The whole race of unreal people

April 7, 2016

Time is against me these days, but I want to share a few passages of linguistic interest from Lorna Sage’s remarkable memoir Bad Blood. Sage, who was a professor of English and a literary critic, grew up in a village called Hanmer in north Wales. This first excerpt, which considers the local dialect, follows a note on Thomas Hardy:

Hanmer wasn’t on his [Hardy’s] patch, of course, but you could picture the Maelor district as a mini-Wessex, less English, less fertile, lacking a writer to describe it. The local dialect did make a lot of the syllable ‘Ur’ that he singles out in Tess to stand for the ancient burr you can hear in country voices. In Hanmer grammar ‘Ur’ or ‘’Er’ was the all-purpose pronoun used for men, women, children, cattle, tractors. It implied a kind of levelling, as though all were objects, and you could use it for a tree or a stone, too. In my memory it’s always associated with negatives – ‘dunna’, ‘conna’, ‘wunna’. You kick a gate that’s warped half off its hinge: ‘’Er wunna open,’ you say without surprise. Everything had its own sullen, passive power of resistance.

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How gender-neutral is ‘guys’, you guys?

February 22, 2016

Guy has followed an improbable path from its origin as an eponym for Guy Fawkes to its common and versatile use today. It’s increasingly popular as a term to address mixed-gender and all-female groups, but not everyone welcomes this development (see video below). So how gender-neutral is guys, you guys?

Instead of a simple answer there’s a spectrum that depends heavily on context. But we can draw some general conclusions, as I did in an article at Slate’s Lexicon Valley on guy(s) as a gender-neutral word:

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Ye, youse and yiz in Irish English speech

January 25, 2016

In modern standard English, you as second person pronoun serves a multitude of purposes: singular and plural, subject and object, formal and informal. It wasn’t always so.

Centuries ago the language had singular thou and thee, plural ye and you. The numerical distinction then changed to one of register: thou and thee for familiar use and for speaking to children or people of lower social standing; ye and you for marking courtesy or respect.

Gradually ye and you shifted to the default position, supplanting thou and thee, which were marginalised to regional, religious, and archaic use. Then ye began to wane, for a variety of reasons, until you had taken centre stage as the pronoun of choice in singular and plural uses in all registers – but not all dialects.

Hiberno-English is one dialect where ye is found: I grew up using it in the west of Ireland, and I find it extremely useful. Ye behaves much like you: we have yeer ‘your’, yeers ‘yours’, ye’ll ‘you’ll’, ye’d ‘you’d’, ye’ve ‘you’ve’, ye’re ‘you’re’, and yeerselves ‘yourselves’ (all plural).

These are far more often spoken than written, so they’re less codified than the standard paradigm for you. But I would still consider ye’re ‘your’ in this Irish Examiner article an error (yere without the apostrophe is less wayward):

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He/she finds his/her pronouns a problem

November 3, 2015

kim newman - nightmare movies - horror on screen since the 1960sI’ve been stop-start-reading the revised edition of Kim Newman’s Nightmare Movies, a gift from my brother; it’s an encyclopaedic and thoroughly enjoyable account of Horror on Screen Since the 1960s, as the subtitle has it.

One chapter traces the development of the haunted house genre in film and literature, and upon reaching the landmark release of Rosemary’s Baby it offers an eye-catching usage:

There is no ghost, except the angry shade of Beethoven invoked by the unseen pianist’s stumbling attempts to get through Für Elise, but the Bramford [Rosemary’s apartment building] does have a Past. Ira Levin refined the parallel plot, a device that has been used in most subsequent haunted house films. While the protagonist is being overwhelmed by the supernatural forces clinging to his/her new home, he/she does a little detective work and pieces the place’s evil past together from newspaper morgues, friendly occultist know-alls, and ageing eyewitnesses.

This use of his/her . . . he/she I found a bit halting and self-conscious. It took me out of the text, and not simply because I attend closely to pronoun use. Instead of conveying the author’s intent discreetly, it’s orthographically conspicuous enough to be distracting. Especially because it’s repeated: one instance might sneak by, but two is a pattern that draws unwanted attention.

