Confessions of a Grammar Nazi

Well, usage nazi, really, more than a grammar nazi narrowly speaking.

And now that literal, open Nazis are a thing again, I’d really prefer another term for the “nazi” part. (I’ve seen some suggest “grammar cop,” but for an anarchist that’s only marginally better. I welcome suggestions.)

Anyway, folks like me are often regarded as having a nitpicky enthusiasm for arbitrary and pointless rules, and failing to recognise, as any good libertarian should, that language evolves spontaneously over time, and thus that rules of usage can only be descriptive, not prescriptive.

To this charge, my reply, first of all, is that whatever may motivate others of my tribe, I have no mere attachment to rules as such. I’m happy to revise or discard rules of grammar, usage, etc., whenever some genuine benefit is obtained thereby.


What motivates me, rather, is a love for useful and beautiful tools that are well-designed to perform specific functions, and a dislike of seeing them used in a way that ruins them. If we misuse a phillips screwdriver (and note that I have no objection to dropping the initial majuscule on “Phillips”) to punch holes in a wall or to chip bits off of rocks, we run the risk of blunting it in such a way that we lose the ability to use it as a phillips screwdriver. Likewise, when we use “decimate” (a term that bears its etymology and associated history on its face) to mean “destroy most of” (something we have many perfectly good synonyms for already – including “devastate,” which is probably what people were aiming for when they started misusing “decimate”), we undermine our ability to use it to mean “destroy ten percent of” – a very specific meaning for which no other term exists (and we also help to render the historical use of the term unintelligible).

Or again, when we use “may have” and “might have” interchangeably, we lose our ability to make certain useful distinctions, such as the fact that while it is arguably true that Hitler might have won World War II (since that means it was possible back then that he should do so), it is definitely false that Hitler may have won World War II (since that means it’s possible now that Hitler really did win it). And we thereby also undermine future readers’ ability to understand writing that respects such distinctions.

While I’m obviously a fan of spontaneous order, not every spontaneous change is an example of spontaneous order, and for that matter not all spontaneous orders are good. I also don’t think the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive holds up very well when considering a practice, such as language, that operates by implicit rules that anyone can contribute to changing, but where one of the most well-established rules involves, at least in many contexts, (defeasible) deference to experts.

By “deference to experts” I have in mind the sort of thing that Hilary Putnam talks about in his 1973 essay “Meaning and Reference”:

Suppose you are like me and cannot tell an elm from a beech tree. We still say that the extension of ‘elm’ in my idiolect is the same as the extension of ‘elm’ in anyone else’s, viz., the set of all elm trees, and that the set of all beech trees is the extension of ‘beech’ in both of our idiolects. Thus ‘elm’ in my idiolect has a different extension from ‘beech’ in your idiolect (as it should).


Is it really credible that this difference in extension is brought about by some difference in our concepts? My concept of an elm tree is exactly the same as my concept of a beech tree (I blush to confess) ….

[T]here is division of linguistic labor. We could hardly use such words as ‘elm’ and ‘aluminum’ if no one possessed a way of recognizing elm trees and aluminum metal; but not everyone to whom the distinction is important has to be able to make the distinction. … [E]very one to whom gold is important for any reason has to acquire the word ‘gold’; but he does not have to acquire the method of recognizing whether something is or is not gold. He can rely on a special subclass of speakers. … Thus the way of recognizing possessed by these “expert” speakers is also, through them, possessed by the collective linguistic body, even though it is not possessed by each individual member of the body, and in this way the most recherché fact about [gold] may become part of the social meaning of the word although unknown to almost all speakers who acquire the word. …

Every linguistic community exemplifies the sort of division of linguistic labor just described; that is, it possesses at least some terms whose associated ‘criteria’ are known only to a subset of the speakers who acquire the terms, and whose use by the other speakers depends upon a structured cooperation between them and the speakers in the relevant subsets. … When a term is subject to the division of linguistic labor, the “average” speaker who acquires it does not acquire anything that fixes its extension. In particular, his individual psychological state certainly does not fix its extension; it is only the sociolinguistic state of the collective linguistic body to which the speaker belongs that fixes the extension ….

In other words, even if most people use an expression one way, they may be committed to a rule according to which some other way, perhaps unknown to them, is more correct if certain identifiable experts say so. If this deference is actually to be considered part of usage, as seems reasonable, then the distinction between prescriptive and descriptive becomes rather blurry.

So what determines who the experts are – given that those ordinary speakers who intend to defer to experts may not have in mind any particular criterion for identifying an expert? Rather than appealing to merely academic credentials, which are likely to cast a net simultaneously too broad and too narrow, perhaps we might draw a page from Mill on higher and lower pleasures (with a dash of Burke and Hume on the standard of taste), and say that the experts, concerning any particular choice between two uses, are those who are a) familiar with both uses, and b) sensitive to the grounds for keeping (or not keeping) any traditional distinction between them, whether they endorse that distinction or not. (Hence someone might count as an expert with regard to one expression but not another.) So if, say, most people who know that “decimate” originally meant “destroy one-tenth of,” and have a sensitive understanding of the case for and against retaining that meaning, are willing to acquiesce in the new use, that counts as an expert judgment on behalf of the new use in a way that like acquiescence by the ignorant does not.


