Thursday, July 12, 2007

It still clinks and clanks

It is one thing to endure the clashing of pluralized pronouns combined with singular nouns in informal speech by those who want to avoid sounding sexist in this politically correct era. It is quite another matter to endure the clanking of pluralized pronouns with singular nouns in written documents or in formal speech by those who fail to give adequate thought concerning how to avoid sounding sexist in this politically correct era, if it is necessary to do so. The first blog entry that I read this morning is an excellent entry on the difference between hypocrisy and moral inconsistency. Unfortunately, it also provides examples of clinking and clanking of nouns and pronouns that do not agree. Consider the following examples with highlighted pronouns and nouns with which they should agree.

What we desire in a representative is that they be a person of integrity--that their character be a morally consistent whole.

The final paragraph of the blog entry quotes a statement made by Gary Bauer in response to the moral inconsistency of David Vitter, Senator from Louisiana.

If a voter is looking for Jesus on the Republican ticket, they're not going to find him. There was only one perfect man, and all others have fallen short. They should look at how a candidate dealt with his moral failures.

I do not know if I will ever get accustomed to all this clinking and clanking of nouns and pronouns that do not agree, especially in composed essays, blog entries, prepared speeches, prepared sermons, etc. It is easier to endure in informal speech, but it is particularly painful to the ears and to the eyes when writers and speakers fail to give anything resembling adequate thought concerning how they might avoid sounding politically incorrect as they avoid sounding sexist but at the same time avoid the clinking and clanking of grammatical incorrectness.

Consider the second example I offer above. The writer strangely uses they to refer to a voter, a singular noun, but then when referring to the generic singular noun, "a candidate," the same writer in the same sentence uses the generic his, singular and masculine pronoun. This suggests that the writer's grammatical thought processes and choices have been made untidy and disorderly by attempting to be politically correct. And this, after all, is my point. Grammatical sloppiness has settled in. If we decide to bow to political correctness in preference for more creative and thoughtful writing, at least we ought to be consistent in your avoidance of the generic use of he, him, and his.

All it takes to satisfy both political correctness and grammatical correctness is a little reflection, some imaginative thought, and a measure of care when crafting our words. Why offend those of who hear clinking and clanking grammatical incorrectness to satisfy the political correctness police? Why not learn how to keep both happy? Granted, the generic use of he has almost gone into extinction. Must we ruin English grammar, which admittedly is continually in some measure of flux, to accommodate the loss of the generic he? I protest. I do not believe that it is necessary. I, for one, refuse to trade grammatical correctness for political correctness. I always strive to satisfy the ears and eyes of both sides. It may take more thought. It may mean that my informal speech will at times seem marked with a pause or two as I seek to formulate sentences to satisfy both grammatical and political correctness. Yet, I would rather be thought of as slow of speech than to be thought of as stooping to political correctness at the expense of grammatical correctness or to be thought of as a sexist brute who is utterly insensitive to this era of transition in which I dwell.

As I reflect upon the period of my altogether too brief life, it seems that my whole life has spanned a period of transition--socially, culturally, linguistically, politically, and in many other ways. For those who were born much later, they were born into a clinking and clanking world. Consequently, they tend to think that clinking and clanking is the normal sound of informal and of formal speech. They tend not to recognize the clash of politically correct speech with grammatically correct speech. They can be forgiven, but it would be lovely if they also would begin to sense the pain of anquished English and even more anguished English. Perhaps my only source of consolation will remain Richard Lederer and his ilk.

Perhaps my lament is little more than a continuing complaint against the perpetuation and protraction of transition from a more stable era into a new era. I have often observed, even from youth, that I seem to be a man born out of due time, that I seem to be a man made for a different era. Perhaps my whole life will span a protracted generation or two of transition during which everything is shifting and moving and changing. I don't like it. I say, I do not like it, but my complaint goes unheeded and is drowned out by continual clinking and clanking of pronouns that fail to agree with their nouns of reference or of antecedence.

Update (7/16/07): Notwithstanding the following ameliorations, my comments on the examples cited still stand.

One of my favorite authors, John McWhorter (Word on the Street: Debunking the Myth of "Pure" Standard English), who is a professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, makes a rather convincing case that I need to adjust my eyes and my ears to be more accepting of the so-called "singular they." McWhorter makes a strong case that both Robert Lowth (1710-1787) and Lindley Murray (1745-1826) left rather deep and abiding impacts upon English grammar with their respective works. Their prescriptive approach to English grammar, which means that they advanced the notion that it is not the language of the masses or of general usage, but the practice of the 'best writers' that should be taken as the 'standard' of the language.

