Its (it's) chaos: The trouble with grammar and the English language

by Margo White / 03 September, 2017

English, the language that comes home wearing someone else’s socks.

Many writers and journalists will be thrilled that it’s now almost officially acceptable to write “each to their own” rather than “each to his own”. Seriously, this is news: representatives of the American Copy Editors Society and the Associated Press Stylebook held a meeting in March this year, after which it was announced that: “They/them/their is acceptable in limited cases as a singular and or gender-neutral pronoun, when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy.”

Proofreaders and subeditors around the world may think this is political correctness run amok, because “nobody” and “each” are singular, and “their” is plural. We can’t have that! Oh, yes we can. As a columnist in the Economist pointed out after the pronouncement, the singular they is hardly a “newfangled political invention” but dates back to the King James Bible and has been used ever since – it has “not just modern gender equality but seven centuries of the finest literary tradition on its side”.

The rules of English do galvanise people, as evidenced by the phenomenal popularity of Lynne Truss’s polemical and prescriptive Eats, Shoots & Leaves. It’s also an issue explored by Kory Stamper in her entertaining and charming Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, in which she points out that when it comes to English, it’s chaos out there and this is what she loves about it.

Stamper is a lexicographer and editor at Merriam-Webster, a reference-book publisher. As she is at pains to point out, and contrary to popular perception, the role of the dictionary researcher/writer is not to prescribe how words should be used but to describe how they actually are used.

Besides, according to Stamper, many of the rules governing modern grammar are based on  “the personal peeves, codified into law, of dead white men of yore”.

John Dryden, 17th-century poet and literary critic.

Such as the rule that says we shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition. That particular rule was first championed by the poet and literary critic John Dryden in the 17th century, but Dryden was a devotee of Latin, and in Latin you can’t end a sentence with a preposition. English isn’t Latin and Dryden did end quite a lot of his own sentences with a preposition when he was younger. It was only later (when he was much older and more steeped in Latin) that he decided to tidy up the structure of his English, changing “the age which I live in” to “the age in which I live”, etc. But it was only a matter of taste that led him to prescribe what words we shouldn’t end our sentences with. Or, if you prefer, with what words we shouldn’t end our sentences.

It’s not that words don’t matter. Stamper is clearly devoted to the English language: “It is the darnedest thing to spend your career in the company of this gorgeous, lascivious language.” But English is a slippery and shape-shifting beast (at one stage, Stamper calls it a “whore”) that requires a flexible rather than polemical approach.

The polemicists are everywhere. Stamper and colleagues at Merriam-Webster are regularly obliged to respond to readers driven to sociopathic rage because “irregardless” has been included in the dictionary. It doesn’t make any sense! “Ir” means “not”, as does “less”, so irregardless is a double negative! True, but while Merriam-Webster “strongly advises against using it”, irregardless is a word, regardless of what they think of it.

Using “literally” figuratively also tends to drive people to distraction, but some of the greatest writers in the English language have used literally figuratively: F. Scott Fitzgerald (“He literally glowed”); James Joyce (“Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet”); William Makepeace Thackeray (“I literally blazed with wit”); and Charlotte Brontë (“she took me to herself, and proceeded literally to suffocate me with her unrestrained spirits”). Well, we all find our ways to make a point. Some people shout. Some use literally figuratively. So?

Kory Stamper, a Merriam-Webster lexicographer, in a basement storage area at the company’s Springfield Massachusetts headquarters.

Not that Stamper is recommending throwing out the rule book altogether, or that precision doesn’t matter. She and the Merriam-Webster team could be accused of trolling Donald Trump on Twitter in their defence of lexicographic accuracy, although never in a polemical way. After the President accused China of stealing a US drone and tweeted that it was “unpresidented”, Merriam-Webster tweeted “#WordOfTheDay is ... not ‘unpresidented’. We don’t enter that word.” Later that day, it tweeted its definition of “HUH”. More recently, Merriam-Webster tweeted its definitions of “counsel” and “council” after Trump got the two mixed up, which it followed up with a definition of “SHEESH – used to express disappointment, annoyance or surprise”.

We all have our peeves, but it might be wise to put them in historical context. I flinch when “impact” is used as a verb, but 50 years ago people thought the sky was falling in when people started using “above” as a noun, and we all got used to that.

Lynne Truss has argued that getting “your itses mixed up” (confusing the possessive “its” with the contractive “it’s”) is “the greatest solecism in the world of punctuation” and those who do so deserve to be struck by lightning. Stamper argues that “it’s” is just one of those rules that doesn’t actually make much sense. A few centuries ago, “it” was its own possessive pronoun, as in King Lear: “It had it head bit off by it young”. Then “it” was replaced with “it’s”, which grew in popularity in the 17th and 18th century. At some stage in the 19th century, grammarians decided we needed to be able to distinguish between “it’s” the contraction, and the possessive “its”, but where’s the logic in that? Would we ever really confuse the “dog ate its dinner” with the “dog ate it is dinner”?

Rules about the words we should use and in what order has often been taken as evidence of good breeding, good manners and a reasonable level of education – and I suspect snobbery still underlies many objections to the way other people put their words together. But many of those objections are probably also based on our own habits dying hard; we were taught the right and wrong ways of putting things, we took pride in having learned the rules, and we don’t like change.

But, warns Stamper: “Standard English as it is presented by grammarians and pedants is a dialect that is based on a mostly fictional, static and Platonic idea of usage,” and that mentality “doesn’t preserve English so much as pickle it”.

Stamper has a pretty and persuasive way of putting things. “We think of English as a fortress to be defended, but a better analogy is to think of English as a child... We dress it in fancy clothes and tell it to behave, and it comes home with its underwear on its head and wearing someone else’s socks.'

This was published in the July 2017 issue of North & South.

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