On grammar in Latin and English.

On grammar in Latin and English.

I spent most of my time during high school doodling in notebooks – during an entire year of biology, the only thing I learned was that the word for several fish of a single type is “fish,” but the word for several fish of different species is “fishes.” 

For dissections – earthworms, giant crickets, pig hearts, and frogs – we were partnered with whomever sat at the table with us.  My partner always brought the newspaper and ostentatiously checked stock prices during class.  The kid in front of me spent a few weeks reading A Confederacy of Dunces. 

My eyesight wasn’t good enough to read over her shoulder.

At least the distinction between fish and fishes turned out to be correct.  My statistics teacher was a baseball coach – he didn’t know calculus, so the only explanation he gave for the workings of a Gaussian distribution was that the numbers were printed on a chart. 

The baseball team had a winning record, though. 

Even in English class, my brain was filled with junk.  We were taught not to split infinitives or end sentences with prepositions.  These are sensible rules in Latin.  An infinitive – like “to read” – is a single word in Latin, so it would be quite strange to put another word in the middle.  Latin also has strict rules about word order — a sentence would be garbled if the preposition was in the wrong place.

But we weren’t learning Latin!  We were learning English, and – lo and behold! – the grammar rules of English are different.  In English, word order is flexible.  A lot of nuance comes from the arrangement of our sentences.  English doesn’t have as many tenses as other languages – there’s no subjunctive – so we English speakers need to scrape out nuance where we can.

In my high school English class, we were also taught not to use “their” as a singular possessive.  Even now, I rarely do – I don’t write “Each student brought their book,” I instead sacrifice the meaning of my sentences and write things like “Students brought their books.”

I was hoodwinked!  Instead of using the word “their” as a singular pronoun – which it is, in English – I trusted my teachers when they claimed that this word was exclusively plural.

Hogwash!  The equivalent claim would be to say that it’s incorrect to write:

You are reading this essay.

After all, “you” is a plural pronoun.  And “are” is the plural conjugation of the verb “to be,” which I used only to match the expected conjugation of the pronoun “you.”  The correct thing to write is:

Thou is reading this essay.

See?  There’s only one person reading, so I need a singular pronoun, “thou,” and a singular conjugation, “is.”

From What’s Your Pronoun? by Dennis Baron, I learned that the pronoun “they” has been used as a singular since the 1300s.

In a sense, singular you is even more of a newcomer on the pronoun scene.  The plural you was applied as a singular pronoun to address royalty as early as the thirteenth century and was used in other situations demanding deference and formality – call the monarch thy majesty instead of your majesty and it could mean off with your head.

But you doesn’t appear as a singular in all contexts until the 1600s, when it slowly, slowly starts pushing out thou, thee, thy, and thine, second-person singulars that English speakers had been using since the days of Beowulf.  The th- singulars persist even now in some English dialects, and nineteenth-century grammar books regularly demanded singular thou and thee, along with thy and thine, even though these pronouns were no longer considered standard English.

It consoled me somewhat to read that students have long been taught outdated, inaccurate information.  It’s not just my brain that was filled with rubbish.

When a cabal of misogynistic grammarians worked to replace singular they with he in English textbooks, people tried to protest. 

In 1885, in an article titled “The New Pronoun,” the Atlanta Constitution printed:

There is nothing awkward or ungrammatical in [singular they] so far as the construction of English is concerned.  It is ungrammatical when measured by the Latin method – but what has Latin grammar to do with the English tongue?

If you wanted, you could even make a scientific argument for the validity of singular they – in quantum mechanics, the state of each single particle is described by a superposition of states.  Immediately after a measurement, wavefunctions can “collapse” to be composed primarily of a unique form – after a photon passes through a polarizer, it’s fluctuation will be parallel to the polarizer’s axis.  But even this “up and down” state can be expressed as an equal superposition of two perpendicular polarizations tilted forty-five degrees.  Indeed, the latter expression is the only useful way to describe this photon if it’s about to pass through a second polarizer tilted forty-five degrees from the first.