I’m going to rework the line in question a few times, so I’ll give each version a number. Here’s the original again:

1. While the protagonist is being overwhelmed by the supernatural forces clinging to his/her new home, he/she does a little detective work…

He/she and his/her are more equitable than generic he and his (which I see depressingly often), but they still give men precedence of position. S/he avoids this, but only by fragmenting she and leaving readers with something weird-looking and effectively unpronounceable. Simple reversals (she/he) are occasionally used, or the slash may be replaced by a conjunction: she or he, he or she.

But there’s another problem. All of these options implicitly adopt a gender binary that excludes people who do not identify as either he or she (see my post on Mx). Writing manuals and style guides commonly note that he/she is awkward or clunky, particularly when repeated, but they seldom acknowledge its politics. One of the reasons I support singular they is that it circumvents this restrictive paradigm.

In Newman’s text, however, simply replacing his/her and he/she with singular their and they could mislead readers into thinking that the new home is the (plural) supernatural forces’, not the (singular) protagonist’s:

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Annals of animals which get ‘who’

May 27, 2015

In a local newspaper some time ago I read about ‘dormice . . . who nest in shrubs and hedgerows’. The grammar of this phrase struck me enough to write a brief post on the different kinds of antecedent for which we use the relative pronouns who, that, and which.

When referring to animals we usually use that or which, reserving who for people, or entities that comprise people. But who may also be used for animate entities with personality or the implication thereof, and this includes non-human animals – even dormice, I was pleased to see.

As the table below shows, who is especially likely to be used with pets, companion animals, or domesticated or very familiar animals. If the creature has been personalized with a name or by establishing its sex, there’s a good chance it will warrant who.

I read another example recently in the very first entry in Paul Anthony Jones’s book Word Drops:

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Whom’s Law of Hypercorrection

December 6, 2014

I won’t subject readers to another long, rambling post on whom. But I want to note the tendency, strongest among those who are anxious to use whom “correctly”, to use it even when who would be generally considered the grammatically appropriate choice: as subject pronoun.

Ben Zimmer at Language Log recently criticised a book review at the New Yorker in which Nathan Heller wrote: “The glorious thing about the ‘who’ and ‘whom’ distinction is that it’s simple.” This is an easy assumption to make if your grasp of who/whom grammar owes to the oversimplified instructions of the many prescriptive guides that neglect to examine register* or the trickier possible cases.

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Pompous language is a weapon

November 5, 2014

People have different motivations for using gobbledygook instead of plain language. They may wish to sound impressive and assume, incorrectly, that fancyisms trump familiar words. They may use it as a technique of avoidance or obfuscation, if they want to hide the truth or are unsure of what they’re talking about. Or it might simply be habit or convention, as I said of advise in business communication.

Don Watson elaborates on this in his admirable polemic Gobbledygook: How Clichés, Sludge and Management-Speak Are Strangling Our Public Language (US title: Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language):

Corporate leaders sometimes have good reason to obscure their meaning by twisting their language into knots, but more often they simply twist it out of habit. They have forgotten the other way of speaking: the one in which you try to say what you mean. Instead they welcome their audience and proceed immediately to put them in a coma by announcing their intention to spend the next half hour outlining the company’s key strategies and initiatives going forward, and their commitment to fill capability gaps and enhance sustainable growth for the benefit of all shareholders

Even when we use it as a shield against our own uncertainty, pompous language is a weapon, an expression of power. Part of it is a mistaken effort to elevate the tone. Beneath pomposity rests the assumption that she who elevates the tone will herself be elevated; with luck, beyond scrutiny. The risk, which the truly pompous never see, is that an opposite effect is achieved or the tone moves sideways into unselfconscious parody.

Don Watson - Gobbledygook aka Death Sentence - book coverOn the matter of saying what you mean, Tom Freeman describes a writer going into Writing Mode instead of just putting their ideas in a direct and ordinary way. This is a common problem among aspiring or unskilled writers: they strive for impact in all the wrong ways, such as packing their prose with overelaborations and formal synonyms. Whether through habit, naiveté, diffidence, or lack of faith in simplicity, the result for readers is the same.

Two other things worth mentioning in brief: You probably noticed Watson’s use of she as a generic pronoun – throughout Gobbledygook he alternates between she and he for this purpose. A few writers do, and while I would favour singular they, the alternating style is at least more equitable and inclusive than defaulting to he, as too many writers continue to do. And did you see that unhyphenated unselfconscious? I approve. Oh yes.


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