“Internal Structures of Logic or Order”

A commenter wrote, apropos my “pleaded” / “pled” post,

Can Volokh possibly be truthful when he says that he can see no basis for calling a use “incorrect” other than statistical usage? Can he really believe that [l]anguage has no other internal structure of logic or order except for usage? This is a silly view.

Others made similar arguments in the past, so I thought I’d blog about this.

English, probably like all human languages, is full of internal structures of logic and order (which I’ll call “regularities” — observations that “conform[] to a trend [or] pattern”). It’s critical for people to understand these regularities in order to learn the language (which is to say to learn actual usage). They also help shape how the language changes: New terms and changes to old terms almost always fit some aspect of those regularities. The regularities are thus helpful predictors of usage, for instance when you’re not familiar enough with the term to know the usage, and can’t easily look it up (if you’ve never heard the verb suborn before, you can still make a good guess that its past tense is suborned), or when the term is too new for there to be a large pool of usage to consult.

The trouble is that those regularities often conflict with each other, or have one-off exceptions that are fully standard, notwithstanding their departure from the regularity. Regularities can’t tell you which of two rival regularities to turn to, nor can tell you when an exception to the regularities should be used. How do we resolve these conflicts? Precisely by looking at standard usage.

For instance, there’s a very helpful regularity in English: c followed by e or is almost always pronounced s (see, e.g., accept). But there are a few exceptions, for instance in soccer. If you follow the internal structures of logic or order, and say sokser, you will not be speaking standard English. To determine what is standard English here, you have to look to usage, however illogical and chaotic, not by the internal structures of logic and order.

Likewise, consider the item that prompted the comment to which I’m responding — pleaded vs. pled. There is an important and commonly followed regularity in English: Most verbs form the past tense by adding -ed. But pled didn’t develop just because someone invented a completely unusual irregularity; language rarely changes that way.

Rather, there is also a rival regularity: The other verbs that end with the -leed sound, when produced by the letters -lead and -leedlead, mislead, and bleed — form the past tense by changing the -eed sound to an -ed sound. And some (but not all) other verbs that end with the -eed sound, when produced by -ead and -eed, operate similarly: read, breed, feed, and speed (but not bead, knead, deed, heed, need, or seed). I assume that plead acquired the pled form by analogy to lead, bleed, and the like — by following one regularity rather than another, and not just by entirely departing from “internal structures of logic or order.”

So which regularity to follow? The only answer is usage. Usage gives us one answer for lead and read. It gives us another for bead and need. For plead, modern legal usage (as reflected in court opinions) reports that both pleaded and pled are standard.

I don’t think there’s any external vantage from which you can fault established usage as “incorrect” (as opposed to, say, ambiguous or confusing, which is a different criticism). Correctness is, in my view, defined by usage. But in any event, unless you are prepared to radically redesign the English language — and somehow get hundreds of millions of speakers to go along with you — you can’t define correctness by adherence to “internal structure of logic or order,” because in our actual current English language there are many rival structures, as well as exceptions to structures.

Let me explore this a bit more using one of my favorite examples — the personal pronouns, coupled with the verb to be. These seven-plus-one simple words, and their forms, help illustrate both how many regularities there are in the language, and how often there are exceptions from those regularities, and rival regularities that compete with the primary regularities. Here’s what is doubtless just a partial list:

  1. Pronouns, like most other words — and like most nouns, which are pronouns’ close grammatical relatives — are generally not capitalized except at the start of a sentence (and in some related contexts). Yet this regularity does not apply to the nominative case of the pronoun I.
  2. Most pronouns have a fixed number (singular or plural). Yet this regularity does not apply to you, which is grammatically always plural (with one exception which we’ll get to shortly), but which semantically includes both the singular and plural. (The informal singular second-person thou is no longer part of Standard English.) They is also sometimes used semantically to refer to a single person, as a synonym for “he or she,” but that is controversial. The use of you to refer to a single person (but, again, always with grammatically plural verbs) is not at all controversial.
  3. English verbs have two forms in the present tense – the singular (e.g., eats) and the plural (eat). Likewise, one English verb, to be, has two forms in the past tense, the singular was and the plural were. These are very solid regularities; but I offers exceptions from all of them. It yields a third form of the present-tense to be (am). With other present-tense verbs, it takes the same form of the verb as that for plural nouns and pronouns (I eat rather than he eats), even though I is semantically singular. But with the past-tense indicative to be, it takes the same form of the verb as that for singular nouns and pronouns (I was, just like he was).
  4. As I mentioned, pronouns are grammatically quite similar in many ways to nouns. But while this similarity yields many regularities, there is an important rival regularity: While other English nouns have only two cases, the nominative and the possessive (dog and dog’s) — unlike in other languages, such as Russian, where the nouns have many cases — the personal pronouns (plus who) have three: the nominative, the objective (e.g., me, him), and the possessive.
  5. The possessive case in English is usually quite regular; one adds either an apostrophe-s or an apostrophe, depending on the circumstances. But pronouns have a rival regularity: Using an apostrophe-based possessive adjective form for them is nonstandard, and instead one has to use special possessive adjectives, my, our, your, his, her, its, and their?
  6. The possessive case in English also usually yields the same results in the adjective form (the dog’s dinner) and the noun form (this dinner is the dog’s). But pronouns have a rival regularity: The possessive pronouns, mine, ours, yours, his, hers, its, and theirs differ from the possessive adjectives, my, our, and so on.
  7. The possessive pronouns exhibit a clear regularity: They are the possessive adjectives plus “s,” unless they already end in “s.” But there is of course an exception — mine, not mys.
  8. On then to the reflexive pronouns, where we see another battle of the regularities. On the one hand, the reflexive pronouns follow a regular singular (-self) vs. plural (-selves) pattern, even more solidly than the verbs do (since, as I mentioned, verbs generally take the plural form with I). On the other hand, you exhibits a regular pattern of being plural, even when it’s semantically singular. Which prevails? As it happens, it’s the singular/plural self/selves pattern, so we get statements such as you yourself are going to do this, with the singular yourself being matched up with the plural are, by way of the semantically singular but grammatically plural you. But in any event, only one of the regularities can prevail; its competitor, whichever that might be, can’t be followed.
  9. And the reflexive pronouns exhibit a clear regularity: The reflexive is the possessive adjective plus self/selves, as in myself, yourself, yourselves, and ourselves. Except of course when that regularity yields results that are not considered standard English (such as hisself and theirselves); for those, there is a rival regularity, of using the objective plus self/selves, as in himself, themselves, and itself. (Herself would be the same either way.)

And these are just the seven personal pronouns. To be sure, they are an especially irregular lot, but there are plenty of irregular verbs, irregular noun plurals, irregular pronunciations, and other irregularities and rival regularities.

Again, the only way we can tell which to choose among two rival regularities, or when to apply an exception rather than a regularity, is usage. We know I is capitalized because it’s nearly always capitalized in standard written English. We say himself but myself because that’s the way most people who speak our standard dialect say it. It’s not that one is somehow more logical and ordered than the other. The most logical and ordered way would be either to say himself and meself or hisself and myself. But it would not be standard English.

Regularities don’t define whether a usage is correct. Rather, usage defines whether we follow the regularities, and which regularities we follow. If we see an anomaly that is part of standard usage, we can’t fault the usage as incorrect on the grounds that it departs from the “internal structures of logic and order” — just like we can’t fault people for writing a capital I, or saying I was (using the singular form) but I eat (using the plural form).