Thursday, April 14, 2022

Lingthusiasm Quote (and pronoun discussion)

"If you assert that you can fully communicate ideas in emoji, communicate that idea to me using only emoji." Gretchen McCulloh, "Lingthusiam" podcast.

I think I'm going to be quoting this woman a lot.

I had a little more objection to the pronoun discussion about the recent move to allow individuals to elect to have they as a singular pronoun for themselves. Because I have long been irritated that we (supposedly) cannot use they to refer to an individual in such constructions as "All the students can come back and pick up their coats after school," I like the idea of lifting that ridiculous convention. English has used "they, their" in such a sense since the time of Chaucer.  It is the forbidding of that that is recent. So if we adopt "they" in the gender-neutral sense for an individual, then I get my wish about the everyday usage of "they" that I have had to work around for years in certain situations if I know someone is going to be sticky about it. 18th and 19th C grammarians - a category that should always arouse your suspicions whenever you read it - thought things weren't smooth enough, consistent enough, and put down various rules, as usual.  And as usual, most of those faded away but a few stuck. Such systemetisers often have an OCD, Asperger-y quality about them, trying to make sure they can construct rules that have no leaks and take in every choice. You may reflect on the tax code or highschoolers of my era defining virginity for how well that works.

However, keep that in mind.  I'll come back to it.

One James Anderson went completely amok in 1792 , offering up different sets of gendered pronouns for 13 different genders, including male animals alone, female animals alone, inanimate objects alone, animals known to be castrated and meant to be distinguished as such, male and females known to be such but not meant to be separated - what he called the "matrimonial gender"... you can tell he was not worrying about such things as what trans people preferred, but about making obsessive distinctions in grammar.

Because "they" as an individual pronoun will always sound like a plural to me, I do find it mildly irritating. I am also irritated by mandated language change in general.  I would rather have it be that if something catches on on its own, that's fine. I imagine the enforced "Ms" just sounds normal to most younger people now, but it still sounds silly and artificial to me.  Doesn't matter. My problem. I do dislike bad reasoning, however, and one of the arguments from the 2016 podcast grated on me. The thought was that those who were requesting the pronoun had gone through a great deal of thought and conflict about it, while for us as individuals it's a minor change.  The imbalance of those two were an argument. Having listened to a mother of a fifteen-year old who wanted to be seen as one type of nonbinary "sometimes" and another type "sometimes," all this springing up in the last four months and according to mom and sister, tracking her menstrual cycle exactly, I contest that strongly.  Admittedly, that is the worst example I encountered, but there are others. 

I later relented and thought that what the linguist said probably did look pretty true in 2016, and only lately have we had this run on people impulsively wanting everyone else to adjust to them - and then sometimes changing what they want a few months later. Also, we are discovering the same sort of obsessiveness we saw in the 19th C grammarians among the multiplying categories of nonbinaries.I dislike them both for the same reason.  I don't see the value-added.


Donna B. said...

"Ms" never sounded artificial to me, probably because the sound was just like "Miz" and I'd been called "Miz Donna" or "Miz B" for years by my children's friends. It also solved the spelling/etiquette problem of how to address widows and middle-aged never married females.

As for "they" I just can't do it. It's not only artificial, but also self-centered, confusing, and ultimately boastful. This attitude may cause me some grief.

Deevs said...

I don't understand, Donna. How can using they/them pronouns be self-centered when it clearly indicates these individuals contain multitudes?

PenGun said...

Its very old:

How many sexes are there? Male, female, homo and skim. ;)

Donna B. said...

@Deevs - because they fear contradicting themselves.

james said...

"It is, we of heaven agree, a thing indifferent;
but any indifference may become sometimes a test.
Will God dispute over words? no; but man
must, if words mean anything, stand by words,
since stand he must; and on earth protest to death
against what at the same time is a jest in heaven."

Charles Williams--The House of the Octopus

Kevin said...

Mr PenGun, your humour has reached me. Boyhood Canadian skim milk powder had to be the worst and weakest milk there is. 'SnowStar' icecream - ice shards with skim milk powder. Too awful to describe.
Compare that to milk straight from the udder of GrandDads milking cow, or NZ icecream - bad is good when it provides sufficient contrast.

Unknown said...

> we (supposedly) cannot use they to refer to an individual in such constructions as "All the students can come back and pick up their coats after school”<

It’s entirely correct to use “their” in reference to “all” here. The plurality of words like “all,” “some,” and “any” is controlled by the content of what they modify, by whether it’s a word that is quantified by number or by amount. Students are quantified by number and soup is quantified by amount, so one says “ all of the students are” but “all of the soup is.” Correspondingly, since “all [of - it’s an elliptical prepositional phrase] the students” is plural in nature it properly takes “their” as the referential pronoun.

I’m guessing it’s the injunction against using “they” as a pronoun referent for singular indefinite pronouns like “somebody,” “anybody,” and “everybody” that’s really what gets your goat. Sometimes it does me too, and I’m a stickler.

