Sunday, January 13, 2008

Freshman Composition 101: Redux

Hi. My name is E. Peevie, and I'm a (recovering) prescriptivist. I come from a long line of unapologetic linguistic prescriptivists. Just a few weeks ago my mom commented on the incorrect usage by a television personality of who versus whom. I suggested that according to common usage by native speakers, the distinction was no longer valid.

"So," said my tiny, white-haired momma with a tinge of hostility and possibly even a mote of self-righteous indignation, "Just because everybody does it, that makes it right?"

"Well, um, yes," I said, "in language it does."

"Hmph," said momma.

I know what she was thinking, and what she would have said if the conversation had continued. She would have asserted that of course common usage doesn't change the rules. She might have even compared it to moral relativism: Just because everybody now thinks __________(fill in the blank) is OK doesn't make it right.

I wonder what she'd think of this post in Language Log about the use of the "singular they" to refer to the next president of the United States. Geoffrey Pullum points out that this usage has occurred for the first time because this is "the first moment in history when there is a genuinely non-trivial amount of doubt about whether the next president will be male or female."

Actually, I know what she'd say. She'd be horrified, and insist that the correct pronoun would be the gender-neutral "he," or she'd grudgingly suggest that even the more politically correct "he or she" would be a more correct choice.

When I was an English major back in the dark ages, my grumpy department head, Dr. William Pixton, was a standard-bearer for standard English. His very own "Some Conventions of Standard Written English" was the required text for the composition classes I taught as a graduate teaching assistant. I made freshmen cry with my red pen bleeding all over their lame essays, filled with p-antes and p-agrees and s/v/a's. I drilled it into their thick Okie skulls that pronouns must have clear antecedents, and the antecedents must agree in number with the pronouns.

(I even edited my little brother's papers with the same hard-line approach, and to this day that high-achieving yet tender-hearted big-shot trembles at the mere mention of a p-ante. This post is dedicated to him.)

But I've switched teams. I believe, like GKP, that the singular "they" is here to stay. And I'm starting not to mind so much.

More importantly, isn't it brilliant how relevant and interesting grammar and linguistics are? I'll bet you had no idea.


Boy George said...

"I'll bet you had no idea."

Well, I had no idea that you were a recovering prescriptionist!! For almost as long as I've known you, I've known about your difficulty with prescriptionists such as William Safire, etc. (Although you do agree that his essays on language can be entertaining, don't you?)

In re the singular they, there is an interesting article dedicated to that topic in wikipedia:

Boy George said...

Oops! I meant "prescriptivist" in that post above. (Is there a way to edit these things?)

E. Peevie said...

Boy! Nice to hear from you. I knew what you meant, darlin. And yes, I do totally find Billy S. to be entertaining.

And yes, even though I have long criticized the prescriptivist ways, I also have deep-seated prescriptivist tendencies from my Pixton and BBK-influenced years. (BBK is my momma, FYI.)

I will check out the wikiP link. Thanks. TTFN.

jeanie said...

Dear Mrs. Peevie.
I need to resign as the president of your fan club. You see, it has been almost six weeks since I have read your blog (although today I read ALL the ones I had missed) and two, I do not know what a prescriptivist is nor do I know what half the other stuff you wrote in this blog meant. I feel dumb. I don't think I have the right to call myself the president any more. However, dumb or not, I am smart enough to know that you are great and your blog is the makings of a book !!! I remain a loyal fan and your subject always!

P. S. So how would you like to edit my papers for school. I bet nothing gets past you, and it would be a great lesson in humility for me!