I am not saying, however, that the judgment of experts should always be followed, or that every change in usage should be resisted; some changes should be embraced, even if they go against the rules. The rules exist for us, not we for the rules. Since there is (thankfully) no central linguistic authority we can petition, the only way we can “vote” for changes in the rules of usage is to violate them and encourage others to do so. The move to reject the gender-neutral use of “he” is a good example; using “he” for both gender-neutral and gender-specific purposes is what traditional usage dictates; but traditional usage thereby creates problematic ambiguity, and in particular tends to reinforce the norm of viewing the masculine as the “default.” This is like a tool that keeps malfunctioning in dangerous ways; it makes sense to toss it out.

However, when a tool is useful rather than harmful, the fact that others, expert or otherwise, are voting to discard it does not imply that we should follow suit.

Of course, even if a change should initially have been resisted, if it is not resisted it may in time prevail and thus become “correct,” and if the problems it causes are smaller than the inconvenience and risk of unintelligibility involved in striving to reverse it, the change should be accepted – though there will be reasonable disagreement among experts as to when such a point has been reached with regard to any particular change, and that’s fine.

* * *

I would be remiss, incidentally, to touch on this subject without linking to Richard Mitchell’s brilliant essay Why Good Grammar?,” which makes many valuable points I have here omitted.

32 thoughts on “Confessions of a Grammar Nazi

  1. Pingback: Confessions of a Grammar Nazi | Austro-Athenian Empire

  2. I think Putnam’s right about “elm” and “beech,” but It seems like the cases you’re concerned with here (say the vulgar and classical uses of “decimate”) can’t easily be treated in quite the same way. At least, somebody who is a hardcore descriptivist about usage is not going to say that the vulgar sense of “decimate” should be accepted as legitimate (in some sense or another) because of the psychological state of the individual person using the word.

    Rather, they’re going to say that the reason it should be accepted (in some sense or another) is that there’s an existing, widespread, stable convention of using the word in that way, and people using the word in line with that established convention are (they’d say) perfectly good examples of successful performance in a systematic, norm-governed practice.

    So the question in their view isn’t going to be about about idiolect vs. community norms, it’s about one dialect vs. another — it would have to do with whether the relevant community norm here is popular or deferential, more like a rule of the road or more like a rule of formal place-setting. And I take it that most self-described descriptivists would want to say that that depends on a whole bunch of ordinary considerations about dialect choice — for example, the audience you intend to address, the context and the purpose you are trying to achieve, etc.

    The main view they are trying to attack is the (historically very common) grammar grumpus claim that some sociologically marked example of vernacular usage fails to be systematic or norm-governed at all — that is, treating it as an example of carelessness, haphazard or idiosyncratic usage, etc., rather than an example of successfully following an alternative set of conventions. (This point becomes especially important when looking not at usage advice or nice distinctions in isolation, but at systems — for example, comparing the tacit conventions of black English, regional dialects, etc. to rules derived from Standard Written English.)

    Of course, again, that doesn’t settle the question of whether or not there are some contexts, or even many contexts, where you ought to prefer one set of conventions over another. (There are times when it really is more useful, or more elegant, or more considerate, to set the napkin on a charger and to place the salad fork on the far left of the place setting while the oyster fork goes on the far right, etc.) But descriptivists are generally going to urge that (1) the choice is better understood as a choice among dialects or registers not a choice between correctness and error, or between careful and careless usage; (2) that the best choice is not always the choice of the few, but sometimes the conventions of the many (rather, the assessment should be sensitive to and partly contingent upon audience, context, rhetorical and aesthetic considerations, etc. etc.); and also, of course, that (3) scientific linguists have a duty to carefully, sensitively, and respectfully describe the conventional usage and the governing norms in all of these dialects, regardless of their social status or their appropriateness across various sociolinguistic contexts.

    (A lot of them also tend to believe that (4) there’s some good empirical evidence that describing and teaching rules of Standard Written English as a matter of choice among alternative dialects, rather than as a matter of submitting the students’ home language to expert correction, is pedagogically more effective at getting students to master SWE rules. I haven’t read the underlying studies, and I’m pretty skeptical of most empirical studies in language education anyway, so I don’t know how good or how bad the evidence for (4) really is.)


  3. The move to reject the gender-neutral use of “he” is a good example; using “he” for both gender-neutral and gender-specific purposes is what traditional usage dictates; but traditional usage thereby creates problematic ambiguity, and in particular tends to reinforce the norm of viewing the masculine as the “default.” This is like a tool that keeps malfunctioning in dangerous ways; it makes sense to toss it out.