We are not monolithic.  Each and all of us can be described as an amalgam of many different traits.

But we don’t need any scientific justification for the use of singular they in English.  This grammatical usage is deeply enshrined in our language, and the singular pronoun “they” can best convey the plenitude of many individual humans’ identity & experience.

It’s still difficult for me to use the word “they” as a singular pronoun in formal sentences – my crummy education was pernicious.  The proscriptions are deeply ingrained in my brain.  But I’d like to think that I’m not totally calcified in my ways.  And I’m quite grateful that Denis Baron prepared such an erudite history of English pronoun usage.  What’s Your Pronoun​? is a lovely little book.

I hope that my kids’ brains will be less muddled than my own.  When we read stories aloud, we typically correct unnecessarily gendered language.  Girls and boys become kids.  An actress is an actor, too.  Our Curious George lives in a world of fire fighters and police officers.

I was reading Rob Harrell’s gorgeous Monster on the Hill to our kids when our three-year-old interrupted me.  At first, I couldn’t understand what she was saying.  I asked her to repeat herself.

“You should say spouse.”

from Rob Harrell’s Monster on the Hill

She was right, of course.  I’d unthinkingly read the text as written.  So I felt embarrassed … for a moment.  Then I remembered to feel proud.

On Ann Leckie’s ‘The Raven Tower.’

On Ann Leckie’s ‘The Raven Tower.’

At the beginning of Genesis, God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

“Creation” by Suus Wansink on Flickr.

In her magisterial new novel The Raven Tower, Ann Leckie continues with this simple premise: a god is an entity whose words are true.

A god might say, “The sky is green.”  Well, personally I remember it being blue, but I am not a god.  Within the world of The Raven Tower, after the god announces that the sky is green, the sky will become green.  If the god is sufficiently powerful, that is.  If the god is too weak, then the sky will stay blue, which means the statement is not true, which means that the thing who said “The sky is green” is not a god.  It was a god, sure, but now it’s dead.


And so the deities learn to be very cautious with their language, enumerating cases and provisions with the precision of a contemporary lawyer drafting contractual agreements (like the many “individual arbitration” agreements that you’ve no doubt assented to, which allow corporations to strip away your legal rights as a citizen of this country.  But, hey, I’m not trying to judge – I have signed those lousy documents, too.  It’s difficult to navigate the modern world without stumbling across them).

A careless sentence could doom a god.

But if a god were sufficiently powerful, it could say anything, trusting that its words would reshape the fabric of the universe.  And so the gods yearn to become stronger — for their own safety in addition to all the other reasons that people seek power.

In The Raven Tower, the only way for gods to gain strength is through human faith.  When a human prays or conducts a ritual sacrifice, a deity grows stronger.  But human attention is finite (which is true in our own world, too, as demonstrated so painfully by our attention-sapping telephones and our attention-monopolizing president).

Image from svgsilh.com.

And so, like pre-monopoly corporations vying for market share, the gods battle.  By conquering vast kingdoms, a dominant god could receive the prayers of more people, allowing it to grow even stronger … and so be able to speak more freely, inured from the risk that it will not have enough power to make its statements true.

If you haven’t yet read The Raven Tower, you should.  The theological underpinnings are brilliant, the characters compelling, and the plot so craftily constructed that both my spouse and I stayed awake much, much too late while reading it.


In The Raven Tower, only human faith feeds gods.  The rest of the natural world is both treated with reverence – after all, that bird, or rock, or snake might be a god – and yet also objectified.  There is little difference between a bird and a rock, either of which might provide a fitting receptacle for a god but neither of which can consciously pray to empower a god.

Image by Stephencdickson on Wikimedia Commons.