I confess, I am guilty of embracing a similar belief, which I am still convinced is the best approach to teaching English grammar, as long as one mitigates one's stance with the firm acknowledgment that our language is in continual flux and will change, given that it is a living language. In other words, the act of teaching English is always lagging somewhat behind the usage of English by the very nature of the case. Hence, I would characterize my approach to teaching English grammar, not as prescriptive but as preservative or as best practices. I tend to teach grammar by appealing to the best practices of those we ought to emulate. This is so because language, like everything else in this world, tends to deteriorate. Language, not unlike manners, as Lynne Truss argues (Eats, Shoots and Leaves and Talk to the Hand), becomes increasingly degenerate and needs a preservative, lest we descend into barbarism with our language and with our manners.

We users are also teachers. As users and teachers, we should also serve as preservers of the language, preservers who seek to emulate those who have gone before us that we might bequeath to others a language worthy of our predecessors, with all of its foibles, warts, and blemishes.

So, yes, because English has always lacked a singular gender-neutral pronoun, some of the best, including Jane Austen, used the "singular they." Admittedly, because Lowth and Lindley have had a greater impact upon me than I have known, it still clinks and clanks. Perhaps I will get accustomed to the clinking and clanking, but not without some continued lament. Other degenerations of our English language, however, I cannot and will not abide. Two examples come to mind immediately. First, I will not abide "The woman spoke ill of you and I." Second, I will have no patience with "Me and her went golfing." As Lynne Truss so well argues, grammar and manners intersect. This an example of both a grammatical blunder (using the objective case for the subjective) and an etiquette blunder (placing self before others).

4 comments:

David McKay said...

Hi Ardel. I used to think this way, but have discovered that the so-called singular "they" and using plural words with singulars has great antiquity.

And I have to admit that it is the way people speak. I don't like it, but it is used by almost everyone, including people who speak against it.

I've heard, for example, supporters of the ESV who prefer it over the TNIV, partly because of its use of inclusive language [which is also found in the ESV, but not usually incorporating singular/plural clashes]using this same language themsleves in their sermons.

Sometimes they put the ESV into an inclusive improvised version, after having a few sentences before told everyone they disagree with that dreadful TNIV.

I suppose yo uhave seen the websites which document the use of this singular/plural combination throughout English history?

Here's one of many:
Everybody Loves Their Jane Austen

David McKay said...

But the one that grates more on my ears is the use of "I" for "me." It is all-but-universal, now.

Nobody in Australia [well, except for Peter O'Brien, author of prison epistles commentaries and an eagerly awaited commentary on Hebrews] seems to say "you and me" anymore [where appropriate] but I hear people saying "He said a heartfelt prayer for you and I." etc, etc

A. B. Caneday said...

David,

You're right about the use of you and I as clanking when put for you and me.

You are also correct about the squabbles that some have raised about the TNIV. My disappointments with the TNIV are different from those expressed by leading objectors who have pushed the ESV instead. By the way, some of the leading critics of the TNIV have been major players in the production of the ESV.

I readily acknowledge that the English language poses some difficulties as testified to by comments and commentary in the following links in addition to the link that you provided.

Wikipedia's Singular they

World Wide Words: Singular They

Word of the Day

"Singular they": God said it, I believe it, that settles it

My lament, which is not about a moral issue but a grammtical matter, has some measure of warrant to it. Consider the examples that I offered in my blog entry.

What we desire in a representative is that they be a person of integrity--that their character be a morally consistent whole.

If a voter is looking for Jesus on the Republican ticket, they're not going to find him. There was only one perfect man, and all others have fallen short. They should look at how a candidate dealt with his moral failures.


The writer could easily have pluralized the nouns without losing anything. That way the nouns would have agreed with the pronouns, if he wanted to avoid the generic use of he. On the other hand, the writer equivocates. The writer strangely uses they to refer to a voter, singular, but then, when referring to the generic "a candidate," uses the generic his, singular and masculine pronoun. This grammtical equivocation validates my lament. It suggests that the writer's grammatical thought processes and choices have been made untidy and disorderly by attempting to be politically correct. And this, after all, is my point. Grammatical sloppiness has settled in.

If we decide to bow to political correctness in preference for more creative and thoughtful writing, at least we ought to be consistent in our avoidance of the generic use of he, him, and his.

Jane Austen gave greater thought to her words than many, perhaps most, current writers. This, ultimately, is my lament. Too many writers and speakers have become untidy in their use of words. This reflects they they have become untidy in their thought processes, also.

A. B. Caneday said...

David,

You said, I've heard, for example, supporters of the ESV who prefer it over the TNIV, partly because of its use of inclusive language [which is also found in the ESV, but not usually incorporating singular/plural clashes]using this same language themsleves in their sermons.

I have heard the same. In fact, I was tempted to offer an example or two, but I resisted the temptation. I did not express it this way, but this is one source of my lament. Some who complain about the TNIV and push the ESV, as superior grammatically and theologically, seem unaware of at least two things: (1) that the ESV, the KJV, and other translations on various occasions break the rule of agreement concerning singular nouns and plural pronouns; and (2) that they, themselves, regularly violate the rule in their preaching and lecturing. Their own untidiness in preaching betrays their public criticism of the TNIV.