Home > Education > A Person Should Let Their Language Live

A Person Should Let Their Language Live

October 12th, 2008

An etymologist criticizes the use of the third person plural as an indefinite singular pronoun.

I’ve always been of the opinion that while rules are a necessary part of language, it is speakers who drive the rules, and not the other way around. Many who speak dialects which are associated with low education may be remonstrated by their teachers at school for speaking “ungrammatically” or using “wrong” language. The thing is, if the language a person speaks follows a set of rules, then there’s nothing wrong with it. “Ain’t,” for example, is perfectly appropriate so long as it is used consistently according to linguistic rules recognized by the group of people who use it. The double-negative is not intrinsically incorrect–it used to be acceptable in mainstream English, in fact–it just happens to be out of vogue.

Language changes. New structures are introduced and played with, sometimes at the fringe of society, and sometimes driven from its core. But it is people who decide what makes sense to them, what feels right, what they prefer to use. Complaining that the new structure does not follow what we have decided previously is not good enough.

Language is not grammatically or otherwise “correct” because it resembles language spoken in the past, it is “correct” because the majority of speakers agree on a rule and apply it consistently. That’s why I have less objection to the “new-cue-ler” pronunciation for “nuclear”–so many people use that pronunciation that it is now becoming part of the living language.

I use “they” or “their” regularly to refer to the indefinite singular chiefly because it makes sense to me, and sounds better. The context makes clear that I am speaking of a single person, so there is no danger of being misunderstood, and it neatly corrects an imbalance in the language which, for all of the whining about “political correctness,” nevertheless is much more accurate and far less grating gender-wise than the traditional form.

But the truth is, you don’t need these reasons to change the language; changes can be made on whim, and need neither rationale nor even internal consistency–as seems evident from much of the language now deemed “correct.”

You can rail against the use of new structures because you don’t like them, but you cannot say that they do not belong in a language because they don’t follow past example, or because you don’t like the logic or lack of same that the new structures represent. If people use them, that’s all that’s necessary.

Categories: Education Tags: by
  1. Tim Kane
    October 12th, 2008 at 14:46 | #1

    I have a big preference for using ‘they’ instead of ‘he/she’. I don’t like making a gender assumption – so then one has to write ‘he/she’ in place of ‘he’ or ‘she’. I’d rather just write they.

    This is politically correct, of course, but being politically correct here also points to a defect in the language. You shouldn’t have to make a gender assumption where it is not called for.

    This kind of thing is nothing new for the English language.

    Somewhere along the lines we dropped the second person singular, that Shakespeare used: thou.

    English appears to have a long trend of taking the formal and inpersonal second person plural and using it as the second person informal and singular.

    First there was “thou” and “you”.

    But then somehow “you” got moved into usage as the second person singular/informal. As a result, some Americans, predominantly from the south, createed the term “you all” for the second person plural – though because it’s a new usage it is informal.

    Recently, when I go south to visit my Texas cousins I hear them using “you all” for the second person singular, though, often in a contracted form “y’all” or “yu’all”.

    And now, they have a new term for second person plural “all y’all” or “all you all” or “all yu’all”

    So to restate,
    First there was “Thou” and “you”

    Second there was “you” and “you”

    Third there was “you” and “you all/yu’all/y’all”

    Third there was “you/you all/yu’all/y’all” and “you all/yu’all/y’all”

    Finally there is now “you all/yu’all/y’all” and “all yu’all”

    I find the “all you all” to be mind bending.

    I have no real idea why this trend exist, but I suspect thou got pushed out because of cultural aspect of English wanting to be polite and formal and detached. That started the trend, but I don’t think that’s what is driving it now, but it is a trend. Someday there will no doubt be “all-all-you-all-all” :p

  2. Paul
    October 13th, 2008 at 00:01 | #2

    An etymologist criticizes the use of the third person plural as an indefinite singular pronoun.

    It’s funny… we were just talking at work the other day about schooling (a co-worker homeschools his daughter) and I mentioned how despite being a bit of a writer, I have absolutely zero clue what stuff like “third person plural” or “indefinite singular pronoun” means.

