The Grammar Of English Grammars

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This Monday, July 3, I’m an invited speaker at English Grammar Day, an annual event involving nonspecialist talks and discussion on aspects of English, held at the British Library, in London.

People have been warning me against full-scale frontal assaults on the general public’s beliefs, or polemics against authorities they respect. Be positive and nonconfrontational, they advise. They want me all soft and kind, as if it’s National Brotherhood Week.

Well, I’ve tried that. My article “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice” gently described a certain much-loved usage-and-style manual as “a bunch of trivial don’t-do-this prescriptions by a pair of idiosyncratic bumblers who can’t even tell when they’ve broken their own misbegotten rules.” But this timidity and tentativity got me nowhere. Enough of such pussyfooting. The gloves are coming off. Monday’s talk will be called:

If Doctors Knew Medical Science Like Writing Critics Know Grammar, You’d Be Dead

I will actually stress not so much that many authorities on English grammar and usage get the facts wrong, but that much of the description found in books on English grammar fails to capture the right generalizations. The line drawn between prepositions and subordinating conjunctions is a major analytical mistake; the traditional characterization of adjectives is confused; and so on.

And I’d like to give some sense of why researching English grammar is interesting and rewarding. Linguists are lucky: We encounter high-quality documentable data everywhere we go. Almost every day I discover things about English that I never knew before, things I’m fairly sure have never been recorded in any grammar book. We linguists are engaged in a live investigation of a huge and fascinating system, not the compilation or critique of a short list of arbitrary rules of verbal etiquette. We seek a satisfying theory of the whole system, not just a few justifications for casting aspersions on other people’s writing. That’s what I want the audience to understand.

Let me give you just one example of a small discovery. Yesterday I picked up the 128-page event program book for the Edinburgh International Book Festival, flipped it open at page 105, and saw this endorsement on a picture of the front cover of a novel:

A must-read novel from a storyteller at the top of their game. —Sarah Pinborough

And I noticed something interesting immediately. It wasn’t just the use of their to refer back to the singular noun phrase a storyteller, serving as a sex-neutral third-person singular pronoun; that’s commonplace. Everybody knows that happens in English, and Lingua Franca has discussed it many times. But people often imagine that “singular they” is a kind of semigrammatical workaround used to avoid reference to sex (Your partner can come too if they want, we say, avoiding the necessity of asking someone whether they’re gay or straight). But there is more to it!

In contemporary standard English, singular they is the most natural and frequent choice of third-person human-reference singular pronoun in sentences where nobody’s sex determines the he/she choice (as in Nobody thought it applied to them) or where the reference is to an arbitrary person whose sex is irrelevant and is not settled by anything in the linguistic context (The person who did that should have their license revoked).

In the case at hand, interestingly, there is evidence of the storyteller’s sex that does not come from within the sentence. For Sarah Pinborough wasn’t blind-refereeing the novel: She knows who wrote it, and makes a claim about the author’s being in top form. Right there on the cover of the book — After the Fire, a novel about a young woman’s escape from a Texan cult — is the author’s name: Will Hill. And Will is a name invariably conferred on males, not females. So Ms. Pinborough must have known that the storyteller is a man. She could have written at the top of his game. Why didn’t she?

Because nothing in the linguistic context of her sentence settles the sex of the storyteller, and it is irrelevant anyway. She claims that the book is a must-read novel by a storyteller x with the property that x is at the top of x‘s game. Nothing about that demands a decision about x‘s sex or gender. Hence singular they is almost obligatory, and certainly the most natural choice.

It’s another interesting piece of evidence about the rules of grammar governing singular they: The rules are sensitive to the difference between (i) evidence from the form of the sentence and (ii) evidence that happens to be available elsewhere. Getting even a few of my audience to see something like that as interesting would make my trip to London feel eminently worthwhile.

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