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  1. #1
    riverkid is offline Banned
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    Singular/plural- language decides

    This is a continuation of a discussion on the gender neutral 'they/their/them' from;

    http://www.usingenglish.com/forum/as...ization-2.html

    ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

    MikeNewYork wrote:

    So are all the uses of Shakespeare acceptable today? How about Chaucer?

    Mike,

    You've completely ignored the FACT that this was simply another prescription written by some unthinking people. A prescription, I must remind you, that was never follwed by people using language naturally. It was another of those silly rules that "are so foreign to the natural workings of language" that they only persist by students being forced to memorize them.


    This is an example of a descriptivist saying that the language can never change. Sort of a role reversal.

    No, this is an example of some folks trying to enforce a prescription based on what the CGEL calls "spurious external justifications".

    +++++++++++++++++++++

    From then on, "singular their" was used without much inhibition (see the examples from the OED) and was not generally considered "bad grammar". It is true that starting in the 16th century, when English grammar began to be a subject of study, some rules of Latin grammar were applied to English; and that the Latin-based rules of grammatical agreement might have been seen as forbidding the English singular "their" construction -- if they were interpreted in a certain linguistically na´ve way.

    (This may explain why certain classical-language-influenced authors, such as the translators of the King James Bible, tended to use singular "their" somewhat infrequently -- but see Phillipians 2:3.) However, the earliest specific condemnation of singular "their" that Bodine was able to find (in her 1975 article) dated only from 1795 (more than two centuries after English grammar started being taught, and at least several decades after the beginning of the 18th century "grammar boom").

    So it seems that it was only in the late 18th century or early 19th century, when prescriptive grammarians started attacking singular "their" because this didn't seem to them to accord with the "logic" of the Latin language, that it began to be more or less widely taught that the construction was bad grammar. The prohibition against singular "their" then joined the other arbitrary prescriptions created from na´ve analogies between English and Latin -- such as the prohibition against ending a sentence with a preposition.

    Singular "their" in Jane Austen and elsewhere: Anti-pedantry page

    ++++++++++++++++++++++
    Last edited by riverkid; 26-Oct-2006 at 02:12.

  2. #2
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    Re: Singular/plural- language decides

    Nobody's denying that the "singular they" went out of fashion due to a prescriptivist rule. Mike's point is that the fact that it was acceptable in Shakespeare's time does not, in itself, mean that it is acceptable today.

    The fact is that, rightly or wrongly, most people today find the "singular they" unnatural and odd. That's not because they're deliberately following some prescriptive rule, it's because that's the way they've always used the language. You suggest that students have to have the "singular they" actively drummed out of their heads, but that's simply not the case; few people write or speak that way in the early 21st century, and that's a fact.

  3. #3
    riverkid is offline Banned
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    Re: Singular/plural- language decides

    rewboss: Nobody's denying that the "singular they" went out of fashion due to a prescriptivist rule. Mike's point is that the fact that it was acceptable in Shakespeare's time does not, in itself, mean that it is acceptable today.

    Mike's point, Rewboss, is a complete red herring. Note how he, and now you, zoomed in on Shakespeare and completely missed "Robert Louis Stevenson, Walt Whitman, George Bernard Shaw, Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling, H. G. Wells, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, W. H. Auden, Lord Dunsany, George Orwell, and C. S. Lewis".

    The fact is that, rightly or wrongly, most people today find the "singular they" unnatural and odd.

    And you know this, how? You two are great at opinions but I must point out that you fall awfully short when it comes to sources or proof.


    That's not because they're deliberately following some prescriptive rule, it's because that's the way they've always used the language. You suggest that students have to have the "singular they" actively drummed out of their heads, but that's simply not the case; few people write or speak that way in the early 21st century, and that's a fact.

    I don't follow your line of thinking here, Rewboss. Could you perhaps explain just what your point here is?
    Last edited by riverkid; 26-Oct-2006 at 19:13.

  4. #4
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    Re: Singular/plural- language decides

    Quote Originally Posted by riverkid View Post
    rewboss: Nobody's denying that the "singular they" went out of fashion due to a prescriptivist rule. Mike's point is that the fact that it was acceptable in Shakespeare's time does not, in itself, mean that it is acceptable today.

    Mike's point, Rewboss, is a complete red herring. Note how he, and now you, zoomed in on Shakespeare and completely missed "Robert Louis Stevenson, Walt Whitman, George Bernard Shaw, Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling, H. G. Wells, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, W. H. Auden, Lord Dunsany, George Orwell, and C. S. Lewis".

    The fact is that, rightly or wrongly, most people today find the "singular they" unnatural and odd.

    And you know this, how? You two are great at opinions but I must point out that you fall awfully short when it comes to sources or proof.


    That's not because they're deliberately following some prescriptive rule, it's because that's the way they've always used the language. You suggest that students have to have the "singular they" actively drummed out of their heads, but that's simply not the case; few people write or speak that way in the early 21st century, and that's a fact.

    I don't follow your line of thinking here, Rewboss. Could you perhaps explain just what your point here is?
    A finite list of authors who have used a particular construction has some merit. Nevertheless, you are ignoring an equally long list of authors who carefully avoid the practice. That reduces the subject under discussion to a matter of opinion/taste/preference. I have no problem with that. On a forum where students come asking for the "correct" way to do things, I think it is important to give those students answers that will be most acceptable to their teachers and others. Nobody will be penalized for avoiding the singular "they" (provided they do so in an acceptable way), but some students will be penalized for using that form. I often mention that many consider the practice to be acceptable, but many others do not. Then, I often introduce strategies to avoid the use. That seems to me to be honest and fair. Let the students hear all the opinions; then let them decide.

