Grammar and Our Changing Society

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From The Book Designer:

Since 2010 I have written and published ten grammar books. Since 2014 I have written a grammar blog, posting every week. I have taught English, copyedited, and written technical manuals. Suffice it to say that grammar is near and dear to my heart.

. . . .

What exactly is grammar? Grammar consists of words (morphology) and how we put them into sentences (syntax). Most people also put punctuation into the grammar category.

There are two schools of grammar thought:

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  • Prescriptivism – If you are a prescriptivist, you believe that the rules are the rules and that is pretty much it. Occasionally, with a good reason, you will break a rule. Note, however, that we have many different style guides that sometimes disagree. And, English is the only major language that does not have an association that presides over the language and makes the rules.
  • Descriptivism – If you are a descriptivist, you believe that language is alive and ever changing – and that the way people speak and write actually creates the rules.

. . . .

Think about how grammar has changed, let’s say, since the days of Shakespeare. Has it really? What changes most is actually vocabulary. Obviously, language has changed a great deal since Shakespeare wrote his plays. Technology and society change our vocabulary constantly. Thousands of new words are added to the dictionary every year. In fact, the dictionary is updated on a regular basis. Words are added, and some are taken out. Who heard of “mansplaining” a few years ago?

However, syntax has not really changed. Nor has punctuation. We still put our sentences together with same way as always. Verbs have subjects and objects, prepositional phrases perform the same functions they always have, tenses haven’t changed, and commas go in the same places they went a century ago. And the war over the Oxford comma still rages on.

It is societal change that prompts much of the evolution of our language, and copyeditors are now the guardians of making sure correct (and politically correct) language is used.

. . . .

In 2019 the Merriam Webster people said that the singular they is acceptable. The singular they is the “other” controversy (in addition to the Oxford comma, pro or con). What is the singular they?

They is obviously a plural pronoun. It refers to more than one person. It is the third-person plural personal pronoun. Its singular form is heshe, or itHe is male, she is female, and it is a thing (or animal, unless of course, it is your pet.)

So, what is the problem? The problem is that there is no gender-nonspecific pronoun in the English language. But there are people who don’t identify with either he or she.

Everyone needs to bring ______ passport to the airport.

Everyone (everybody, someone, somebody, etc.) might sound plural, but it is singular. But we might not know if the group is entirely male, entirely female, or mixed. Obviously, there are easy workarounds to avoid the issue:

Everyone needs to bring a passport to the airport.
All travelers need to bring their passports to the airport.

But let’s say you were in a situation where you wanted to use the singular pronoun. The old ways were:

Everyone needs to bring his or her passport to the airport.
Everyone needs to bring his/her passport to the airport.
Everyone needs to bring his passport to the airport. (His covering also for her– no longer acceptable)
The awful compromise of alternating between the two in a passage of writing.

Many people have always used the singular they because they didn’t know the difference:

Everyone needs to bring their passport to the airport.

Many prescriptivists still don’t like this. I don’t love it, but I will use it. Well, I will generally just rewrite to avoid it. And of course there have been many attempts at birthing a new word that covers all genders and is singular, but I have seen nothing final on that one yet.

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7 thoughts on “Grammar and Our Changing Society”

  1. As the singular they can apparently be traced back more than 600 years (so a lot older than modern English) and prescriptivists have supposedly been worrying about its use for several hundred years, I really think that there is no point in complaining about such singulars. What’s more, they are actually useful when you don’t know which sex you are dealing with.

    The Oxford Comma is another matter of course … though I do know the right answer to this.

  2. With due respect to the OP, he’s wrong on whether grammar has changed since Shakespeare’s time… unless he really believes that “grammar” and “common usage” do not overlap, and that “grammar” and “vocabulary” don’t either. To list a few examples (of which this very sentence is one):

    * the purported rules “against” splitting infinitives
    * evolution in use of semicolons in lists
    * regularization of the “Oxford” or serial comma, which was unknown in Shakespeare’s time
    * evolution of the relationship between the colon and the semicolon (the tl;dr version is that many instances in which we now use a semicolon for explanatory independent clauses used a colon prior to the mid-nineteenth century)
    * hyphenation
    * the distinction between the m and the n dash, and distinction of both from hyphens
    * verb-number agreement, especially as it has evolved across the pond (e.g., “the company is” versus “the company are”)
    * parentheticals and their punctuation
    * proper formation of lists

    • In a way, your comment, if anything, seems to not disagree with the OP, at least for the main part of their definition of grammar as “words (morphology) and how we put them into sentences (syntax)”. Almost all your examples concern how we write the language, and in particular the rules for the (formal) printed word. And I was surprised that the Oxford comma has been “regularised”, thinking that this was still a subject of dispute (even though the whole idea of a hard and fast rule has always been pointless).

      When it comes to the spoken word, the split infinitive rule did change the syntax a bit by temporarily suppressing the usage that had become common by the 19th century. However, the success of this rule has been ephemeral (I credit James T Kirk for the defeat of the Prescriptivists). We could though point out a wording like “to not disagree” as an example of a real change since the King James Bible.

      Do Americans really say “the company are” when speaking of a limited company? I must admit my almost total ignorance of the history of verb-number agreement in English, so have no idea how it might have changed with time. It’s one of those things that one mostly gets right without thought – even when dealing with trousers as against a pair of trousers – but I can sometimes be thrown by deciding whether or not a noun is singular or plural.

      • As to companies, no, the common american usage is “the company is”, under the logic that a company is a singular entity unto itself (with its own distinct legal existence, too), just as a flock of birds or a herd of cattle are singular collectives. This reserves the plural form for multiple companies, as in “Sony and Microsoft are fighting for market share” vs “Microsoft is undercutting Sony.” ; )

        I’ve seen “company” treated as a plural in british online media but I don’t recall seeing flocks or herds so treated. Just another example of transatlantic divergence?

  3. If you are a descriptivist, you believe that language is alive and ever changing – and that the way people speak and write actually creates the rules.

    Does anyone think the language is dead and never-changing?
    Anyone think the rules came before people started speaking and writing?

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