    I never learned it in school, and frankly, don’t really care to learn it now. I’ve always done just fine on tests like the Test of Standard Written English (do they even give that anymore?), so I figure I’m doing okay despite my lack of education. 😉

    As far as using “they” instead of “he” or “she”, I’m with you. I say just use “they” and let the reader figure it out. They’re not stupid; they’ll manage. (See? You just did!)

  3. October 13th, 2008 at 13:39 | #3

    “Ain’t,” for example, is perfectly appropriate so long as it is used consistently according to linguistic rules recognized by the group of people who use it.

    What rules would those be? Can you expand that apparent contraction into its constituent terms as a way of explaining the underlying grammatical rules?

    Don’t get me wrong, I am not unsympathetic to your larger point, but I think you run too far in the direction of anything goes when you assert that whatever is understandable to a particular group should be acceptable to all.

  4. Leszek Cyfer
    October 13th, 2008 at 21:00 | #4

    Political correctness is not so strong in Poland, but there is kind of snobistic looking “from above” at those who use more popular versions of words or sentences. Ah and you english speakers have it so easy with your conjugations :)

    Anyway there is a “Norma” which makes old forms obsolete by consensus of using new forms, and I absolutely hate when someone corrects what I’m saying when it is completely clear what I was saying, and huge amount of people speak in the same way as the one that is being corrected.

    That’s where I completely agree with you – when there is no way the other person could misunderstand what you just said, then you’ve spoken correctly.

    Anyway I’m not a native english speaker and I’m sure I made lot of mistakes in this post
    Sorry about that 😉


  5. Luis
    October 14th, 2008 at 00:35 | #5

    Paul: Yeah, metalanguage can be a pain. The basics I have fine, but when you get to stuff like “subjunctive” modes my eyes start gettin’ all glassy and stuff. Still, third person is “he-she-it-they,” indefinite is when it’s not specific who you’re talking about.

    Sako: Rules are what you define them to be. If a large group of people suddenly decided to say “blosreem” instead of “am” and “foofraw” instead of “are,” it would be OK as long as the use was consistent and followed rules–“blosreem” being the first person copula and “foofraw” being the second person, etc. In more real-world terms, the contraction “ain’t” replacing all negative forms of “be” (that’s the “rule”) would not be a problem, so long as it is consistent. It is only an error if one intends to use the mainstream “am not,” “are not,” or “is not,” and instead uses “ain’t”; but if the dialect demands “ain’t” in all three cases and the speakers uses that, then they are following the use of their dialect.

    Imagine a student in a class saying “I live in Main Street” (instead of “on”) and remarking on baseball by saying “New York are playing San Francisco tonight” (instead of “is”). Is that “wrong”? Well, if you’re an American it is–but not if you’re British. So why is the use of “ain’t” “wrong” if it is used just as consistently as differing rules of British English?

    If you mean to say that one intending to speak mainstream English uses “ain’t” as a transference error, then you are correct; but if that person, speaking their specific dialect, intended to use “ain’t” as their specific dialect demands, then they are not in error.

    I suppose it depends upon whether or not you demand that another person speaks the way you are used to instead of the way they are used to.

  6. Leszek Cyfer
    October 14th, 2008 at 22:59 | #6

    I thought some more an there are some other interesting aspects to it.

    First thing, there is the question of personal filters that everyone of us wears. We tend to label things, put them into some drawers, and fast at that – sometimes even in a middle of a sentence you decide that it belongs to a drawer labeled “rubbish”, just because you’ve heard a mistake/grammar-error – and this little tidbit has caused that your filter will screen out all the information conveyed by the message.

    Of course it can happen even before someone speaks – just because of how someone looks – you filter out everything he says.

    If you are being filtered out, whatever idea you’re trying to spread will not get through, so if you really want to get through and get listened you have to think in terms of “Is it correct gramatically?”

    Of course in spoken language it is very difficult to achieve, but in writing you should strive to reread your text before sending it to the world.

    That is, if you want to get through…

    That is if you want to get through to most people – if you want to appeal to some precisely distinguishable group, use it’s language, be it gang slang even – sometimes people will listen only if every second word begins on “F”…

    It is a matter of being effective.

Comments are closed.