  5. #5
    riverkid is offline Banned
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    Re: Singular/plural- language decides

    MikeNewYork: A finite list of authors who have used a particular construction has some merit. Nevertheless, you are ignoring an equally long list of authors who carefully avoid the practice. That reduces the subject under discussion to a matter of opinion/taste/preference. I have no problem with that.



    I, and language science, have a great problem with that, Mike. In this case, as in most dealing with prescriptions, opinion, taste and preference boil down to making bad decisions, at least part of the time.

    I'm not saying that generic 'he' should be thrown out. It's part of the language. But the bull-headed insistence upon using this in all cases simply doesn't make any sense syntactically or semantically.

    You have addressed none of the issues that have been raised and yet you think that your opinions and preferences, based on what, should hold some measure of guidance for students.



    On a forum where students come asking for the "correct" way to do things, I think it is important to give those students answers that will be most acceptable to their teachers and others. Nobody will be penalized for avoiding the singular "they" (provided they do so in an acceptable way), but some students will be penalized for using that form. I often mention that many consider the practice to be acceptable, but many others do not.

    That's grand. You should also be careful to instruct those students that they might want to avoid teachers who defend a position with only opinion/taste/preference. I'm really sorry, Mike, but honestly, I just can't fathom how that can be ever be described as the "correct" way.

    Then, I often introduce strategies to avoid the use. That seems to me to be honest and fair. Let the students hear all the opinions; then let them decide.

    Again, that's great. You've given your opinions. Mine is that if a teacher is recommending write-arounds, they have not delved far enough into how language really works.

    Let me end with this quote and it isn't a pointed reference. It's a plea for the recognition that there is more than one way to skin the language. There's a place for formal writing and there's a place for the most casual of language.

    And I bear no hard feelings whatsoever!


    +++++++++++++++++

    S Pinker

    So these are the "language mavens." Their foibles can be blamed on two blind spots. One is a gross underestimation of the linguistic wherewithal of the common person. I am not saying that everything that comes out of a person's mouth or pen is perfectly rule-governed (remember Dan Quayle). But the language mavens would have a much better chance of not embarrassing themselves if they saved the verdict of linguistic incompetence as a last resort, rather than jumping to it as a first conclusion. The other blind spot is their complete ignorance of the modern science of language -- and I don't mean just the often-forbidding technicalities of Chomskyan theory, but basic knowledge of what kinds of constructions and idioms are found in English, and how people use them and pronounce them.

    So what should be done about usage? Unlike some academics, I am not saying that instruction in grammar and composition are tools to perpetuate an oppressive white patriarchal status quo and that The People should be liberated to write however they please. Some aspects of how people express themselves in some settings [are] worth trying to change. What I am calling for a more thoughtful discussion of language and how people use it, replacing [bubbe-maises] (old wives' tales) with the best scientific knowledge available. It is especially important that we not underestimate the sophistication of the actual cause of any instance of language use: the human mind.
    Last edited by riverkid; 27-Oct-2006 at 02:58.

  6. #6
    riverkid is offline Banned
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    Re: Singular/plural- language decides

    MikeNewYork: Nevertheless, you are ignoring an equally long list of authors who carefully avoid the practice.

    One last point and I'll shut up.

    People who carefully avoid anything in language can hardly be said to be operating in a natural fashion. Language isn't a series of memeorized rules. Real language is the absence of memorization.

    Those conundrums of language usage that stump all of us here daily are the very things that flow from our mouths with no hesitation at all. We don't ponder the structures, we ponder the thoughts and the structures are chosen with an ease that astonishes those who are really willing to look.

  7. #7
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    Re: Singular/plural- language decides

    Quote Originally Posted by riverkid View Post
    MikeNewYork: Nevertheless, you are ignoring an equally long list of authors who carefully avoid the practice.

    One last point and I'll shut up.

    People who carefully avoid anything in language can hardly be said to be operating in a natural fashion. Language isn't a series of memeorized rules. Real language is the absence of memorization.

    Those conundrums of language usage that stump all of us here daily are the very things that flow from our mouths with no hesitation at all. We don't ponder the structures, we ponder the thoughts and the structures are chosen with an ease that astonishes those who are really willing to look.
    As I said, you have your opinions and others have other opinions. Is there something about that that you don't get?
    Last edited by MikeNewYork; 30-Oct-2006 at 00:05.

  8. #8
    riverkid is offline Banned
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    Re: Singular/plural- language decides

    Quote Originally Posted by MikeNewYork View Post
    As I said, you have your opiions and others have other opinions. Is there something about that that you don't get?
    Hello Mike.

    "Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own set of facts"
    Daniel P. Moynihan
    Last edited by riverkid; 27-Oct-2006 at 17:06.

  9. #9
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    Re: Singular/plural- language decides

    Quote Originally Posted by riverkid View Post
    Hello Mike.

    "Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own set of facts"
    Daniel P. Moynihan
    Does that include opinions about those things that you call "facts"?

  10. #10
    riverkid is offline Banned
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    Re: Singular/plural- language decides

    Quote Originally Posted by MikeNewYork View Post
    Does that include opinions about those things that you call "facts"?
    Come on Mike. You've admitted that yours is merely opinion/preference and personal taste? And, by your own admission, you're fine with that.

    CGEL
    "Some prescriptivist works present rules that have no basis in the way the language is actually used by the majority of its native speakers, and are not even claimed to have any such basis. ...

    Prescriptive works instantiating this kind of aesthetic authoritarianism provide no answer to such obvious questions [how language works] They simply assert that grammar dictates things, without supporting their claim from evidence. ...

    If what is involved were a matter of taste, all evidence would be beside the point. But under the descriptivist viewpoint, grammar is not a matter of taste, nor of aesthetics.
    Last edited by riverkid; 28-Oct-2006 at 21:44.

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