Janet Roesler

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Oooch - doesn't really work, Janet. That was added in as a later rationalisation for a newly-imposed and unnecessary rule. Systemetisers are good at that. The students may be being referred to as a group, but coat ownership is not shared. Consider:
"Someone left their coat." Or,
"Any girl can come back and pick up her coat."
But "Any student can come back and pick up their coat." I have seen that corrected with the suggestion that "his or her" be used. I find that ungainly, and the old usage of "their" should be preferable, whatever we have later imposed. That is what I am saying is an artificial usage. We are sneaking in the idea that it's "really" a plural because we are talking about a group somewhere. But it's one student at a time. We aren't allowing Francine to pick up all the girls' coats. (Well, maybe we'll let Francine, but not Renee, and we don't want to set a precedent.)

It is used only when it is one taken out of a collective, certainly - there's no point in "they" otherwise, until the recent attempt to commandeer that nearby "they" as a convenient new singular.

There's a Shakespeare example they gave in the podcast. I'll go back and find it. Ooh, there's more, I forgot. They also - I'm sorry, should it be "She also," because only one person is speaking, even though I forget which one of the two women it was? We can try to stretch it by saying it's a shared podcast so they both own the content in some way, but that seems post hoc. We could insist that I use the longer construction "One of them," but why? "They also" should be an entirely acceptable English construction there. They also state that Jane Austen uses it, though they don't give the reference.

And whoso findeth him out of switch blame they will come up... Chaucer "The Pardoner's Tale." Nonspecific singular person (because findeth)
Each of them should make themself ready Wm. Caxton. We would try to make people use "themselves" now, for no good reason except that it's a few hundred years old and was based on later imposing Latin and Greek agreement rules on English.
There's not a man I meet but doth salute me I were their well-acquainted friend "The Comedy of Errors"

We can impose a rule for a few hundred years so that it sounds right to people who grew up with it, but when the old way keeps leaking back in, century after century, that tells us something.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Or did I misunderstand and you were actually agreeing with me more than I thought? That happens to me.

Grim said...

…"Any student can come back and pick up their coat." I have seen that corrected with the suggestion that "his or her" be used.

Consider “Any student can come back and pick up his coat,” on the principle that — allegedly an ancient principle of English — “The male embraces the female.”

Thirty years ago the conservative would have defended that, and regarded “his or her” as a dangerous feminist innovation. Today, it is conservatives who are at pain to insist on “his or her” as a way of asserting both the binary quality of sex, and also that the binary would capture all possible individuals.

Janet Roesler said...

AVI - I was agreeing with you more than disagreeing. I too find the "his or her" construction ungainly - nay, an atrocity - and find that the neatest solution without resorting to a disagreement in number is to simply make the antecedent plural to agree with "they." Instead of "any student can come back and pick up his (or his/her or their) coat," "students can come back and pick up their coats." This can comfortably be done in almost every instance. Very little, if anything at all, suffers from the substitution.

In conversation and informal writing, I don't care who says "anybody/they." (I hold to a much stricter standard for formal writing, though, and sometimes my prissiness bleeds through into my informal writing despite my best efforts to squelch it.) What I do object to is being expected or demanded to say "everybody/they" instead of "everybody/he" because somebody with an ax to grind is trying to erase traditional sex/gender vocabulary, not simplify the grammar.

As to isolated citations from historical sources that on rare occasion departed from the norm, well, who's to say that wasn't just a careless lapse? Why should a careless lapse become grounds for good writing? (I know, I know - language and grammar always change, and it's not so much that the younger generations are sloppy and ill-taught (although they are) but that frowned-upon usages become merely discouraged usages, which become less-preferred usages, which become colloquial usages, which become informal usages, which become simply usages. I read that somewhere.)

Janet Roesler

I don't know why this labels me "Anonymous." I've had a heck of a time getting these to post.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Well done, and I am sorry that my first response misread you.

Texan99 said...

I'd write "Any student can pick up his coat," but I'm no longer sure whether I'd say it that say out loud. All I can certify is that I wouldn't say "zhir."

"Citizen of the Galaxy," a terrific Heinlein young-adult adventure yarn, has a sequence on a trading vessel inhabited by a culture with eccentric family and marital traditions. They needed a language that acknowledged many dozens of intricate family relations, so they ended up with specific terms for things like "my brother by a female aunt adopted into the family by marriage"--not because proper grammar requires that much slicing and dicing, but because the distinction was too important to be left to clumsy ad hoc circumlocutions. For centuries, English got by with the rule that the generic masculine includes the feminine unless the context required more specificity, as Karin Blixen sniffing to her husband that "Someone has left her underthings in the car." It has the disadvantage that generic people are assumed to be male, and only in a few instances is it important to remember that half are female.

When we were a more agricultural society, people were much more likely to exercise care about the sex of an animal. "Horse" meant male, and you wouldn't say it of an individual female, you'd say "mare." But we still used "horses" for the whole group. Today no one bats at eye at calling a mare a horse, outside, perhaps, very horse-specialized communities. We wouldn't make a mistake about calling something a stallion, though.

If we could get past the politics, it would be handy to have some nice gender-neutral words for humans whose sex is either unknowable or simply unimportant in a specific context, as in the case of students and their caps. It would be nice if we could remember that their sexes could be relevant in some circumstances and not at all in others.