    Do you have a view on the new use of “they” as a singular pronoun to replace both “he” and “she” in certain contexts?

    Pronouns appear to be the new frontier of grammatical contestation.


  4. It’s not really new; it goes back to the 16th century at least. It’s not an ideal solution, but I know of no ideal solution in this case. Thus I do not oppose it.


  5. I’m curious what a grammar maven thinks about the chart below. My instinctive response has been, and still is, “this is really a little much.” And while I can empathize, to a point since I’m not transgender, with someone not wanting to be identified as he or she, the use of “they” and “them” to refer to one person is difficult enough for me (as I am asked to do in one situation). When I think of my resistance to it, it has to do with the fact that it is 1) VERY hard to remember, and 2) confusing not only for me, but for others reading my notes.
    This resistance could be rooted in some doubts about much of the more vocal transgender community’s assertions about sex and gender. Suddenly, what was once considered a disorder has been normed, and there’s a whole lot of discussion that hasn’t occurred within the social scientific and medical communities about complicated issues that arise in this respect. But, those issues are not within the scope of a grammar maven’s expertise.
    As I understand it, the goal is to move towards use of gender neutral pronouns for those who ask us to do so. Now, it doesn’t actually solve the problem of non-transgender persons being unsympathetic or insensitive as they can be guilty of microaggressions in other ways when they use language (as this article in Scientific American points out):
    But let’s just say that some people want to be referred to in a gender neutral manner, and that this desire ought to be respected. How would the chart below work? Would it work? How would it become common usage? Would it become common usage? Is it reasonable to insist that all of these become common usage in your expert opinion? I just don’t see how most people would be able to remember all of these different pronouns.
    zie zim zir zis zieself
    sie sie hir hirs hirself
    ey em eir eirs eirself
    ve ver vis vers verself
    tey ter tem ters terself
    e em eir eirs emself
    Would you have this taught to children in grade school? Let’s just ignore the fact that I’ve probably forgotten most of what I was taught for the sake of argument.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I just don’t see how most people would be able to remember all of these different pronouns. … Would you have this taught to children in grade school?

      8 different variations on third-person singular pronouns is a lot of variations, but it’s actually no worse than the existing situation in Japanese, which of course millions of children and adults manage to learn and master in everyday life.

      I do genuinely sympathize with the difficulty of learning lots of new language and nice distinctions within a language, but:it’s hard for me to see much of a disaster waiting in the wings here. Or an overwhelming problem for schools. The correct use of “he” and “she” is learned spontaneously from home language; what grade school does, at most, is refine it. I would expect the situation to be the same with at least some non-binary or gender-neutral pronouns (as it is, vernacular English speakers pick up singular “they” without any instruction and grammar school, if it does anything, usually tries — wrongly — to “correct” them out of using it).

      If some of these pronouns become relatively more common and others become relatively recondite, then it’s more likely that the more common ones would be picked up spontaneously and the less common ones might be taught in schools, the same way that any other area of vocabulary is.

      It could be that over the long term, some part of the list of personal pronouns will turn out to be short-lived experiments, and people will tend to converge on a few options that cover most of the needed ground. Or, who knows? Maybe gendered and gender-neutral personal pronouns will proliferate, and become more and more idiosyncratic. In either case, though, people will make mistakes, and people will be corrected, and it’ll take a while, but by and large and for the most part, life finds a way.

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      • I share some of Alison’s puzzlement on this (“ridiculous2017” is Alison). The Japanese case only goes so far. The Wikipedia article notes that pronouns are used less frequently in Japanese than in other languages, so that the multiplicity of pronouns may not affect as much of everyday usage. It also doesn’t follow from the fact that such-and-such are the rules of Japanese grammar that these rules are in fact learned and mastered in everyday life by most Japanese. (The rules may be mastered by “millions,” but the population of Japan is 128 million, so again, that only goes so far.) It could be that many Japanese just flout the rules of proper grammar, and others sit around in exasperation wondering, “Why do we do this, again? Why did our language have to be so damn complicated?”

        In Urdu, there is a specific honorific word for every conceivable sort of family relation or kin. It gets wearing and often seems unnecessary to remember every permutation involved–unless there is some strong reason to distinguish your older maternal aunt from your older paternal aunt. Is there? The problem is, skepticism of that kind is often met with the same reaction as skepticism in the gender pronoun case: it’s treated as ill-motivated for the asking. But it’s not really ill-motivated, unless skepticism-induced-by-fatigue is a bad motivation.

        Related but different point: many people graduate high school in developing countries in systems where rote memorization is prized as the best or only pedagogical technique. So, many millions of people master rote memorization (in a weak sense of “master”), but that isn’t necessarily an argument in its favor.

