August 21, 2004

The outlandish and the unanswerable

Bill Poser's response to my charge that he is wrong about English grammar comes in two parts. One is relevant, but looks outlandish to me — though it could in principle be supported. The other is irrelevant to grammar but unanswerably decisive on the legal point under discussion.

The outlandish bit is his claim that sentences like *Either the husband or the wife has perjured himself (I insist on the asterisk; he omits it) are grammatical.

Here on Language Log we generally don't play the "your dialect / my dialect" game. (Bill opens such a game when he says, "at least as far as my own judgments are concerned".). Instead we ask for evidence. If Bill sends me five attested Standard English sentences of this general sort (where the two different sexes are explicitly referenced and a form of he is used to refer back promiscuously to either one of them), I'll admit that I was wrong. My belief is that he won't be able to do it. This challenge makes it an objective matter what the grammaticality facts are, and so we don't need to inquire into the issue of whether Bill might be deluding himself about his own dialect to defend his own earlier claim from my charge of error.

The other thing he says is the thing he should have contented himself with. It's about the legal issue. The Interpretation Act of 1889, "provides that words importing the masculine gender shall include the females." That's unanswerable. It makes it a matter of law whether the Canadian Supreme Court was right about the Famous Five. The law can say that words covering road vehicles shall include boats if it wants to; it's in the stipulation business. That's what makes the Canadian Supreme Court judgment of 1927 completely wrong. My point was merely that the legal stuff can't alter the facts of English as ordinarily used, and I still think that on that score it is just a mistake that he is ever sex-neutral.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at August 21, 2004 07:51 PM