Although our own world hosts several species that communicate in ways that resemble human language, in The Raven Tower the boundary between human and non-human is absolute.  Within The Raven Tower, this distinction feels totally sensible – after all, that entire world was conjured through Ann Leckie’s assiduous use of human language.

But many people mistakenly believe that they are living in that fantasy world.

In the recent philosophical treatise Thinking and Being, for example, Irad Kimhi attempts to describe what is special about thought, particularly thoughts expressed in a metaphorical language like English, German, or Greek.  (Kimhi neglects mathematical languages, which is at times unfortunate.  I’ve written previously about how hard it is to translate certain concepts from mathematics into metaphorical languages like we speak with, and Kimhi fills many pages attempting to precisely the concept of “compliments” from set theory, which you could probably understand within moments by glancing at a Wikipedia page.)

Kimhi does use English assiduously, but I’m dubious that a metaphorical language was the optimal tool for the task he set himself.  And his approach was further undermined by flawed assumptions.  Kimhi begins with a “Law of Contradiction,” in which he asserts, following Aristotle, that it is impossible for a thing simultaneously to be and not to be, and that no one can simultaneously believe a thing to be and not to be.

Maybe these assumptions seemed reasonable during the time of Aristotle, but we now know that they are false.

Many research findings in quantum mechanics have shown that it is possible for a thing simultaneously to be and not to be.  An electron can have both up spin and down spin at the same moment, even though these two spin states are mutually exclusive (the states are “absolute compliments” in the terminology of set theory).  This seemingly contradictory state of both being and not being is what allows quantum computing to solve certain types of problems much faster than standard computers.

And, as a rebuttal for the psychological formulation, we have the case of free will.  Our brains, which generate consciousness, are composed of ordinary matter.  Ordinary matter evolves through time according to a set of known, predictable rules.  If the matter composing your brain was non-destructively scanned at sufficient resolution, your future behavior could be predicted.  Accurate prediction would demonstrate that you do not have free will.

And yet it feels impossible not to believe in the existence of free will.  After all, we make decisions.  I perceive myself to be choosing the words that I type.

I sincerely, simultaneously believe that humans both do and do not have free will.  And I assume that most other scientists who have pondered this question hold the same pair of seemingly contradictory beliefs.

The “Law of Contradiction” is not a great assumption to begin with.  Kimhi also objectifies nearly all conscious life upon our planet:

The consciousness of one’s thinking must involve the identification of its syncategorematic difference, and hence is essentially tied up with the use of language.

A human thinker is also a determinable being.  This book presents us with the task of trying to understand our being, the being of human beings, as that of determinable thinkers.

The Raven Tower is a fantasy novel.  Within that world, it was reasonable that there would be a sharp border separating humans from all other animals.  There are also warring gods, magical spells, and sacred objects like a spear that never misses or an amulet that makes people invisible.

But Kimhi purports to be writing about our world.

In Mama’s Last Hug, biologist Frans de Waal discusses many more instances of human thinkers brazenly touting their uniqueness.  If I jabbed a sharp piece of metal through your cheek, it would hurt.  But many humans claimed that this wouldn’t hurt a fish. 

The fish will bleed.  And writhe.  Its body will produce stress hormones.  But humans claimed that the fish was not actually in pain.

They were wrong.

Image by Catherine Matassa.

de Waal writes that:

The consensus view is now that fish do feel pain.

Readers may well ask why it has taken so long to reach this conclusion, but a parallel case is even more baffling.  For the longest time, science felt the same about human babies.  Infants were considered sub-human organisms that produced “random sounds,” smiles simply as a result of “gas,” and couldn’t feel pain. 

Serious scientists conducted torturous experiments on human infants with needle pricks, hot and cold water, and head restraints, to make the point that they feel nothing.  The babies’ reactions were considered emotion-free reflexes.  As a result, doctors routinely hurt infants (such as during circumcision or invasive surgery) without the benefit of pain-killing anesthesia.  They only gave them curare, a muscle relaxant, which conveniently kept the infants from resisting what was being done to them. 

