February 06, 2007

A Place for Prescriptivism in Linguists' Lives

As a card-carrying linguist, I do of course agree with Geoff Pullum's objections to Grammar Gotcha and other language games that pedants play. But in the spirit of full disclosure, I have to admit that I still urge my students to follow some old prescriptive rules that are on their way to extinction but not yet quite dead. Here, for instance, is the paragraph on singular they from a writing handout that I give my students before they start handing in essays:

In colloquial American English speech, the use of a plural pronoun they or their or them with a singular referent sounds fine to most speakers. But in formal prose, it's still a mistake. So instead of writing A person hates it when you insult them, write either People hate it when you insult them (plural referent people, plural pronoun) or A person hates it when you insult him/her (singular referent person, singular---but clunky-sounding---pronoun him/her).

When I go over the handout in class, I explain what I mean by "mistake" in this context: it means that some people who read what you write will judge you negatively if you use prescriptively-frowned-on things like singular they, and---all other things being equal---this could conceivably tip the balance in favor of another candidate for a job or for a place in a selective graduate program, or in favor of a competitor's product.

Obviously, when there are no longer people in positions of authority who object to prescriptive rules like the prohibition on singular they, there will no longer be a need to warn students against it. Thirty years ago, my writing handout told students to avoid split infinitives; but I deleted that charmingly nutty bit of prescriptivism from the handout when it became clear that it is now dead (in the sense that almost everyone who still objects to split infinitives is now too doddery to be making hiring, admissions, or major purchasing decisions).

But I don't think that the rule against singular they has reached that stage. That's why the pseudo-Churchillian quotation that begins "To each there comes in their lifetime..." strikes me, and I bet others too, as jarringly ugly as well as wildly improbable as a product of Churchill's pen. So although I think that the linguistic case is as clear as Geoff claims, and that self-important pundits fully deserve Geoff's witty grammatical put-downs, I also think we're doing a disservice to our students if we don't alert them to the role of linguistic prescriptivism in real life. Those of us who have a lifetime contract in academia (a.k.a. tenure) can afford to thumb our collective nose at silly dying prescriptive rules; our students are taking a real risk if they do so.

Posted by Sally Thomason at February 6, 2007 09:13 AM