Against descriptivism and prescriptivism:

This whole series of posts just underscores why I don't like the words "descriptivism" and "prescriptivism." When one says one's a descriptivist, this immediately makes people think one doesn't want to prescribe. This is of course completely false, and I would have thought that my posts (and Eugene's) would have put that idea to rest. But no, this misconception dies hard.

Am I a descriptivist? Yes! Because I think usage is the ultimate guide to what English means. I'd think that even self-described "prescriptivists" would say the same thing if, as anthropologists, they encountered a new tribe in the Amazon and tried to describe their language. To know what the language means, you have to observe its practitioners and see what rules they themselves follow in speech.

Am I a prescriptivist? Yes! I've been an editor of a journal in the past (and so has Eugene), and I still act as editor when I read friends' drafts and my students' work. When I write an article, I send it to Eugene, who tells me how I should rewrite it. Heck, Eugene has even written a book called Academic Legal Writing, in which he gives the reader expressions to avoid!

And it's clear why we're interested in prescribing usage: In my case, my only rule is to speak in ways that make you best able to accomplish your goals. Since my goals are usually communicative, I believe in speaking in ways that are clear and comprehensible to my target audience. (And since my target audience often changes, the content of "clear and comprehensible" also changes.) Anyone's "rules" are only valuable to me insofar as they serve my goal. But once I've stated a goal, for instance effective communication with and persuasion of legal academics, there is probably an objectively best way to pursue that goal.

Therefore, to the extent a particular phrase makes my thought unclear, marks me as uneducated and therefore reduces my credibility with my readers, or something else along those lines, then using that phrase is a mistake — because it's a less effective way of pursuing my goal. (When people correct language mistakes in my posts, most of the time I myself would agree that it's a mistake!) The best way to pursue my goal might even be formalizable by means of rules — and most of these rules are indeed the ones we learned from our 7th-grade English teachers — but there's no necessary relation between the one and the other, and of course, in case of conflict, it's the English teacher's rules that should go out the window.

So the notion that I don't think there are better and worse ways of speaking — that I wouldn't teach my kids how to talk and how not to talk — is silly. The difference between self-described "prescriptivists" and "descriptivists" isn't that the first gang prescribes while the second gang describes. When I say that my students are speaking or writing incorrectly, I mean that they're expressing themselves in ways that I don't think are likely to achieve what I think their goal might be (and of course I have to explain why the words they use are ineffective). And when I choose how to speak, I likewise choose the words that I think are most likely to achieve my goal.

This "functional prescriptivism" business is a difficult exercise, and miles away from the "anything goes" that some people use as their caricature of descriptivism.

PatHMV (mail) (www):
Aw, Sasha... when you explain exactly what you were doing, it's like a magician telling how the trick was done! I was enjoying the show... ;-)
7.24.2007 3:19pm
Alan Gunn (mail):
OK, but my list of reasons for objecting to some uses is broader than yours. In particular, I'm not fond of changing well-established uses for no good reason ("beg the question" and "may" for "might" in discussing hypothetical situations being two recent examples). I also like consistency, so since we say "for me" and "for him," saying "for he and I" sounds dumb to me. And I'm not sure that "achieving a goal" explains much: there's a store down the street from my house that advertises "wing's." I know what they mean, so they've achieved their goal. But I'm not going to eat there.
7.24.2007 3:47pm
jimbino (mail):
I too think the focus on dichotomy between prescriptivist and descriptivist is misplaced. You and I agree that communicating content is more important than speaking to "fit in." But I would like to hear your response to a series of practical questions:

1. Do we esteem Reagan, Thatcher, Blair and Hitchens partly because of their near-perfect grammar and elocution? And look down on Bill Clinton for saying, "... for Hillary and I"? And on Bush for "nucular."? And on Carter for the accent he couldn't lose?

2. Does the child who develops a tin ear for language by bad schooling or by absorbing the bad grammar of TV or his parents handicap himself regarding ability to write patent specifications? And will he not likely have to pay for coaching for the SAT, LSAT, GRE and GMAT?

3. I can write a program that can translate software written in Pascal to C++, Java or C# or that can adapt a program written to run on DOS to run on LINUX to near perfection, because of the very strict rules of grammar each language imposes. Do you see any value in adhering to rules of grammar in English so that a patent can easily, cheaply and accurately be translated into Portuguese?