        I don’t think the issue in the transgender pronoun case is so much a matter of a disaster waiting in the wings as of an honest sense of skepticism-induced-by-fatigue at linguistic trends inspired by political correctness. The question becomes, “Is this really necessary?” And the fatigue is cumulative. For instance, once upon a time, black people were called “Negroes.” Then they were called “blacks.” Then they were called “African Americans.” Then it occurred to people that that didn’t quite work. So they became “people of color” (not to be confused with “coloreds”). Then the word “nigger” came back into vogue, but only out of certain mouths in certain idiosyncratic contexts. Now, hitherto black people are best referred to as “African American people of color,” unless you belong to the demographic that is permitted to call them “niggers.”

        Even a “person of color” (but aren’t we all?) who regards structural racism as a desperate problem might be likely to take a backwards glance at all this and wonder whether it might not have been better to stick to one clear, simple usage and resist politically correct attempts to change the world by changing the valence of a word here or there. So structural racism remains in place, but the language we use to describe its victims has undergone revolution. When you reach the point where people demand the right to use the word “nigger” because after all, gay people re-claimed the word “queer” for progressive purposes, one response is to say sigh, shake one’s head, and just check out. Or express skepticism. I’m not one that gets very bent out of shape at the language Cardi B uses in her songs, but I would (and have had to) object when my black African American students started expressing themselves like this in class:

        I am less skeptical of the transgender pronoun change than Alison is, partly because I am just less skeptical period, but also because I can afford not to be: I don’t have to deal with the issue as often as she does (she’s a therapist, I’m a college professor). But I do think that there is a certain degree of moralistic dogmatism about the changes demanded on behalf of transgender people. The “Why are we doing this?” question is often given a “How dare you ask!” response. My own view is that taking the exasperated edge out of the “Why” question makes the “How dare you” response inappropriate. But of course, introducing the exasperated edge is bound to elicit the moralistic response.


        • The Wikipedia article notes that pronouns are used less frequently in Japanese than in other languages, so that the multiplicity of pronouns may not affect as much of everyday usage…

          Oh, for sure. Looking at it from the standpoint of descriptive linguistics, I’d want to tentatively suggest that the causal/explanatory arrows there probably go both ways — there’s probably a feedback loop. Standard Japanese can “afford” to have a lot more personal pronouns (mostly distinguished by gender and/or register) in part because competent speakers use personal pronouns less than speakers of most languages do. On the other hand also, it seems likely that using personal pronouns less on the margin is probably partly a adaptation in the language to the increased complexity of using one in any given situation. Probably, if pronoun usage in Standard English got significantly more complex in that direction, then people adopting the new conventions might start adapting by using pronouns less frequently and more cautiously (on the margin, all other things being equal, etc. etc.). Whether that’s a good thing, or a bad thing, or just a thing, I don’t know — but my guess is it’s probably a manageable thing (as are lots of examples of finicky or complex language); life finds a way, people make do, etc.

          Whether or not they should have to make do is a further question. But I’d take that to be much more of a normative question about gender and about how to address and recognize and accommodate others, etc. rather than a technical one about whether competent speakers of English will be able to pull off any particular way trying to express the addressing and the recognizing etc. Probably they can (and if need be will).

          I certainly agree that lots of cycles of politically-motivated language reform, exasperation, and moral-political dogmatism can all converge to make discussion very very fraught, produce feelings of exhaustion, etc. I don’t have any good suggestions about how to solve that problem, but acknowledging that as a real cost and a genuine problem, there may still be pretty strong moral-political or cultural or even downright aesthetic reasons in favor of the language evolving to be more expressive and more accommodating of individual variety on this point, even if the process of getting through it comes at some definite cost.


          • Yeah, I can sign on to that. But as you yourself say, there’s a tension between finding a reasonable way to make do, and a fraught atmosphere in which acknowledgement of competing considerations leads to accusations of bigotry. I don’t know if this “fraught atmosphere” is limited to academia, or parts of academia, or goes beyond it.

            I say “fraught atmosphere,” but I guess I should make clear that I haven’t actually encountered it myself, at least in person. I’ve had transgender students, but whenever I have, the pronoun issue resolved itself without much effort. Even “resolved itself” is an overstatement: there was no problem to resolve. The person just told me they were making a transition from this to that, and preferred this name/identity/pronoun to that. (Told me because it contradicted what was on the official roster.) So I followed suit, and that was that. I wonder if that experience is the norm or is an outlier. I don’t really know. But it was easy enough!


