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.