4. It was not for nothing that people studied Latin and Greek. They teach appreciation for grammar concepts like indicative/subjunctive mood, active/passive voice, transitive/intransitive verbs. Doesn't a parent who eschews attention to good grammar handicap his child with regard to the child's ability to learn foreign languages in the future?

5. Isn't language skill a great proxy for intelligence and erudition in picking your ghost writer, your law partner and your mate?
7.24.2007 3:53pm
panthan (mail):

Much of your argument however assumes that there is only one purpose to your speech or writing. Isn't there generally more than one? As a professor, your lecture should get your meaning across to your students. But it should also serve as an example. You don't want to teach your students only to speak to other law students, after all. Thus, a "good" thing would be to speak in a manner both clear to the current audience and that would be (insofar as you can judge) clear to the widest audience that includes these students.

Now, you may not feel that's your job. When I lecture, I tend to use formal phrasing in part because that's how I normally speak anyway (I think), and in part because I am an example to my students of the engineering professional. Because my students (especially undergrads) come from very dissimilar backgrounds, I need to be both descriptivist in my choice of English, and prescriptivist as well (to provide the "good example"). I don't worry about teaching my students to express themselves to a non-professional audience, since they will seldom if ever need to describe the time rate of change of a vector to a layman.
7.24.2007 3:57pm
anym_avey (mail):
I rather expect that most people would fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between "descriptivist" and "prescriptivist", generally trying to follow some rules of usage while allowing for a broad spread of meanings and personal foibles. And that they would do without ever seeking fancy labels for their behaviors, such as "descriptivist" and "prescriptivist".

Example: I once heard a kindly and generally non-colloquial great aunt of mine refer to a botched situation as a "snafu". I am fairly certain she would suffer a triple anuerysm if she ever found out how that word originated, much like how "fubar" is gradually entering the general lexicon of slang apart from its vulgar origin.

These debates invariably take me back to the Calvin &Hobbes strip in which Calvin muses on the enjoyment he receives from taking ordinary words and ascribing new meanings to them, preferably in contexts that will annoy or confuse someone else. Hobbes finally closes out Calvin's ramblings by observing that perhaps someday, language can become a complete impediment to understanding.
7.24.2007 4:06pm
Kovarsky (mail):
Example: I once heard a kindly and generally non-colloquial great aunt of mine refer to a botched situation as a "snafu". I am fairly certain she would suffer a triple anuerysm if she ever found out how that word originated, much like how "fubar" is gradually entering the general lexicon of slang apart from its vulgar origin.

Is that a self-aware use to the term "vulgar," whose meaning has evolved from "common" to "prurient," or was that an accident.
7.24.2007 4:17pm
BobH (mail):
First, I don't think I've ever read as clear and concise an explanation as the one Sasha presents in this post.

Second, it seems to me that the shining jewel in the post is: "[S]ince my target audience often changes, the content of 'clear and comprehensible' also changes...." That notion, the underlying premise of the classical art of rhetoric (see Aristotle, Ars Rhetorica), is a notion that far too few people now understand.

Third, in his comment above jimbino discusses "grammar" in several of his points. Grammar and usage are two very different concepts. Sasha (and Eugene, in his posts on this subject) are speaking primarily about usage, not grammar.
7.24.2007 4:24pm
Goals that may be accomplished, served and pursued ain't to my taste.
7.24.2007 4:26pm
bittern (mail):

Is that a self-aware use to the term "vulgar," whose meaning has evolved from "common" to "prurient," or was that an accident.

I see no entertaining irony in the former, so I suppose the writer is stuck with the latter. I found the snafu story amusing. Do you employ a period instead of a question mark at the end of your question as an indication that you ask the question with a straight face?
7.24.2007 4:32pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
panthan: My view of "purpose" is as broad as you like. In particular, a purpose can include many sub-purposes (with appropriate weights, so you know how to trade them off against each other in case they conflict), exactly as you describe.

jimbino: 1. Yes on the good-elocution people (I can't speak to everyone on your list), because part of being an effective politician is the ability to inspire people, and oratorical skill is part of that. Also, you want a politician to inspire you, and that's of course part of his quality.

