“Otherwise Incorrect”

A commenter writes:

I’ve never liked the cyclic reasoning of the paradigm that if an otherwise incorrect use of grammar or spelling becomes widespread, it is declared to be henceforth correct.

If you want to use “they” in this context, then rephrase it as “I would like to thank the editors at Attorney.org for their kind words…” or “to thank the members of Attorney.org…” Otherwise Attorney.org is a singular noun.

The key to this argument, I think, is the notion that we can identify certain usages as “otherwise incorrect,” independently of actual usage.

This can mean one of two things, I think: First, a usage might be “otherwise incorrect” because it was until recently nonstandard, and (the argument would go) changing practice shouldn’t make “henceforth correct” something that was nonstandard until now. I find it hard to see why this makes sense. Among other things, the usage that was standard until recently might itself have departed from past usage, and become correct simply because of changing practice. So either one insists that all changes since, say, 1600 (but why 1600? Why not 1200?) are wrong, or one has to explain why we today should be stuck with the 1900 usage and not accept the 2009 usage.

Second, and I think more likely, is the premise that a usage might be otherwise incorrect because it violates certain logical rules of English grammar. Yet the trouble is that the actual rules of English grammar including many subrules that depart from the apparent “logic” of the broader rules.

Thus, for instance, “are” is generally plural — yet we say “you are” even when the “you” clearly refers to a single person. The story behind this is doubtless complex, and of course has to do with the fact that “you” is both a second-person plural and the second-person singular, and that the informal second-person singular “thou” has become nonstandard in all but a few highly specialized contexts.

And yet whatever the story, the fact remains that the “otherwise incorrect” usage of “are” to refer to a single person — incorrect, that is, if we appeal to the simplest statement of the rule governing “are” (“are” is for plurals) — becomes correct when it is used with “you.” Or, more precisely, there is a descriptively correct general rule (“are” is used with plural nouns and not with singular nouns) that has a descriptively correct exception (“are” is also used with the second-person singular “you”). How do we know that these rules are correct? Not by appeals to logic, but precisely by reference to widespread (here, nearly universal) usage.

But, wait, there’s more: “I are” is nonstandard and therefore descriptively incorrect. “I aren’t” is, too, as are “I aren’t” and even “Are I not …?” But “Aren’t I …?” is indubitably fully standard, and I haven’t seen any credible usage source even claim that it is somehow incorrect. Why is it correct, even though it would be “otherwise incorrect” if we appeal to the broad logic of pronoun rules? Because it is “the will of custom, in whose power is the decision and right and standard of language.”

I could give more examples (such as this one), but I take it my point is clear without them: Lots of perfectly correct English terms and phrases are “otherwise incorrect” if one looks at some broader rules of language — but they are correct because they form exceptions from these rules (rules in the sense of regularities, not in the sense of somehow logically, legally, or morally binding laws). My tentative claim (tentative because it was based on just some casual searching) is that the “Thanks to [group] for their …” usage is likewise an exception from the norm that a group is an “it” and not a “they.” Maybe I’m descriptively wrong on this. But if I am wrong, it’s not because the usage, even if common, is “otherwise incorrect”; that would just show it to be one of the many exceptions present in English grammar and usage.

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