January 30, 2007

Not objectionable

Without meaning to be at all picky, let me just enter an important demurral about Claire's remark (at Angarrgoon): "I agree with Geoff Pullum at Language Log that the phrase “person of color” is objectionable." Please hear me: I never said anything of the sort.

The phrase is not objectionable, grammatically or politically. Linguistically, its widespread use by people who cannot possibly all be making sporadic coincidental errors shows us that it is irrevocably part of Standard English now, and certainly it must be regarded as grammatically well formed. Politically, the people who invented it were trying to show some kind of terminological respect for the oppressed peoples of the world who are commonly classified in terms of a lack or deficit (they aren't "white"), and also to unify a wider sense of solidarity among those regarded as non-Caucasian, and in principle their efforts were supposed to be a part of building an anti-racist political consciousness, and I approve of that.

(Whether it's actually sensible to classify humanity according to who has the "color" property and who doesn't is a different matter, not under discussion here. I'm talking about apparent original motives. I don't think those who like the phrase "person of color" are in general trying to plan a worldwide racial war against whites. But just in case they are, then let me just depart from my prepared remarks to go on record as taking the controversial stance of opposing any global movement to slaughter white people, O.K.? I think mass slaughter of white people would be objectionable.)

So, use the term person of color at will. Feel free. There is nothing wrong with it. What I said was merely that I hated it, and I won't be using it.

I did mention the oddness that it doesn't seem to follow a regular pattern (a suntanned person is not a "person of suntan"), but that was incidental; it's just part of what I think might have initially made the phrase irritating to me when I first heard it. Much more important is that I stressed that I was evincing a purely personal dispreference: a dislike comparable to the fact that I dislike "real ale" (the strongly hop-flavored British beers from breweries that true beer enthusiasts rave about are just not for me), or that I am repelled by Hawaiian pizza.

And that was my key point, the one that I related to an issue about attitudes to language. Not everything is objectionable just because I (or you) have a personal distaste for it. The solution for you if you hate the term person of color, or the taste of real ale, or the notion of pineapple on your pizza, or the use of they with a morphosyntactically singular antecedent, is essentially the same in each case: don't use it, drink it, eat it, or say it, respectively.

That's what the worst of the grammar grumblers and usage whiners consistently fail to see: that their personal dislike of (say) split infinitives does not determine automatically that split infinitives are incorrect in Standard English. Your dislike of split infinitives might instead simply mean that you hate them: they might be (and in fact are) fully grammatical at all stages of the history of English, and often recommended as the best choice on style grounds, and sometimes obligatory if you don't want to completely rephrase, and you still might hate them. In that case, don't use them. End of point.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 30, 2007 12:41 PM