Only in the 1980s did medical procedures change, when it was revealed that babies have a full-blown pain response with grimacing and crying.  Today we read about these experiments with disbelief.  One wonders if their pain response couldn’t have been noticed earlier!

Scientific skepticism about pain applies not just to animals, therefore, but to any organism that fails to talk.  It is as if science pays attention to feelings only if they come with an explicit verbal statement, such as “I felt a sharp pain when you did that!”  The importance we attach to language is just ridiculous.  It has given us more than a century of agnosticism with regard to wordless pain and consciousness.

As a parent, I found it extremely difficult to read the lecture de Waal cites, David Chamberlain’s “Babies Don’t Feel Pain: A Century of Denial in Medicine.”

From this lecture, I also learned that I was probably circumcised without anesthesia as a newborn.  Luckily, I don’t remember this procedure, but some people do.  Chamberlain describes several such patients, and, with my own kids, I too have been surprised by how commonly they’ve remembered and asked about things that happened before they had learned to talk.

Vaccination is painful, too, but there’s a difference – vaccination has a clear medical benefit, both for the individual and a community.  Our children have been fully vaccinated for their ages.  They cried for a moment, but we comforted them right away.

But we didn’t subject them to any elective surgical procedures, anesthesia or no.

In our world, even creatures that don’t speak with metaphorical language have feelings.

But Leckie does include a bridge between the world of The Raven Tower and our own.  Although language does not re-shape reality, words can create empathy.  We validate other lives as meaningful when we listen to their stories. 

The narrator of The Raven Tower chooses to speak in the second person to a character in the book, a man who was born with a body that did not match his mind.  Although human thinkers have not always recognized this truth, he too has a story worth sharing.

More on violence against women … sexism, in particular.

This is second in a series.  Find the first essay here.

Given that I’ve been writing about violence against women in a university setting, it’s probably worth slapping together an essay about the paucity of female professors, specifically in the sciences.  And this is something that’s been addressed quite often, so quite possibly you’ve read a bit about it already.  I’m not sure how much new material I can bring to your attention, but let’s give it a whirl, shall we?

In terms of recent discussions, I think the Larry Summers talk is probably most well-known.  He was addressing explicitly why there are few female professors in science and engineering fields.  I think the single sentence that best encapsulates his thesis is this one:

“It does appear that on many, many different human attributes — height, weight, propensity for criminality, overall IQ, mathematical ability, scientific ability — there is relatively clear evidence that whatever the difference in means — which can be debated — there is a difference in the standard deviation, and the variability of a male and a female population.”

And, sure, I have no idea where he’s getting his data for a genetic linkage to the propensity of criminality — in Chrstine Kenneally’s book “The Invisible History of the Human Race” she discusses the strikingly low crime rates among certain populations that should’ve been enriched for criminality according to the evolutionary founder effect, in that the initial settlers were all British criminals — but let’s leave aside potential issues with factuality and just focus on his claim for a moment.  He’s saying that the important issue isn’t whether men or women are more intelligent; that topic has been argued to death.  Not that people don’t still argue about that topic.  And not that it would be unfair for women to feel a bit irked by the nonsensical arguments made in the past… like, here, here’s a choice quote from H.R. Hays’s “The Dangerous Sex”:

P. Moebius, a German scientist who had an explanation for everything, in a book Concerning the Physiological Intellectual Feebleness of Women, published in 1907, settled the matter.  He had taken a look at the female brain and reported, “Extraordinarily important parts of the brain necessary for spiritual life, the frontal convolutions and the temporal lobes, are less well developed in women and this difference is inborn.”  Hampered by their inferior organs of thought, it was natural that “hypocrisy, that is lying, is the natural and indispensable womanly weapon.  Then, too, “That the sciences, in the strictest sense, have received no enrichment from women and never shall is therefore understandable.”  It was all for the best, however, because: “If we wish a woman to fulfill her task of motherhood fully, she cannot possess a masculine brain.  If the feminine abilities were developed to the same degree as those of the male, her maternal organs would suffer and we should have before us a repulsive and useless hybrid.”  This was the opinion of a psychologist of some reputation.