Of course, there might be some politicians with excellent elocution but who just come off as pedantic asses. Likewise, one may esteem others because they convey so well the impression of being a man of the people, and this may involve adopting folsky mannerisms and not speaking the educated tongue. So I wouldn't say elocution as such as is the goal, but it may be correlated with some goals.

2. Yes, therefore, as I said in my original post, we should teach our kids to talk like successful, educated people if we want them to be successful and educated. There's no intrinsic rightness here (one may not want to join that class!), but it's an effective way to serve what is surely a common goal that parents have for their kids.

3. Strict rules foster one form of simplicity (may be easier to translate your patent), but may not foster another form of simplicity (some turns of phrase express an idea quickly and pithily but have no easy grammatic decomposition). Which form of simplicity you want depends on context. Moreover, simplicity isn't the only goal; Shakespeare violates every prescriptivist prescription in the book, but is beautiful. Different ways of speaking are appropriate for different purposes, which is why I hope the patent writer doesn't speak to his wife the way he writes his patent.

4. I speak many languages, and it's easy for me to pick them up because I understand grammatical categories. Thus, certain prescriptivist prescriptions (no split infinitives, no prepositions at ends of sentences) serve the purpose of facilitating Latin acquisition. This is a sensible goal, but not the only one. In particular, one can learn the grammatical categories and at the same time learn that English uses them more flexibly than Latin. (If your child is slow of study but you still think it's all-important that he learn Latin, by all means neglect the other possible goals.)

5. Yes, and it should be clear that I find language incredibly important and interesting. Someone uninterested in language would be far less interesting to me as a mate or ghostwriter. However, language skill does not mean following the prescriptivist prescriptions. In fact, I consider that the ability to use language flexibly, differently in different contexts, with an ear to what serves one's different goals with different audiences, to be the true hallmark of linguistic skill.
7.24.2007 4:37pm
Justin (mail):
Damnit, this was not going to be fun unless and until we were able to discuss both Veblen and the Scalia v Prakash/Alexander dispute.
7.24.2007 5:14pm
jimbino (mail):
Sasha: I have a problem with your citing Shakespeare as an example. The last thing we need is for a child to spell as he did. Nor would it be proper to run around nowadays using the "most unkindest cut of all" construction. Shakespeare sounds great to you because your ear has become accustomed to it, as it has become accustomed to cadences of the King James Bible. Nobody nowadays says, "I am come that ye ...."

I wouldn't mind a kid's learning proper English from TV and their parents if he realized that it might handicap him in the future. A master of the language like Mark Twain, who surely gained by paying attention to both good and bad English, could use "ain't" to great effect. But a kid should be told, "I knew Mark Twain. Mark Twain was a friend of mine. Son, you're no Mark Twain."

I personally consider the prohibition on split infinitives and on placement of prepositions at the end of a sentence a canard. But I do distinguish transitive from intransitive verbs. Ask a young person today to explain the distinction and you will come away as frustrated as if you had asked a Roman Catholic to explain the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception [tip: none can]. A good dictionary puts a "v.i." or "v.t." in its definition of every verb for some reason, and it would be great if every kid who didn't understand the distinction were threatened with the hell reserved for those who don't believe in Immaculate Conception.
7.24.2007 5:21pm
jimbino (mail):
Rather, "from TV and his parents..."
7.24.2007 5:23pm
I.I (mail) (www):
There's an argument to be made in the prescriptivist/ descriptivist debate that there is more to language use than clear communication. Composition, whether written or verbal, is not just a technical exercise; it's an art, and each artist brings his own technique and style to the medium. And, just as validly as in any other art form, it's valid to condemn or to praise deviations from the standard styles based on their esthetic effect. And it's just as valid for the artist to scorn those criticisms if he's personally happy with the results.
7.24.2007 5:40pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
I.I: Absolutely, and of course when I say the purpose you're trying to achieve, aesthetic effect can be as much a part of that as you like.

jimbino: Obviously, nothing I'm saying rides on the choice of Shakespeare. Of course a kid shouldn't be taught to write like Shakespeare unless he's trying to forge Shakespeare for profit or for an exercise -- the kid isn't as talented as Shakespeare, and moreover the modern audience is different.

My point is just that unless you can show me (1) how a rule advances some goal, and (2) why I should pursue that goal in a given context, I will ignore your proposed rule as irrelevant. Shakespeare only comes in to illustrate that simplicity of language isn't the only goal out there, but I trust we can agree on that even without using Shakespeare.

However, if you do both (1) and (2), I will entertain any proposal.
7.24.2007 5:50pm
jimbino (mail):
OK, Sasha, I'll rise to the occasion:

One masters the rules of English usage in order to be able to:

Give oneself a head start in learning a foreign or artificial language;
Communicate meaning, especially to foreigners;
Provide for easy translation, by machine or human;
Keep all your audience, while at the same time securing your standing among the literati;
Find a good mate, ghostwriter, law partner;
Keep or get a good job;
Avoid a lawsuit that results from confusion;
Prepare for the LSAT;
Succeed as a con man or law professor;
Pull off mimicking Huck Finn or Nigger Jim, Shakespeare or King James;
Piss off the ignorant, the Harvard grads, the Baptists, the politically correct or the women's libbers, at will.

It is quite appropriate for one to be careless in his use of English if he only wishes to:

Run for election to appeal to and represent the ignorant and careless;
Be politically correct and advance the cause of women's lib;
Avoid standing out in the 'hood;
Be written off by the literati;
Serve effortlessly as a spy in janitorial circles.
7.24.2007 6:39pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
jimbino: You picked too easy a target! Explaining why one might want to "master the rules of English usage" is simple, for all those reasons. The difficult question -- the one that divides so-called descriptivists and prescriptivists -- is what to do in particular cases of neologisms, rules learned from 7th-grade teachers, etc.

This is where, as I've said, the different goals may conflict. Following a particular "rule" may simultaneously (1) make machine translation easier, (2) be incomprehensible to some of your audience, (3) avoid a lawsuit, and (4) make you look like a dweeb in front of a potential mate.
7.24.2007 7:01pm
Ron Hardin (mail) (www):
It remains, even for the most liberal, that some constructions are felt to be ungrammatical by a given speaker, and this needs an explanation. Often it is failure to follow a rule that nobody is even aware of, and a rule very difficult to discover, even in your own case.

What that hidden rule is, and how it gets there, is a mystery.

Try producing the English rule for ``the'' and ``a'' and ``[nothing]'' for a native speaker of a language without articles. The distinction of prescriptivist or descriptivist disappears, when you can't even come up with the rule, and yet you want to help, because one way is right and one way is wrong.

Take that ``right'' and ``wrong'' back to cases where you can explain the rule, and the two styles diverge again; or do they? In the case of helping a non-native speaker learn English.
7.24.2007 8:43pm
jimbino (mail):
The difficult question can be answered in the same way that I would answer a question concerning what to do about recognizing and performing great music. The simple answer is to identify those practitioners you esteem, then learn what they know, do what they do, and even aspire to move beyond them.

First, you have to read the books they've read, played the exercises they've played, study hard and perform. Somewhere along the way you will outgrow the advice of your parents and the 7th grade teacher. You may then become a master skilled at applying the rules so as to satisfy whatever objective is at hand.

But first you will have had to master the rules of the 7th grade before you can selectively reject them. That mastery is what is generally missing in our Amerikan education.

Then you have to learn to discriminate, to separate the wheat from the chaff. There are bright feminists who deliberately say, "To each their own" or some such, as a political statement. But those who say "The problem is is that..." or "If I was in your shoes, I would ..." are to be shunned. They aren't making a statement; they're just dumb or lazy.

In the end, it all comes down to the need to develop an ear for language. As in music, there's no right vs. wrong, but there is uplifting vs. emetic.
7.24.2007 8:50pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
jimbino: So then you agree that it's O.K. for someone with a very good knowledge of grammar -- say, me, or Eugene -- to selectively reject rules based on functional reasoning?
7.24.2007 11:07pm
Tracy W (mail):
One masters the rules of English usage in order to be able to:

Give oneself a head start in learning a foreign or artificial language

Am I the only person who actually only grasped the point of English grammar once I started learning a foreign language?

