3/18/10 - grammar myths

In today's encore excerpt - grammar myths:

"Take the idea that it is wrong to say, 'If a student comes before I get there, they can slip their test under my office door', because student is singular and they 'is plural.' Linguists traditionally observe that esteemed writers have been using they as a gender-neutral pronoun for almost a thousand years. As far back as the 1400s, in the Sir Amadace story, one finds the likes of, 'Iche mon in thayre degree' ('Each man in their degree').

"Maybe when the sentence is as far back as Middle English, there is a sense that it is a different language on some level than what we speak—the archaic spelling alone cannot help but look vaguely maladroit. ... But Shakespeare is not assumed to have been in his cups when he wrote in The Comedy of Errors, 'There's not a man I meet but doth salute me / As I were their well-acquainted friend' (Act IV Scene 111). Later, Thackeray in Vanity Fair tosses off 'A person can't help their birth.' ...

"Or there's the objection to nouns being used as verbs. These days, impact comes in for especial condemnation: The new rules are impacting the efficiency of the procedure. People lustily express that they do not 'like' this, endlessly writing in to language usage columnists about it. Or one does not 'like' the use of structure as in I structured the test to be as brief as possible.

"Well, okay—but that means you also don't 'like' the use of view, silence, worship, copy, outlaw and countless other words that started as nouns and are now also verbs. Nor do many people shudder at the use of fax as a verb. ...

"Over the years, I have gotten the feeling that there isn't much linguists can do to cut [through this.] ... There are always books out that try to put linguists' point across. Back 1950, Robert Hall's Leave Your Language Alone! was all over the place, including a late edition kicking around in the house I grew up in. Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct, which includes a dazzling chapter on the grammar myths, has been one of the most popular books on language ever written. As I write, the flabbergastingly fecund David Crystal has just published another book in the tradition, The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot and Left. But the air of frustration in Crystal's title points up how persistent the myths are. ...

"English is shot through with things that don't really follow. I'm the only one amn't I? Shouldn't it be amn't after all? Aren't, note, is 'wrong' since are is used with you, we, and they, not I. There's no 'I are.' Aren't I? is thoroughly illogical—and yet if you decided to start saying amn't all the time, you would lose most of your friends and never get promotions. Except, actually, in parts of Scotland and Ireland where people actually do say amn't—in which case the rest of us think of them as 'quaint' rather than correct!"


John McWhorter


Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English


Gotham Books


Copyright 2008 by John McWhorter


65-69, 80
barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment