Archive for March, 2008

California bans home schooling!?

March 8, 2008

This is the kind of thing, I imagine, that turns people into right-wing lunatics. Walking the dog today I saw the front page headline of the San Francico Chronicle, “Homeschoolers suffer setback: Appeals court rules parents who teach children at home must be credentialed.” Uh-oh. Our daughter is only a year and a half old so we’ve got a few years before we have to officially decide whether we’re going to home school but that’s the current plan.

Except that all the sudden that may no longer be an option unless this appeals court ruling is overturned, the legislature defies the teachers unions and changes the state’s education laws to specifically allow home schooling by uncredentialed parent-teachers, or we leave the state. Equally suddenly, I’m on the side of the right-wingers ranting about judges legislating from the bench and the nanny state trying to take over our lives. Heck, suddenly James Dobson of Focus on Family, who spent his radio show today decrying the ruling, is my ally.

We are not religous so that’s not our motivation for wanting to home school, but we are not really all that different from the homeschoolers who are. While we don’t object to the secularism of public schools—that’s one of their good points as far as I’m concerned—we object to other parts of mainstream culture: the relentless consumerism, the regimentation of academic instruction, and the emphasis on competition and working for extrinsic rewards. I’m sympathetic to the need for society (i.e. the state) to look out for the welfare of kids whose parents aren’t taking proper care of them. But to have the state tell me I have to send my daughter to the schools the state has approved and to be taught only in the way the state thinks is best makes me start thinking about holing up in a compound somewhere with too many guns and a couple years worth of canned food in the root cellar.

The quote from the Chronicle story that really killed me was from Leslie Heimov, the executive director of the Children’s Law Center of Los Angeles. She said her organization was mostly concerned that children be “in a place daily where they would be observed by people who had a duty to ensure their ongoing safety.” Uh, wouldn’t parents have a duty to ensure the safety of their children. To say nothing of looking after their education and moral development. Hmmm, I really must be turning into a crazy right-wing nutjob.

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Grammar School Grammar

March 7, 2008

Once again following around after Language Log’s Geoffrey Pullum yields food for thought. Long ago Pullum wrote a blog entry entitled “More timewasting garbage, another copy-editing moron” in which he heaped scorn on the copy editors who edited Mark Pilgrim’s Dive into Python for their many grammatical incorrections. That post was the one that made me a Language Log fan since I had written a book for the same publisher and had been made batty by all the same incorrections.

John McIntyre, the assistant managing editor for the copy desk at the Baltimore Sun must have seen that post because when he recently wrote a piece for his blog about the old that vs. which usage bugaboo, after defending Fowler’s made-up rule, he tried some preemptive self-defense saying, “That will probably bring down on my head the wrath of the linguists at Language Log …, who appear to hate copy editors’ guts.” He then went on to say:

But I’m just a simple country boy from Kentucky who learned English grammar in Mrs. Jessie Perkins’ fifth- and sixth-grade classes at Elizaville Elementary School and who just tries to get by on what is reasonable and useful.

Why is it that English grammar is one of the few fields where what we learned in fifth and sixth grade is considered state of the art? I doubt the Sun’s assistant managing editor in charge of political reporting would explain the paper’s approach to election coverage by saying: “I’m just a simple country boy from Kentucky who learned about U.S. politics in Mr. Bobbie Smith’s fifth- and sixth-grade Social Studies classes at Elizaville Elementary School.”

We all understand that the way we teach politics, and just about everything else, to ten- and eleven-year-olds is simplified, if not over-simplified. But that’s usually okay since most folks who grow up to be newspaper editors or, for that matter, newspaper readers, probably go on to high-school, college, and maybe even graduate school where they are exposed to less and less simplified versions of our collective understanding of things.

Yet when it comes to grammar and the use of the English language, most folks, including professionals, seem happy to work with the version they learned when they still thought members of the opposite sex had cooties.

Singular they

March 5, 2008

I see via a Geoffrey Pullum Language Log post that yet another otherwise intelligent person—this time David Gelernter, a Yale computer science professor—has been found ranting in public about the imminent destruction of the English language due to folks using they as a singular pronoun.

Pullum does his usual fine job highlighting the absurdities of this kind of rant: in this case the wild disparity between the magnitude of the social devastation allegedly being wrought and the venality of the linguistic sins, if any, being committed. Pullum—co-author of the massive and comprehensive Cambridge Grammar of the English Language—also points out that Gelernter is simply wrong about many points of grammar and historical linguistics. Pullum, however, doesn’t really take Gelernter’s argument seriously, presumably because it’s absurd and ignorant and doesn’t deserve to be. On the other hand, Gelernter’s rant is such a fine example of an anti-singular they diatribe, that it merits a closer analysis.

Gelernter’s thesis is that “the English language has become a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Academic-Industrial Complex”. In particular he claims “feminist authorities” effected a significant change to the rules of grammar such that “agreement between subject and pronoun was declared to be optional” allowing they to be used as a singular pronoun. As Pullum and regular Language Log readers of course know, this claim is deliciously ironic. The last time the Academic-Industrial Complex unilaterally changed the rules of grammar was in the 18th century, when grammarians, taking a bit too much of a cue from Latin, made up a rule that pronouns had to agree in number with their antecedents, a “rule” which, in fact, had been regularly violated by such writers as Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen to say nothing of thousands of less notable authors and, no doubt, hundreds of thousands of plain old native English speakers.

Having made up their rule, these grammarians were then forced to choose a singular pronoun to use with indefinite antecedents (e.g. everyone, nobody) and singular nouns that could refer to a person of either gender (e.g. a person). Given the times and the fact that the grammarians were mostly men, the “natural” solution was to use he, his, and him. But one must wonder whether sentences like, “A grammarian should always keep his inkwell full”, sounded natural to an 18th-century grammarian because he really felt his was gender neutral or because he was envisioning a grammarian much like himself and all the other grammarians he knew who was, of course, also a “him”. Hard to say. I don’t have any 18th-century grammarians’ writings at hand but Gelernter gives up the game a bit with this sentence: “Who can afford to allow a virtual feminist to elbow her way like a noisy drunk into that inner mental circle where all your faculties (such as they are) are laboring to produce decent prose?” Surely that should be “elbow his way”.

Of course we’ve come a long way since the 18th century. Now that grammarians really are as likely to be women as men, maybe it’s silly to get hung up on gender-neutral he. On the other hand it’s also worth considering how recently we’ve really made progress on that front. Gelernter is full of praise for Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style (excepting editions published since E.B. White’s death, which have softened the guide’s position on the absolute correctness of the gender-neutral he and are thus “a disgrace to his memory”.) But, as Pullum pointed out in a 2004 Language Log posting, when Strunk was passing along the rule that singular they should be changed to he, women in the United States still didn’t have the vote. And when E.B. White wrote about Strunk’s “little book” in his “Letter from the East” for the July 27, 1957 New Yorker that essay—which later became the introduction to White’s revision of the guide—appeared next to an advertisement with this text: “Traveling men get juicy steaks on ‘The Executives’—United’s for-men-only nonstops to Chicago.”

Gelernter does, however, inadvertently if somewhat belligerently, get to the real point of the singular-they debate when he asks: “Why should I worry about feminist ideology while I write? Why should I worry about anyone’s ideology? Writing is a tricky business that requires one’s whole concentration, as any professional will tell you; as no doubt you know anyway.” Yes, writing is a tricky business. Largely because it’s about communicating with other human beings. Unlike computer programming, where a deterministic and strictly logical computer is the ultimate arbiter of the meaning of your creation, writing is about conveying thoughts from your mind to that of your reader, a process that is neither deterministic nor entirely logical. For better or worse, readers can be thrown for a loop by clumsy diction, abstruse vocabulary, or violation of what they consider norms, whether grammatical or social. The harsh reality of a writer’s life is that some readers will be jolted out of their concentration by a singular they while others, who would have glided right past it, will trip over a gender-neutral he.1 There’s no good way out of this mess, at least in the short term. I do believe that for Gelernter, and for many others, sentences using a singular they really do “skreak like fingernails on a blackboard.” That they do so for silly, historical reasons is no consolation. (That Gelernter considers them evidince that feminism is destroying the possibility of rational thought is, however, just stupid.) On the other hand, I’m quite certain that singular they will prevail in the long run. It was standard usage long before the 18th-century grammarians put their oar in and it is even more attractive now for people who wish to avoid implying that executives and grammarians are always men. It also follows the pattern set when the plural pronoun you drove out the singular thou.

So I do my part by using singular they in my own writing. And any writer who wants to reclaim the English language from the dead hand of the 18th-century Academic-Industrial Complex, well, they should do likewise.


1. And some of us will be distracted by both, noting both singular theys and gender-neutral hes as instances of a writerly choice.