I remember a teacher at primary school trying to teach me grammar, which I ignored since I didn't understand a language could have different grammatical rules. I thought foreign languages just had different vocabulary. I only learnt otherwise when I started to study Latin.
7.25.2007 12:45am
jimbino (mail):

Yes, it's OK to the extent that it was OK for Twain to put bad English in the mouth of Huck and Jim for effect. But that presupposes that you are a Twain, which you may well be. The problem is that, apart from what you post or write, I have no independent basis for evaluating your erudition. If I had the opportunity to experience a lot of your writing, such as I have Twain's, I might well change my opinion.

Of course, you may not care much about my opinion, preferring, as Bush apparently does, the acclaim of the unwashed masses to the esteem of the erudite. He is misguided, of course, because near-perfect orators such as Reagan, Thatcher and Blair found they could have both.

You have the right to speak however you wish, but I consider it my right, if not my duty, to object vociferously to what I perceive to be your abuse of my language.
7.25.2007 1:28am
CheckEnclosed (mail):
Just as U.S. policy toward Cuba pays homage to a relatively small number of people in Southern Florida who really, really care about the subject, it may be that in cases in which a writer is uncertain about audience proclivities it is best to pander to the prescriptivists. Theirs is the concentration that will be brought up short by grammatical missteps, theirs the opprobrium most to be avoided. Those who don't care about the niceties in general ... won't care. On the other hand, when writing to provoke or stand out, flip the premise. (Break any of these rules rather than say something outright barbarous.) As a legal rhetorician isn't the first rule that it is not enough to be right if one is not persuasive?

Isn't it better to know all the "rules" that the most persnickety observe, and how to obey them, than not? That way one's transgressions are intentional rather than accidental or ignorant?
7.25.2007 2:53am
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
jimbino: That's fine, but in that case, you still haven't met my challenge. For any particular claimed "abuse" of the language, I require an explanation of how my "violation" of the claimed "rule" made it less likely for me to achieve the goal I was seeking.

Defending "mastering the rules of English usage" as a whole won't do, because no one believes in "not mastering the rules of English usage" as a whole, and moreover, the whole debate is over what counts as a valid rule. (Eugene and I tend to think that many so-called "rules" aren't rules at all.)

And saying "you should learn all the rules so you become a master, at which point you can selectively reject them" won't do either, because (1) I do know the rules, even the fake "rules" that I reject, and I reject them consciously and knowingly, and you still aren't happy; and (2) in any event, you don't give any explanation of why a particular master's rejection of a particular rule works.

Using every word, every expression, every instance of grammar and usage, is a choice -- and in good writing, it should be a conscious choice. I do believe in rules of how to write, as you do, but we differ on what those rules are; and in any case, each rule has to be justified individually on its merits.
7.25.2007 8:42am
jimbino (mail):
OK, let's take the rule that pronouns have to agree with nouns in gender, number and case. I believe this thread started out over my complaint about your abuse of that rule in your usage "...when someone talks about 'correct' English, they mean...."

And I gave an example of a case in which such a construction could well lead to injury and a lawsuit, as in the order given to the doctor, "As soon as the Volokhs bring the kid in, be sure to dope them up before doing the circumcision." In my medical editing, I have several times had to correct statements like "Every pregnant woman needs to have their blood pressure monitored."

All this stupidity because, presumably, the PC types have polluted the language by requiring "their" instead of "his" as the pronoun to use in referring to "someone" or "person."

Your similar errors are more innocent only because you write for the Ivory Tower where little you say has much direct effect on real life. But still your usage is polluting the ears of a younger generation that might actually go out and do something important, like design a nuclear weapons tester or a surgical robot.

You must know that your usage would be the one flagged as an error on one of those SAT "Pick the grammatical error in the preceding sentence" questions.

I object to your usage because it sullies the beauty of the language, ruins the ears of the younger generations, complicates communication and translation, and contributes to endangerment of the public.

Looking on the bright side, though, I wouldn't have a job coaching students for the SAT if their minds weren't polluted by 16 years spent exposed to bad English in classrooms, on TV and on Weblogs.
7.25.2007 12:12pm
Rick Wilcox (www):

OK, let's take the rule that pronouns have to agree with nouns in gender, number and case. I believe this thread started out over my complaint about your abuse of that rule in your usage "...when someone talks about 'correct' English, they mean...."

I disagree that the epicene singular they is necessarily poor grammar, and is supported as being an efficient (if not ideal) neuter pronoun by usage dating back to the late fifteenth century and grammar rules dating back at least to the late nineteenth. So we have both "descriptive" and "prescriptive" support.

I've started to grow weary of self-described grammarians who claim that the epicene singular they is in some way a neologism, yet who ignore historical evidence to the contrary.
7.25.2007 1:32pm
Little Loca (mail):
Stop bringing "Eugene" into this! You are not him (he?). Also, he would not have written this:

"Since my goals are usually communicative, . . ." You should have said something like "Since my goal is to communicate effectively, . . ." What you said is certainly not plain English.

But whateverz...
7.25.2007 1:44pm
Little Loca (mail):
Alan Gunn:

You realize that "for him and me" is the correct formulation, right? The consistency you seek is already part of the grammar of the English language.

What you describe is what linguists refer to as "overcorrection" or "hypercorrection." When we are young, we say things like "John and me are going to the store." We are told that it should be "John and I." However, because we don't know why it is "John and I", we (subconsciously) guess at the rule and assume that it must be that whenever there is more than one person involved "me" becomes "I." So, you hear people running around saying "he told John and I." The real reason, of course, for the correction above is that both are subjective pronouns (i.e., you wouldn't say "me am going to the store").

Another example is the dreadful "myself" that is used (incorrectly) to lend a business formality to common phrases: "When you are finished reviewing the documents, you may return them to Peter or myself."

AHH! Even Loca knows that, yo.
7.25.2007 1:54pm
JM Hanes (mail):
Sasha Volokh:
The difficult question -- the one that divides so-called descriptivists and prescriptivists -- is what to do in particular cases of neologisms, rules learned from 7th-grade teachers, etc.

The difficult question can be answered in the same way that I would answer a question concerning what to do about recognizing and performing great music. The simple answer is to identify those practitioners you esteem, then learn what they know, do what they do, and even aspire to move beyond them.

That's probably the last approach I'd recommend! The most elevated practitioners purposefully bend and break the rules to great, and often, dramatic effect. Indeed, Shakespeare, for example, holds the all time record for adding neologisms, now in both common and "correct" usage, to the English lexicon.

In my first experiences with "line dancing," I quickly discovered that attempting to follow the most skillful dancer made learning the footwork inordinately difficult. It was much easier when I looked to an awkward neophyte for the basic steps, and then branched out on my own.

In music, as in writing, context makes an enormous difference. Ambiguity in a legal document can be deadly. Ambiguity or novelty in a poem, as in other forms of creative writing, can make the difference between the plodder and the master. The musical "rules" when composing a concerto for performance are certainly different from the rules governing the composition of a soundtrack.

It seems to me that you are primarily addressing a rather exclusive slice of the pie Sasha put on the table:
Therefore, to the extent a particular phrase makes my thought unclear, marks me as uneducated and therefore reduces my credibility with my readers, or something else along those lines, then using that phrase is a mistake — because it's a less effective way of pursuing my goal.
Your point about legal clarity was certainly well taken, but your general emphasis on correctness as an indicator of erudition is really quite a different matter. I gather that you consider a lack of education to be an immediate disqualifier in terms of credibility and effectiveness. You ask, "Isn't language skill a great proxy for intelligence and erudition in picking your ghost writer, your law partner and your mate?" Language skills are a proxy for one form of intelligence and their usefulness as a predictor of success is limited.

Regardless of whether or not one ultimately considers the Bush tenure at the White House a successful presidency, for example, or finds the man worthy of esteem, it would be hard to argue that being elected (or even appointed!) President of the most powerful nation in the world doesn't qualify as a success. Neither language skills, nor intelligence itself, are particularly reliable predictors of marital success either, thank goodness. Geniuses are notoriously difficult to live with! Fortunately, the benefits of marriage can be enjoyed by almost anyone.
7.25.2007 3:01pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
jimbino: Finally we're speaking the same language! These are valid reasons to oppose using "they" to refer to a single noun, which is why that's usually what I do.

