Are you smarter than a fifth-grader?

January 17, 2012

It was, if recollection is accurate, in the fifth grade that I got my first thoroughgoing instruction in English grammar and usage. My fifth- and sixth-grade English teacher, Mrs. Jessie Perkins, and my seventh- and eighth-grade English teacher, Mrs. Elizabeth Craig, redoubtable women both, took the same attitude toward English that Miss Prism took toward Fiction: The good end happily and the bad unhappily. There are Rules, they are known, they are to be applied universally, and violators pay a price.

Mind you, I understand that simplification, even oversimplification, is necessary for instructing the young in the elements of writing. It would be sadistic and unprofitable to drop Otto Jespersen on the head of an eleven-year-old. But at the same time, we understand, or should, that English grammar and usage are a good deal more complex than schoolroom exercises can encompass, just as the world needs rather more mathematics than checkbook-balancing addition and subtraction.

Unfortunately, many people stick at the fifth-grade level in their understanding of the language, as one can see from the response of one reader to a post by Geoffrey Pullum at Lingua Franca about singular they.* “Mary,” a stickler for the Rules, wrote, “No way shall I ever be convinced to change this in my writing or listening.” And Professor Pullum can only marvel at the prevalence of dogma, what he calls “faith-based grammar” in the face of any and all evidence to the contrary.

A somewhat more sophisticated dogma is expressed in a comment on the post by Bill Reader, who professes journalism at Ohio University: “The problem is the breakdown of logic that comes with persistent, often unnecessary, conflation of singular and plural forms in a language that depends heavily on pronouns. The lax logic is counterintuitive to professional writing, particularly in the non-fiction writing common in journalism, education, public service, and research. It is lazy, unprofessional, and (worst of all) inaccurate.”

That last sentence gives the game away. Professor Reader finds singular they aesthetically affronting. That, despite all the talk about rules and logic that crops up in these harangues, is what the issue always comes down to. No one ever suggests that they do not understand the meaning of singular they constructions. It is always that the constructions are sloppy, lazy, ugly.

I do wish people would stop talking about what is “logical” in English. Languages abound in elements, such as idioms, that make no logical sense. I wish they would be clearer about distinguishing rules from personal aesthetic preferences. There are plenty of rules, like the order of adjectives or subject-verb agreement—though the latter is a good deal more complex than addressed in the fifth grade. I wish that more people were willing to throw the rubbish overboard—bogus rules, superstitions, class shibboleths.

When it comes down to those personal preferences, I wish people would be realistic about the futility of insisting that one’s personal tastes can be universalized. People who want to maintain H.W. Fowler’s recommended that/which distinction are welcome to it, so long as they understand that it’s not a rule and many people write otherwise. Professor Reader is perfectly free to decline to use they as a singular, and he can even impose his preference on his students. For a term. But the language goes where it will, and Professor Pullum is quite right to insist that the evidence of its complexities is not to be ignored.

No matter what Miz Jessie said in 1962.

*Stop it, just stop it. Singular they in someone, everyone, and each person constructions has been used by the educated and uneducated for centuries, filling a need for a gender-neutral pronoun that English otherwise lacks, and for which no completely satisfactory alternative has ever caught on.

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