        • I’m skeptical that the appeal to the norms of other languages shows that speakers of our language (whatever ‘ours’ is in any given context) can easily adapt themselves to those norms. The disanalogy is plain: the proposals under discussion involve dramatic change to an existing language, while Japanese (or whatever) isn’t changing to have a great variety of pronouns, it already has them. Of course one can learn another language, and one can change one’s own. But it’s kinda hard; even granting Roderick’s comparison with German (though I do not in fact grant it; the German pronoun system is simpler than the one Alison describes), it’s plain to see that it’s difficult to learn and that people tend to learn it only when they really want to or really have to. It may be no more difficult for infants to learn Japanese pronouns than to learn English pronouns, but that doesn’t show that it wouldn’t be pretty difficult for English speakers to adopt a considerably more complex pronoun system. Irfan’s point only adds to the case; in any realistic scenario, what we’ll end up with is a rapidly shifting series of proposed norms, and many of us would indeed find that tiresome pretty quickly.

          That’s not to say that there’s any sort of knock-down objection to revisionist proposals for English pronouns here. My conjecture is that we’re going to see the emergence of a new set of norms for gendered pronouns in ordinary English over the next generation. But it seems highly unlikely to come via the adoption of some carefully designed standards and more likely to emerge more informally. I’m not particularly enthusiastic about it, in part due to skepticism about some of the views of gender behind some sorts of proposals. But I’m not especially bothered when people want us to use gender-neutral pronouns, even though my linguistic habits make them challenging at times. I’d be quite a bit more bothered if the proposal were that we adopt something like what Alison describes. But whatever one thinks about them, the objection that a complex system would be difficult isn’t met by pointing to languages that have more complex ones. Better to just concede that it’d be hard and try to convince us that it’s worth the difficulty.

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          • “the German pronoun system is simpler than the one Alison describes”

            I wasn’t thinking of the German pronoun system so much as the case system (especially as applying to articles).


              • Yeah, I still screw up the datives, but the history of my relationship with German is a long story of alternation between brief passion and extended neglect. I know how to internalize this sort of thing, because I’ve spent most semesters for the past 12 years teaching students to do it with Greek and Latin cases; I just lack the commitment (despite some strong personal reasons to form and maintain it).

                This still strikes me as less complex than Alison’s example. Excluding the reflexives, which would be trivially easy next to the rest, Alison’s chart gives us 24 forms (assuming that the lowercase entries are meant to replace rather than supplement the uppercase; if not, then we get 32 forms). The German articles give us only 16 forms.

                Gendered pronouns strike me as posing challenges of a different sort, as well, more akin to those that arise with German (and other languages’) use of different pronouns for formal and informal contexts or relations, but with greater complexity.


                • But for me the fact that the German forms repeat in different columns — so that, e.g., “der” is a masculine nominative, a feminine dative, AND a genitive plural — is what makes them so hard to remember. I could much more easily remember a longer list of forms where each one was unique.


                • For me the problem is that I’ve never needed to master them in order to read German well enough for my relatively limited purposes (my weakness there is vocabulary, not morphology or syntax). I studied German in the conventional way for a year as an undergrad, but otherwise have just approached it as though it were a really weird form of ancient Greek that I don’t read often enough. I think a few weeks of serious oral and written production exercises would take care of the pronouns for me. I definitely get what you mean about the redundancy — it at least feels more extensive and confusing than the limited redundancy of Greek — but I don’t think that’s been a major obstacle for me. The redundancy of der and den is weird, but honestly I think the idea of listing the cases in the Nom. Acc. Dat. Gen. order throws me off more than the redundancy does, given how deeply engrained Nom. Gen. Dat. Acc. is for me.

                  Incidentally, my introductory Greek class this year has six students who have had hardly any Latin and eleven who just finished their fourth year of it. Introducing cases to them today in a way that neither bored the Latinists to tears nor mystified the non-Latinists might have been the greatest language teaching challenge I’ve encountered in a long while that didn’t involve trying to figure out how to negotiate teenage misbehavior.


              • In grad school I took a Spinoza seminar that had just three participants (besides the professor): one grad student (me), one professor (also from philosophy), and one undergraduate (for whom it was the first philosophy course). I did not envy the instructor.


          • [Responding to DJR’s August 8, 10:23 pm comment]

            Yeah, exactly. I think we’re just running up against the fact that the real issue in the pronoun case is not so much about linguistic reform per se as about the contested gender-identity issues underlying the calls for reform.

            Roderick’s original post was about grammar. I then introduced the pronoun issue, and Alison then continued with that. But though obviously related to Roderick’s post, our comments introduce an issue that the original post wasn’t really intended to handle. (So yeah: mea culpa.)

            The case for linguistic reform is only as strong as the case for gender fluidity. The number of pronouns we’re obliged to use depends on how fluid gender is then conceived to be, and how important it is to have a separate pronoun for every variation. The stronger the case for gender fluidity and the stronger the moral imperative to recognize it in separate pronouns, the less it matters that the linguistic reforms would be complex. The weaker the case for both, the more it matters. Complexity is a relevant consideration, but not the fundamental one. The real underlying issue is gender and gender fluidity itself. The American Psych Association lays out the now standard view:


            I don’t have any strong disagreement with it. It mentions but doesn’t really discuss the pronoun issue.