(And, right… Marie Curie won the Nobel prize in physics four years prior to the publication of Moebius’s work.  And the Nobel prize in chemistry four years after.)

Anyway, that was not the argument Summers was making.  That would’ve been too risky.  Obviously taboo for a university president to claim… and, more importantly in my opinion, too easy to measure.  Too easy for most people to understand.  But what Summers is claiming instead is that the standard deviation for a distribution of female mathematical ability is smaller; i.e., if you were to graph female mathematical ability, it might look like Everest compared to the Olympus Mons graph of male ability (is it appropriate to reference Martian mountains to explain boorish comments?  I’m not sure.  I just think mountains are cool.  And something that always stuck with me was a line from a book about Mars that I read when I was six or seven, about how Olympus Mons wouldn’t look very tall because its slope is so gradual, but it’s actually taller than any mountain on earth).  So Summers is claiming that males would be enriched far away from the mean.  If a university was hiring only the best of the best of the best, they’d hire men even if their decisions weren’t sexist.

And, yes, that is mathematically plausible.  But in the absence of any data other than the current state of the world, it doesn’t seem like a valid argument to make.  It seems like making a claim about a genetic influence on criminality based on, say, the current distribution of ethnicities in U.S. prisons, without considering all the other factors that have made it that way.  Because, right, as far as the prison thing… I’ve twice mentioned Michelle Alexander’s work in previous essays, so this time I’ll include a quote from Mary Flannery’s article “The School to Prison Pipeline”:

In fact, according to research, Black students do not “act out” in class more frequently than their White peers.  But Black students are more likely to be sent to the principal’s office for subjective offenses, like “disrupting class,” and they’re more likely to be sent there by White teachers, according to Kirwan Institute research on implicit bias.  (White students, on the other hand, are more likely to be suspended for objective offenses, like drug possession.)

And, also from her article: The bias starts early.  Black children represent 18 percent of pre-school students, but account for 48 percent of pre-school suspensions.  Yes, we’re talking about 4-year-olds.

(Which, if you’d like to read more about this, there’s a horrible report published by Columbia’s law school about the ways black girls in particular are being unfairly booted out of school“In 2007, a 6-year-old girl was arrested in a Florida classroom for having a tantrum.  Later that year, a 16-year-old girl was arrested in a California school for dropping cake on the floor and failing to pick it up to a school officer’s satisfaction.”  And I realize this is something of a digression from Summers’s remarks, but the issue is that all these factors, like institutional biases clearly revealed by the way different students are treated, contribute toward students’ perceptions of themselves, which contributes to their academic performance.)

To me, given the fact that white & black or male & female or rich & poor students are all raised in cultures that have these biases makes the idea of measuring the contribution of genetics to statistical means difficult, but would make the estimation of a genetic contribution to the second moment of the distribution, i.e. the standard deviation, which you need even more and better data to calculate accurately… unwise. Isn’t it presumptuous to claim you can measure genetic contributions to standard deviation when many experiments have shown that stereotype threat has effects on scores that often seem as large or larger than person to person variance?

Worse, even though a lot of people assume that grading for mathematical exams is objective (which is why I always enjoyed math classes more than English classes in high school — I was an unlikeable little dude, which my teachers were somehow able to sniff out.  Or, well, more accurately, I seem to have an undiagnosed case of high-functioning autism, and that may have made my interactions with teachers difficult.  Apparently underdiagnosis is fairly common and many people who were undiagnosed until adulthood have had far worse luck than I did), Lavy and Sand just completed a study showing that graders who knew elementary students’ genders unfairly (but presumably unconsciously) gave the girls lower scores than boys.  Lavy & Sand rightfully conclude that biases female children are subject to in elementary school can have major implications for effort and interest in math courses for the rest of their lives.

