saken”/“that thing” vs “det trädet”/“that tree”.

Looking outside of grammar, there have been many uses of the word “gender” that also follow the line of a more general classification, e.g. that being English/German/whatnot or belonging to a certain family was discussed in terms of “gender”. Older use for sexual division (e.g. “the female gender”) is just a special case of this, and not* a precedent for a specialized use relating to sex or sexual identity. This makes it the more illogical to use “gender” when it is actually the sex (or even sexual identity) that is intended: a “Sex:” on a driver’s license calls for “M[ale]” or “F[emale]” with some clarity**, while “Gender:” might equally call for “E[nglish]”.

*Similarly, the fact that we could speak of someone being of the “female persuasion” does not make “persuasion” a good replacement for “sex”, because we can equally combine “persuasion” with other words implying group membership. Note that this applies to a wide range of other words too, e.g. “class”, “set”, “category”. (If it had just been “persuasion”, it might have been rejected as an abuse, or something to restrict to humorous formulations, for other reasons. The choice of “persuasion” as an example is based on the higher frequency of “female persuasion” over, say, “female category”.)

**Or at least it used to… However, even for those who cannot or does not want to be classified as male or female, the type of the classification is clear. On the other hand, confusion with sexual acts is highly unlikely outside of the famous joke about the girl who found her mother’s driver’s license (“Mommy! I know why Dad divorced you! You got an ‘F’ in sex!”).

I re-iterate my recommendation never, ever to use “gender” when “sex” is the traditional word. When it comes to sexual identity, the question is trickier because, again, a separate* word makes sense, and I am unable to offer an alternative that is both sufficiently understandable and has a sufficient current use to not cause as much confusion as “gender”*. However, this might be an area where “persuasion” (see earlier footnote) has some possibilities, actually gaining through its more regular meaning in the area of opinions and convictions, e.g. in that the-athlete-previously-known-as-Bruce would be considered of the male sex and the female persuasion.** Possibly, some shortening of “sexual persuasion”, e.g. “sexper” or “seper”, might work as a replacement for “gender” in such an attempt.***

*Another strong argument against the abuse of “gender” for “sex” is that many will assume a reference to sexual identity where biological sex was intended and vice versa.

**Or at least was so “pre-op”. Possibly, additional terminology is needed for the “post-op” case.

***Using an unabbreviated “sexual persuasion” would be too lengthy in many contexts, e.g. on driver’s licenses. It would also risk a dropping of “sexual” in sloppy use, with negative effects on other meanings of “persuasion”—just like “discrimination” and “intercourse” has seen a drift towards using the word solely for a special case implied by a longer phrase. To start with just “persuasion” would be even worse.

Addendum to the linked-to text:
Possibly ten years ago, I wrote “The possibility that existing literature eventually would be actively re-written to adhere to ‘gender-neutrality’ is not at all far-fetched:”. Indeed not: Consider e.g. my (much later) text on distortion of Blyton, where I lament that the actual events and characters of her books, not just specific words, have been altered for similar reasons.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 1, 2019 at 7:47 am

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

Posted in Uncategorized

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Abuse of “they” as a generic singular

with 3 comments

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

On language change, prescriptive and descriptive grammar, and related issues

with 8 comments

Language is ever changing. New words are invented and old ones are lost, altered, or gain new meanings. The rules of grammar bend over time—usually in the direction of simplification. These changes are sometimes good and sometimes bad—and more often than not, they replace an ultimately arbitrary set of rules with another equally arbitrary set. Only one thing is certain: Change is unavoidable.

In light of this, descriptive grammar is often considered the “right” way, while prescriptive grammar is frowned upon. (This, it self, being an example of a similar change in another area: Prescriptive grammar was once more popular.) I find this highly unfortunate, for several reasons:

Firstly, I consider the opposition between prescriptive and descriptive grammar to be a sign of flawed thinking: One can legitimately be given value without discarding the other. Certainly, linguistics should be concerned both with describing and investigating language as it is and with trying to detect “higher” rules, suggesting changes that increase the logic or reduce the ambiguity of a language, or even with creating new languages. An acceptance and respect for the inevitability of change does not mean that prescriptive grammar is a dead-end.

Secondly, not all changes are beneficial. On the contrary, many make the language less expressive and nuanced, increase ambiguity, and cause unnecessary misunderstandings between members of different generations or native English (French, Spanish, …) speakers from different countries. Most reduce the backward compatibility of language over the centuries, making texts from the past harder to understand: In the case of my native Sweden, the changes over the last hundred-or-so years have been so drastic that even Swedes can have trouble understanding an older text—and the same fate could befall English over the coming hundred years.

Notably, there are many changes that do not result from a deliberate enrichment or a creative use of language, but from sheer ignorance, thoughtlessness, or sloppiness. I have for instance seen absurd statements like “Petrified with fear, he ran away.” or “The runner literally massacred his opponents.”—both cases where a word (“petrified”; “literally”, unless the problems lies with “massacred”) is used to signify the opposite of what it actually means.

In many cases, the changes are unnecessary and could have been avoided with little extra effort in early tuition. Alas, nowadays many teachers have themselves never learned the rules of the language.

In yet other cases, the changes can have a component bordering on the malicious. A good example of this is the words “they” and “their” when used as a generic singular due to a linguistically ignorant political agenda (but not when used out of carelessness). Here we have mechanisms like politically correct teachers in the US telling their students that “he” is sexist, resulting in the English language being objectively worsened world-wide due to their leverage. This to such a degree that I regularly see “they” used when the sex is actually known and a generic singular does not make sense in the first place. (“I saw my cousin. They had a new job.”) In many other cases, a generic singular is called for, but undue confusion is caused by “they”. (“If someone wants to eat, they must work”: Who? The someones parents?) This is the worse because the thinking behind proposing “they” is faulty—an issue that I have discussed elsewhere.

Another driving force behind changes is the wish for the writer to have it easy: Conscientious writing puts the focus on the reader. It strives to ensure that the resulting text clear in logic and composition, that there are no confusing errors, that ambiguities have been detected and clarified, etc. Too many modern writers put themselves first: Instead of spending a few minutes extra on a text, they write it willy-nilly and put the burden of understanding on the readers, who each have to spend the same few minutes extra in understanding (or misunderstanding…) it. This attitude goes hand-in-hand with ignoring nuances between words, grammatical constructs that disambiguate who does what to whom, and the internal logic of the language.

A particular issue with a too relaxed attitude towards language change is that there is always some offset between actual use and “correct” use. People will still drive too fast even if the speed limit is raised—and it is the same with language: If one set of rules and word meanings is prescribed, people will deviate from these. Change the rules to adhere to actual use today and the result will be that the use drifts away by roughly the same amount as before; change the rules again and the use will drift away again; etc. By setting a prescriptive base-line that is only altered slowly over time this continual drift from one set of rules to another can be slowed in a corresponding manner; take a descriptive laissez-faire approach and we have a plenitude of new or aggravated disadvantages without any new advantages. In both cases, the distance remains; only the latter causes a continual and largely negative drift.

Note: This text is partially intended as a response to a previous discussione. I have preferred, however, to write it on a more abstract level without detailed reference to that discussion, taking the opportunity to write down some long-standing thoughts of mine.

Written by michaeleriksson

February 24, 2011 at 8:43 pm