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You Don't Say John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.

The "war on grammar" was lost a long time ago

The Baltimore Sun

Earlier today Oliver Kamm pointed to a singularly witless article in National Review Online, “The War on Grammar” by Josh Gelernter.

Mr. Gelernter is irate at the American Dialect Society’s indulgence of they as a singular third-person, epicene pronoun: “Trying to depluralize ‘they’ is an asinine effort, stemming from a stupid misunderstanding made by stupid people whom the ADS has chosen to indulge rather than to correct.”

Singular they is unnecessary, he argues, because English already has an epicene third-person, singular pronoun, and that pronoun—wait for it—is he. He has the authority of Webster’s Second (1934) to back him up. Yes, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, Mr. Gelernter is championing the default masculine, against fuzzy-minded linguists who have caved to the feminist/gay/trans cabal.

We have seen the role of language in the culture wars before. I was on the copy desk in the 1980s during newspapers’ resistance to using gay for homosexual. But today the Associated Press Stylebook (bless its heart) says that gay is “preferred over homosexual except in clinical contexts or references to sexual activity.”

No doubt Mr. Gelernter would be happier if it were 1900 again, with President McKinley in the White House and women, African-Americans, and gays in their places (kitchen, shoeshine stand, and closet, respectively). But that is a prospect as unlikely as the return of the default masculine.

If Mr. Gelernter were more inclined to consult history and evidence instead in indulging in pique, he could find out that singular they has been in regular use in English for half a dozen centuries and is recorded as a standard usage in the Oxford English Dictionary (the they entry published in 1919, the first edition completed in 1928).

Or he could recognize that the “war on grammar’ in English was lost 950 years ago outside Hastings on the southern English seacoast, when the Norman victory over Harold II ensured that English—Anglo Saxon, the original English tongue—would be demolished by a rabble of semiliterate Normans and illiterate peasants who over time would shape the language to serve their purposes.

Mr. Gelernter appears to dislike the culture he lives in, which is sad, but there is no need for him to take it out on the American Dialect Society, which is describing aspects of that culture, not determining it.

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