So, right, on what data exactly would you base the claim that women lack mathematical or scientific aptitude?

Recently, though — and also well-publicized — Ceci, Ginther, Kahn & Williams published a study claiming that hiring for academic science does not discriminate against women.  Now, their paper had a few minor problems… if you’re interested, you should look at Emily Willingham’s blog post about it.  Willingham gives a good tour of which figures in their paper show information that would lead the average human to conclude something rather different from the conclusions Ceci et al. came to.  There’s not tons more that I think I could add to her analysis, so instead I’ll diverge on an even wider tangent based on a quote from her essay: “So, as it turns out, it’s not the girls who are expressing less interest.  Society is expressing less interest in the girls’ potential interest… very early on.”

From here, I could launch into a further discussion of the gender stereotypes imposed on children… I’ve read a little bit about that since N was born.  But why not go big?  Why not instead quote from Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen’s recent book where they looked at population statistics to ask why girls aren’t even born, not at a level you’d expect.  Definitely this is a problem in India, and in China, where the ensuing male-enriched generation even earned a fancy bleak name (“bare branches”… which I’ve always hoped would be replaced by the still-bleak but prettier-sounding term “autumn limbs,” but I doubt I’ll get my wish.  Even the passage in my own book contrasting these two terms was deleted for adding too little in too much space).  Dreze & Sen wrote:

To illustrate, consider the recent introduction, in many Indian states, of schemes of cash incentives to curb sex-selective abortion.  The schemes typically involve cash rewards for the registered birth of a girl child, and further rewards if the girl is vaccinated, sent to school, and so on, as she gets older.  These schemes can undoubtedly tilt economic incentives in favour of girl children.  But a cash reward for the birth of a girl could also reinforce people’s tendency to think about family planning in economic terms, and also their perception, in the economic calculus of family planning, that girls are a burden (for which cash rewards are supposed to compensate).  Further, cash rewards are likely to affect people’s non-economic motives.  For instance, they could reduce the social stigma attached to sex-selective abortion, by making it look like some sort of ‘fair deal’ — no girl, no cash.  The fact that the cash incentives are typically lower for a second girl child, and nil for higher-order births, also sends confusing signals.  In short, it is not quite clear what sort of message these cash incentives are supposed to convey about the status and value of the girl child, and how they are supposed to affect social attitudes towards sex-selective abortion.  As mentioned earlier, the workings of social norms is critically important in this kind of area of values and actions, and it is important to think about the possible effects of cash transfers on social norms and their role, and not just about economic self-interest.

And, yes.  I think this is creepy.  Because it does send the message that raising a girl is a clear burden to you and your family, and that it’ll only be worth it if the government pays you.  It’s not like those girls who aren’t aborted reap much benefit from that extra money, either; there’s Jayachandran & Pande’s recent study on malnutrition and height comparing Indian and African children that shows routine undernourishment of daughters in India.  Or you could add Hays’ short riff on infanticide (also from “The Dangerous Sex”):

“Only a few people practiced female infanticide, however: among them the Papuans of the Torres Straits.  The Zulu who slaughter an ox as an offering when a boy is born are kinder and merely say, “Why should we kill an ox for a girl?  She is merely a weed.”

Yes, these are all distinct cultures from where Ceci et al. analyzed university hiring, but still: it’s worth considering the fact that, world-wide, women are so little valued they don’t even get to eat.  Teachers might assume you can’t do math and grade in ways that validate their assumptions.  If you ever go to the grocery store, you’ll see magazines featuring only very young (or Photoshopped to be young-looking) women’s faces, contrasted to a range of ages for men.  Is it reasonable to think that all those things aren’t still imposing a psychological toll?