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Maarten van Swaay / April 13, 2015


Two recent articles in the Wall Street Journal argue that there is ‘no proper English’ (Oliver Kamm 14-mar-15: There Is No Proper English), and that the plural pronoun ‘they’ is becoming popular as a (gender-neutral) singular pronoun (Ben Zimmer 11-apr-15: ‘They,’ the Singular Pronoun, Gets Popular). Both articles can claim some merit: attention to well-formed expression has been fading, and plural forms have made inroads under the pressure of political correctness that claims to avoid alleged gender discrimination. But both authors seem to overlook a fundamental requirement of language: it must support unambiguous communication. Language can do so only if it is defined and uniformly understood by all its users. Thus, many of the grammar rules derided by Mr. Kamm as pedantry are in reality rules that aim to preserve meaning, which makes them indispensable. If meaning can be attached at whim, it loses meaning. If ‘biweekly’ can mean both ‘twice each week’ and ‘every two weeks,’ the word will have become useless.

Mr. Zimmer suggests that the plural ‘they’ may also serve as a singular pronoun less grating than some forms currently in use: ‘(s)he’ and ‘he/she.’ He also notes that it would be convenient to have a pronoun for ‘gender-fluid’ persons. How many of those are there at any time? Would we really need a special word for them, or can we just wait until they are done with their reshaping? Surely a phrase such as “They is getting a sex change” would make all but the most avid prejudice prowlers cringe.

Mr. Zimmer is more than casual about the difference between attaching additional meaning to an existing word, and introducing a new word to refer to something for which there was little need in the past. Overloading an existing word with additional meaning reduces its information content, and thereby degrades the language, rather than enriching it.

From what Mr. Zimmer writes, one would expect him to be at peace with a sentence such as “Each person must march to their own drum.” Presumably he would interpret the sentence to mean that all should be free to march at their own speed, or maybe — figuratively — to follow their own (moral) compass. But who are those unnamed ‘they,’ who not only own the drum, but also (try to) force everyone to march to its beat?

Only in the last few decades has the generic ‘he’ started to give offense. My guess is that the offended are a rather small, but very vocal, subset of the English-speaking population. Before that, forms and phrases such as ‘mankind,’ ‘ascent of man’ and ‘man does not live by bread alone’ were long understood to be generic, and were accepted as such, without any implied prejudice.

The fashion of seeking opportunity to take umbrage has only recently taken root; it is by no means limited to alleged gender discrimination. But the contortions flowing from it are both futile and laughable: as soon as a new phrase is produced by the umbrage-seekers, that new phrase acquires the flavor of its predecessor, and becomes just as ‘inappropriate’ as the earlier one. We wind up with speech filled with ‘dog whistles.’

Granted: humans are unmatched in their skill at understanding mis-shaped speech. But — especially when understanding is important — we should not be forced to guess at the meaning of what is said or written, merely to satisfy some who seek to proclaim insult.

Copy editors may be tempted to ‘follow custom.’ But if custom degrades meaning, then following custom will degrade language. To avoid that, some guardianship is required, not to condone what is, but to preserve what should be. ‘What should be’ does not rest on whim, but on the intrinsic requirement that language, and only language, can convey meaning. In one sense, the linguistic ‘what should be’ is comparable to the moral ‘ought’: it stands beyond, and above, whim and mere custom.

Professor Maarten van Swaay retired from Kansas State University in 1995. He can be reached at [email protected]

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