Joho the Blog » grammar

November 27, 2013

Pronouns were a mistake that we can fix

I think half the questions I ask a certain set of people are of the sort “Wait, which ‘he’?” or “Sheila or Marg?” All pronouns do is introduce ambiguity, error, and irked moods. We’d be better off without them, by which I mean without pronouns.

Worse, in some languages pronouns force us to make decisions about the gender of inanimate objects and even of abstractions. How does that help? Why don’t we also pretend that every object has a race, an eye color, and a favorite fruit? Assigning everything hit points would actually make more sense.

There are two arguments in favor of pronouns. First, some people’s names are long. Might I suggest that if we got rid of pronouns, people would soon start taking shorter names? Or we’d come up with a convention to shorten the names in unambiguous ways. Perhaps “y” would be appended to the first syllable, as in “First Lady Michy said to President Oby, “Bary, I think you ought to meet with ex-Governor Schwarzy,” all without any implied disrespect.

Second, plural pronouns can be useful when the group doesn’t have a known name or an obvious common descriptor. For example, “Two men, a woman, and a cockerspaniel drove up to an off-duty waiter and a former action movie star, and said ‘Hey, why don’t you get in our car?,” which they did.” The ‘they’ in that sentence does some useful work. I will allow it.

First person plural is an interesting challenge. I think I would allow “we” only for an indefinite group, as in the title of this post. Otherwise, instead use the name or descriptor of the group you have in mind. Think about how clarifying it would be to actually have to specify who you’re pretending to speak for?

I will allow the use of the first person singular since it is less ambiguous than using your own name: “Give that to David” isn’t helpful when I’m in a room with David Winer, David Cameron, and Michelangelo’s Statue of David. Second person singular pronouns should not be allowed, however, since there can be ambiguity about whom one is addressing. Second person plural I will allow on the same grounds as third person plural. Plus, by disallowing the second person singular, I have solved the ambiguity caused by using the exact same frigging word for second person singular and plural. What were we thinking?

Y’all are welcome.

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January 7, 2013

Because noun

I’ve been enjoying the rise of a grammatical meme, which the less charitable might call an ungrammatical meme. It’s that thing where you upset expectations by following “because” not with a phrase or clause but simply with a noun. For example, one might say “We invaded Iraq because freedom” or “I ate all of my dessert because chocolate.”


In its initial formulations — which is to say, the first times I saw it — it had a mocking edge, indicating that the explanation for an event was inadequate; people didn’t think past a blind, simplistic support for freedom. Now it’s becoming more of a tribal marking than a statement about the adequacy of the explanation.


I think there’s a good chance it will stick, because efficiency.

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May 3, 2012

Impacted by conflicted

For me, “impacted” refers to an unpleasant dental condition, and cannot be used as a verb. So, given my grammatical self-righteousness on this point, I was chastened to read a column written by William Safire sometime in 1989-1991 (in his anthology In Love with Norma Loquendi) criticizing the use of “conflict” as a verb. He cites a psyhotherapist who says, “Conflicted as a verb is fairly recent.” It had not occurred to me that I need to make an ass of myself about that word as well.

On the other hand, Safire points out that in the sentence “He felt conflicted,” “conflicted” is a predicate adjective — “a past participle used as an adjective after a linking verb” — and thus isn’t being used as a verb. But it is a verb in the sentence “Therapists have to work on resolving what conflicts the patient.”

Since I don’t understand predicate adjectives well enough to be sure I’m right when I denounce someone for misusing a term in a way that no one cares about and does not matter, I will simply have to amp up my sneering tone in order to raise the stakes on pushing back against my criticism.

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November 12, 2008

Everyone’s position on linguistic correctness

AKMA points to two snippets from Stephen Fry on grammatical purity. The second snippet is classic Laurie and Fry.

AKMA expresses his usual admirable inclusiveness: He thinks grammatical correctness is worth striving for, but also acknowledges that language can usefully overflow its bounds. I’m with him. I was disappointed to hear Obama use the phrase “between her and meI,” and at his recent press conference to use “between” instead of “among” when referring to relationships of three or more. But I’m not a stickler. Why, I’ve recently become willing to blatantly split an infinitive or two.

When it comes to the sanctity of the rules of language, doesn’t everyone have the same position? While we think people ought to follow the grammatical rules that matter, we graciously condescend to permit others to make fools of themselves in public, unless they break rules the violation of which force a “Tut tut” from our lips. The difference is only over which particular rules we think are worth following, ignoring, or tut-tutting.

Or, to complete Henry Higgins’ thought: “Oh, why cahn’t the English … learn … to … speak … like me.” Pardon me: “…as I do.”

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