(Note that this is a sufficient answer to Rick Wilcox: This argument does not depend on historical usage, nor does it depend on prescriptivist grammarians. It's your own view based on functional considerations. So pointing to older historical usage or venerated grammarians who endorse the practice doesn't need to make you change your view. But note that, as Rick Wilcox says, the historical evidence refutes your point that it's a neologism; it's in fact quite old.)

However, note that even the "always agree" rule needs to be checked for ambiguity. For instance, "When Sasha comes in with his kid, make sure he gets his blood pressure checked" is also ambiguous.

Therefore, I follow the following modified view:

1. Pronouns should presumptively agree with their antecedent nouns.

2. Sometimes there are countervailing reasons to violate presumptive rule (1). For instance, you might be a feminist. I'm not, but even so, occasionally "everyone... he" might be ambiguous, because in certain contexts it might appear that you're ruling out the feminine; "everyone... he or she" is usually clunky; and rephrasing the sentence to be in the plural may not always be elegant. Therefore, when there are countervailing reasons, I violate presumptive rule (1).

3. If the result ends up being ambiguous (while sticking to presumptive rule (1) is not), then stick with rule (1).

I find that this serves my goals better, because rule (2) allows me an out when I feel that following the "strict agreement" rule would itself be ambiguous or clunky. I don't think this rule will endanger the public or be ambiguous, because (a) my rule (3) already takes this into accuont, and (b) as I said at the top of this comment, even people who follow the "strict agreement" still have to check for ambiguity.

By the way, of course I know this stuff is marked as an error on the SAT. I took the SAT, did well on it, and marked it as an error when I found it then. Surely you know by now I do this not out of ignorance but because I've consciously rejected the claimed "rules" as improper. I hope my example spreads so eventually the SAT drops it, much like it wouldn't test the "thou" form anymore. I'm similarly glad the "who"/"whom" distinction is dying, and I hope to help kill it even more through repeated use.

As for your view that my usage sullies the beauty of the language (and, correspondingly, sully the ears of the younger generation), I give that no weight, because these sorts of aesthetic views are, I believe, largely socially constructed; and, in fact, my aesthetic views disagree with yours here.
7.25.2007 3:11pm
Philip (mail):
Tracy W asks "Am I the only person who actually only grasped the point of English grammar once I started to learn a foreign language?" She goes on to comment that the rules of English grammar began to make sense when she studied Latin. This is a common experience.

It wasn't until after the time of Shakespeare that people began to write English grammars. A classical education meant studying Latin and Greek while English was something less prestigious--a street language. Early grammarians assumed--and they were wrong--that because Latin was constructed a certain way, English must be, too.

Latin has a simple present tense, and if you ask any student (or teacher) of traditional English grammar to identify the verb tense in a sentence like "John leaves," he'd say it's present tense. But that's not the way English works. If John is doing something right now, we'd say "John is leaving." And to insist that sentences like "John leaves for Paris next Tuesday" or "John leaves for work every day at dawn" contain present tense verbs simply doesn't make sense.

English is a Germanic language, one that is different from Latin or the Romance languages that come from Latin. Of course, when we began to study Spanish or Frence, the traditional grammar that we were (mis)taught finally began to make sense--because their grammars are Latinate.

As far as "mastering the rules" goes, we've all done it already. That's what being a native speaker of English (or any other language) means. As native English speakers, we "know" the rules of grammar at some unconscious level. None of us would ever say "John cut ourselves while shaving" or "John cut myself. . ." or "John cut themselves. . ." We all know the "John cut himself while shaving" is correct, but stating the rule accurately and completely would require something like this: Given a sentence in which the subject and object of the verb are coreferential, you must substitute for the second of the two from the set of reflexive pronouns which matches the first in person, number, and gender.

How many native speakers of English without training in linguistics know this rule? Very few of us know it consciously, but all of us unconsciously apply it correctly, and we never get it wrong. We act as if we know the rule, in other words.

Grammar is one thing, and usage (which is the topic of most the commentary) is another. Usage isn't about correctness, it's about prestige and manners. My favorite teacher explained it this way: Imagine that you're in a fancy restaurant with half a dozen forks on one side of the plate and half a dozen spoons on the other. Any of those forks will work to get the food into your mouth, but if you use the wrong one, people will make judgements about you."