            I’m reminded here of the debate over Richard Epstein’s famous book, Simple Rules for a Complex World, which makes the case for a sort of quasi-libertarian legal system by arguing that our non-libertarian legal regime is overly complex, whereas a more libertarian one would ease the mental burden through simplification. Anyone fatigued by having to deal with the administrative state would be primed to agree. And Epstein definitely had a legitimate point to make. That said, it seems clear that simplicity is not going to do the trick in making the case for libertarianism. And if Epstein had a point, so did his critics, who suggested (with plenty of justification) that he was sacrificing justice to simplicity:


            The pronoun controversy has a similar structure. Anyone who’s been beaten over the head over pronoun use is apt to want simplicity and be suspicious of extravagant demands for reform. But while the need for simplicity is important and has weight, it isn’t by itself the main issue, and provides no route to the main issue, either.


            • The case for linguistic reform is only as strong as the case for gender fluidity. The number of pronouns we’re obliged to use depends on how fluid gender is then conceived to be

              Well, partly but not entirely. The pivot in the debate right now mostly has to do with questions gender identity and gender fluidity. But not that many years ago, most of the arguments related to it had to do with debates over non-sexist language. (And it’s been a persistent pre-occupation in Mod. E., not just among post-Women’s Lib, post-Gay Lib politicos; “thon” and “e” and some of the other pronouns came from lost-found proposals that were made by mid-to-late 19th century writers.)

              I’d say that the case for linguistic reform here (or, the evolutionary pull factors that keep leading people towards solutions like these) rests on at least three distinct cases that Mod. E. pronouns don’t handle very well, or that they handle in ways that many people (rightly or wrongly) find at least a bit unsatisfying:

              (1) GENDER-NEUTRALITY (PARTICULAR): a person’s gender may be unknown, either (1a) because we’re talking (in ignorance) about a specific person but we don’t know enough about them or (1b) because we’re talking (indefinitely) in general terms, e.g. within the scope of a quantifier.

              (2) GENDER-INDIFFERENCE: a person’s gender may be known, but felt to be irrelevant or actually inappropriate to specify in context.

              (3) GENDER-MULTIVALENCE: a person’s gender might be known and relevant (or at least not inappropriate), but neither of the two familiar options adequately expresses it (because gender identity is non-binary, or continuous, or fluid, or ….).

              (So, I think the case is pretty strong on all three fronts, and can easily be articulated in terms of the concerns about expressive adequacy, elegance, etc. that Roderick allows for in his post above. But a lot of debates about, e.g., revising language in city codes have more to do with (1) or (2) than they do with (3), although (3) might be a reason for ruling out particular solutions like a gender neutral “he” or a disjunctive “he or she”. Most of the actual pronouns proposed in the history of this debate are really mainly intended to deal with (1)-(2), also — “they,” “thon,” “ey,” “xe,” “zie,” etc. etc. are typically supposed to be actually neutral, not expressive of particular fine grades of non-binary or fluid gender identity; if anything is intended to be really particularly adapted to solving problem (3), it’s not a particular word choice but rather the linguistic practice of asking/sharing pronouns on a person-by-person basis.)

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          • The disanalogy is plain: the proposals under discussion involve dramatic change to an existing language, while Japanese (or whatever) isn’t changing to have a great variety of pronouns, it already has them.

            Yes, but it hasn’t always. Existing Japanese is like every other existing language — the latest version of something that has changed dramatically over time, and there was a time in the past when it didn’t have all those pronouns. Like any sort of language change (whether complicating, or simplifying, or moving sideways) there was a time when this changed. There was also a time (back before the 12th century, and in some dialects throughout much of the Middle English period) when English did not have the pronoun “she” (*). Now it does, and nobody bats an eye. I have no way of predicting what English will look like in a generation or three, but if it does turn out to have a few, or a few dozen, new non-binary, gender-neutral, gender-indefinite, etc. personal pronouns, what I’m saying is, the situation for people learning that Future English will not be out of the ballpark for complexity that lots of other parts of lots of other existing languages (including other parts of historical English).

            Of course one can learn another language, and one can change one’s own. But it’s kinda hard; …

            Well, it may be hard for us. It’s not (usually) hard for children learning the language with the changes already in place. If the change serves a valuable purpose and if it happens over time (as all changes do), it will probably come more naturally to the young than it is to the old. There may be some time during which there is a lot of difference in the uptake and there may be tension between the young and the old using different generations of an ever-evolving language. But when has there not been?

            My conjecture is that we’re going to see the emergence of a new set of norms for gendered pronouns in ordinary English over the next generation. But it seems highly unlikely to come via the adoption of some carefully designed standards and more likely to emerge more informally.

            I agree that language changes — including the adoption new pronouns, or the evolution of the pronoun system — are much more likely to emerge and to take hold when they come about from “informal” and evolutionary processes than from “carefully designed standards.” (**)

            But, so, just to be clear on the point of fact: the table that Alison pasted above is not a “carefully designed standard” or a “complex system” for a new set of personal pronouns to implement. (Or isn’t primarily that, anyway; I don’t know the specific source they were drawing on, but there are lots of similar charts and close variants scattered around, which I’m more or less familiar with.) What it is is a compilation of a whole lot of people’s (heretofore) mostly independent efforts to try and solve the same problem with English, usually by introducing more or less one new personal pronoun. (Either because they wanted a pronoun for cases when the gender of the referent is unknown or indefinite; or for cases where it’s irrelevant; or for cases where it’s not one of the two familiar options.) (***) Most people do not have a designed 8 category system for assigning one pronoun to each person, or to each linguistic situation, from your study armchair. The norm that just about everybody suggests, if they care about this kind of language change, is that you should ask somebody what pronouns they want you to use (or follow some ritualized common procedure for finding out ahead of time) and then you use what they ask you to. Like I mentioned in my previous comment, I wouldn’t be surprised if common usage tended to wear down the list of independent coinages to the few that most people tend to converge on. Or I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if they tended to proliferate instead and become even more idiosyncratic. But in either case, this seems like exactly the sort of informal emergence over time that we see in other kinds of language change, not the imposition of a fixed standard.

            Irfan’s point only adds to the case; in any realistic scenario, what we’ll end up with is a rapidly shifting series of proposed norms, and many of us would indeed find that tiresome pretty quickly.

            Sure, that’s possible; it’s especially probable so long as the technical question of how to refer to people linguistically serves mainly as a stalking-horse for fighting over an extremely contentious set of normative questions about gender, biology, social relationships, forms of address and reference, respect and accomodation of indvidual people’s idiosyncratic identities, etc. etc.

            The fight over language is probably going to be exhausting just about exactly as long as the fight over social and personal relationships remains grueling. If anybody expects that the social conflict is going to become easy just as soon as people all start talking the right way (or as soon as they give up on insisting that other people talk differently) then it seems obvious to me that that’s an illusory expectation. But I’m not sure anybody really has that expectation (at least not on reflection).

            But it shouldn’t be surprising that social change is hard and tiring and conflictual and so on. All I mean to say here is, that from a linguistic standpoint, I don’t think that either (a) the compilation of idiosyncratic variants Alison mentions above, or (b) the ask-first, correct-if-necessary norm for pronoun use that actually goes along with it in practice seems obviously unwieldy, or overwhelmingly complex, even for adults who learned their English 30+ years ago and obviously not for children who are learning the language for the first time. Sociolinguistic context might make it difficult for any desired change to stick, or might just make the whole thing a drag to deal with for the next few trips around the sun. But it can do that to just about anything. And the real debate to be had there, about what’s difficult, what’s worth the difficulty or not, etc. is probably a debate that ought to be much more directly about the underlying social questions than it is about the complexity or expressive value of a list of artisanally-crafted pronouns.


            • (* Re: English and “she:” It had had a 3rd person feminine singular pronoun, but a different one (he(o), going back to Old English hīo/hēo). By the 12th century English seems to have lost that one due to a merger: by early Mid. E., the pronunciation seems to have worn down so as to be indistingiushable from “he;” both were often written phonetically as “a.” “She” first appears around this time, probably adapted from a demonstrative or definite article, although there is a lot more theorizing than certainty on its point of origin. Cf. [1], [2]) for some quick discussion and footnotes to more.)

              (** Re: Informal processes and carefully designed standards: Factually, I think that’s almost [not quite] always how significant language changes actually tend to emerge and take hold over the long term. Particularly when the change is one that comes from the social margins, rather than from people who already have a lot of institutional power. Normatively, I’d go so far as to say that it’s more desirable that they emerge that way.)

              (*** Re: Other items on the list: There are some others that could have been included on the list: “thon,” “xe,” singular “they,” etc. Worse and worse, I suppose, if you’re worried about the number of rows in the table. On the other hand, there is also some multiplication going on from people finding different ways to write down hard-to-distinguish or indistinguishable spoken words, e.g. “xe” and “zie” are usually pronounced identically.)


            • Some conferences, including the APA, now provide attendees with stickers they can wear on their name badges to announce their preferred pronouns.


              • Similarly, there are cases where not clear ahead of time whether you refer to someone as “Mr./Ms./Miss/Mrs. Jones” or as “Dr. Jones,” “Rev. Jones,” “Capt. Jones,” etc. (I hear that for some people this is a sensitive matter.)

                When it’s likely to be, people usually make some effort to find out ahead of time, e.g. by asking for title ahead of time at the same time as they ask for a name; and of course trying to accept and adjust graciously if corrected, etc.