"Ain't" or "Everyone who agrees should hold up their hand" or "John and me are going to the store" are examples of using the wrong fork. They communicate perfectly well, but in certain contexts, especially in more formal writing, they are proscribed.
7.25.2007 4:30pm
JM Hanes (mail):
I object to your usage because it sullies the beauty of the language, ruins the ears of the younger generations, complicates communication and translation, and contributes to endangerment of the public.

LOL! You've picked the wrong language if you intend to man those barricades! One of the great glories of English is its unique flexibility. Its richness, which originally derived from a decidedly mixed parentage of Latin vulgarity and Germanic complexity, is sustained by a voracious appetite for co-opting, so to speak, words and usages from other languages, and a grammar that makes acquisitions easy. While that can also make it difficult to learn, and sometimes practice, it does offer substantial rewards in return. Robert McNeil (et al.) produced a wonderfully readable book (and PBS series) on The History of English describing a number of such distinguishing features.

Even excluding technical terminology, the basic English lexicon dwarfs that of any other western language (which I only differentiate from eastern languages because I know nothing about them). The informal flexibility of English syntax, which plays an important role in that comprehensiveness, is, to a surprising extent paralleled and formalized in English grammar. As I recall, for instance, English is the only language which includes a recognized, formalized, process for automatically turning a noun into a transitive verb. We do this routinely by simply adding "ing" to the noun in question -- as in toboggan and tobogganing. Such features are part of why mainstreaming (!) technical jargon, along with importing from words and alternate usages from other sources, comes to us so naturally. In fact, I might even be inclined to argue that English is fundamentally a neologistic language.

I actually happen to be something of a grammar snob myself, although I commit my own share of offenses. The natural end result of the guard duty you've taken it upon yourself to serve, however, is French. Linguistic purity can be expensive. If you compare English and French translations of almost anything, you'll find that it's longer, and often considerably more awkward, in French.
7.25.2007 4:53pm
JM Hanes (mail):
Sorry, make that: turning a noun into an intransitive verb by adding "ing."
7.25.2007 4:59pm
JM Hanes (mail):

You do realize, don't you, that you're not allowed to reference (take that, ye grammar police!) The Feminist Effect on language without consulting a Women's Studies Department somewhere first?
7.25.2007 5:16pm
jimbino (mail):
Actually, Haynes, adding "ing" or anything else to a noun or to anything else is not what makes a verb transitive. A verb, like "activate" is either transitive or intransitive by nature. This morning I heard on the radio, "As soon as your insurance activates, you will be covered."

That represents the common error of using a transitive verb in an intransitive sense. A transitive verb must have an object. The sentence above should read either "As soon as you activate your insurance ..." or "As soon as your insurance is activated."

Some verbs, like "sail" and "deploy" are listed in the dictionary as both transitive and intransitive, which means you can "sail your boat" or you can "sail around the world."

Using a transitive verb will confound machine translators, since they will be looking for an object.

Transitive vs. intransitive is like the Immaculate Conception vs. the Virgin Birth. Everyone's heard of them, but nobody knows the difference.
7.25.2007 5:21pm
JM Hanes (mail):

Actually, jimbino, I corrected the glaringly obvious transitive/intransitive mistake immediately upon reading my posted comment. The only reason I even included the qualifier was because I suspected that some might not immediately recognize toboganning as a verb. I see, however, that the original error allowed you to ignore the central point I was making, to which my perfectly good noun-to-verb example spoke, quite thoroughly!

Oddly enough, the most accurate, off the cuff, explication of Immaculate Conception I've ever heard was offered up by a Jewish in-law.

And that would be Hanes, not Haynes.
7.25.2007 9:16pm
John Rosenberg (mail) (www):
I think I agree with Sasha's sensibility, if not all of his particulars. Take the ubiquitous litmus test: hopefully (no, you take it!):

If one follows the rule of the strict grammarians and never uses hopefully to mean "I hope," one will please the strict grammarians and displease no one, since those who don't care about such usage, not caring, will notice neither the "correct" usage nor the absence of "incorrect usage.'

In short, one of the strongest justifications for precriptivist formalism is quite pragmatic.
7.27.2007 4:23am