                • We may not end up disagreeing all that much in the gendered pronoun case, but I think you’re overstating the demands of accommodation in the case of titles. Sometimes, I think, people’s sensitivity to titles just needs to be flouted in a spirit of graceless refusal to adjust. I think there’s a subtle way in which insistence on the use of a title involves an appeal either to authority (if the title is supposed to be authoritative), or invidiously solidifies a social role at the expense of other values. In Urdu, one doesn’t refer to one’s elders by name, but by some quasi-familial title (“Brother,” “Sister”). In Arabic, it’s customary to refer to a father not by his name but as “The Father of Eldest Son” (“Abu Irfan,” “Abu Roderick,” “Abu Radgeek,” etc.). I comply when necessary, but find it all irritating.

                  Something similar is true of professional titles. When I first got to Felician, where I now work, there was a kind of institutional presumption that academic titles were really, really important. Holders of doctorates were to be called “Doctor.” All other faculty members were to be called “Professor.” Violations of this norm were considered faux pas. Ostensibly, it was meant as a way to confer respect on the doctorate holders, but just struck me as baroque, silly, or worse.

                  When I took over as the organizer of the annual ethics conference, the expectation was that I would adhere to the “Dr.”/”Prof.” framework in making up the program, and in moderating the sessions. When we had guest speakers with police or military titles, there was an expectation we’d (I’d) refer to them as “Sgt.” this or “Chief” that. I responded in characteristically passive-aggressive style by omitting (“forgetting”) all titles. I just referred to everyone by name, and that was that. The “convention” caught on, and the old expectation fell away. (The one exception was “Sister” for nuns, which seemed a little too Jacobin to omit. And since my employers were nuns, it also seemed imprudent to omit.) For better or worse, my students now refer to me as “Khawaja.” Even more amusingly, they’ve started referring to my colleagues that way, too.

                  Basically, titles suck, and (nuns aside) I think it’s often possible to get away with not using them.


                • Hm, you’re right that there is sometimes a decent case for graceless refusal on the point of titles, and I don’t want to suggest that cases are exactly analogous or the reasons for accommodating are equivalent or similarly strong to those re: pronouns.

                  The much narrower point that I would want to stick by here is simply an analogy of mechanisms that people who do treat this as important and worth the time to accomodate (leaving aside the question of how far they ought to bother) use — the point of the analogy being that handling this is a familiar enough social convention, that people use familiar methods (blanks on forms, asking ahead of time, etc.) make their way through. The norms for identifying amlnd using proper pronouns (ask, give people opportunities to declare ahead of time, follow their lead when they tell you what they want, etc.) are not that different or that unfamiliar or overwhelming of a prospect.


                • “For better or worse, my students now refer to me as ‘Khawaja.’ Even more amusingly, they’ve started referring to my colleagues that way, too.”

                  Your students refer to your colleagues as “Khawaja”? I should think that might be confusing.


            • I’m afraid we’re getting into pedantic territory pretty quickly here, but a few things should be (have been) apparent: (i) linguistic change in the direction of greater complexity in the Japanese pronoun system (or whatever) remains disanalogous to the case Alison raised, because that case involves fairly radical and abrupt change, whereas most linguistic change isn’t radical and abrupt. I don’t know about the whole recorded history of linguistic change, but my conjecture is that abrupt and radical change typically has to be imposed by a strong authority, which is what is unlikely to happen in this case. (ii) As I indicated in my previous post, the ease or difficulty with which children learn their first language has limited bearing on the ease or difficulty with which people would learn to adopt a new system of pronouns. It’s already difficult for adults to learn a second language, but fundamental revisions to one’s existing language would likely pose further problems that don’t arise in second language acquisition. For what it’s worth, one also shouldn’t overstate the ease with which children learn their first language; it takes them years, during most of which they have limited competence despite their having very little to do in life other than learn things like how to talk, walk, manipulate objects, etc., and despite their not having the added obstacle of existing linguistic habits to interfere with their efforts. The case isn’t analogous, but it wouldn’t show that the task isn’t highly difficult even if it were.

              I think we agree on the most important points here: a revisionary system of pronouns would not be so difficult that most people couldn’t learn it, the real action in debates about pronouns is about how desirable revision is and what revisions are desirable, and it’s unlikely that any change is going to be occur abruptly as a result of imposition from on high. I don’t take the difficulty objection as anything close to conclusive, and in the face of a powerful case for change it would not have much force on its own. But the same would be true of a proposal to add twelve noun cases to English; Finnish has fifteen cases, proving that it isn’t too hard for people to learn a 15-case system, but it’d be pretty damn hard for mature English speakers to learn it, especially all at once. The difficulty wouldn’t provide a conclusive case against the change if there were some really powerful reason to go for a 15-case system, but it would be foolish to deny the difficulty. The real issue is that while we have no good reason to add more cases to English, we may in fact have good reason to revise our pronoun system. Debate about those reasons just has more to do with metaphysics and politics than it does with linguistics.

              Liked by 1 person

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