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Home :: Archive :: 1998 :: December ::
Re: Language and Syntax
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.1316  Friday, 18 December 1998.

[1]     From:   Tiffany Rasovic <
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        Date:   Thursday, 17 Dec 1998 09:59:17 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.1309  Re: Language and Syntax

[2]     From:   Stephanie Hughes <
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        Date:   Thursday, 17 Dec 1998 09:48:23 +0000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.1309  Re: Language and Syntax


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Tiffany Rasovic <
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Date:           Thursday, 17 Dec 1998 09:59:17 -0500
Subject: 9.1309  Re: Language and Syntax
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.1309  Re: Language and Syntax

Although I do not agree that syntax can be gendered, grammatically, or
others, I do notice that many professors are a bit rigid about syntax.
I spend a great deal of time reading Shakespeare (not a huge surprise to
you all), as well as Middle English texts, and I have acquired some
"flexibility" of phrasing as a result.  To my way of thinking about
language, if the meaning is clear and the punctuation is correct,
rearranging things is good.  Language is here for us to use and shape-be
playful-we created it so we can re-create it!  I have letters from my
English students in China that contain the most remarkable and beautiful
passages-the students are totally unencumbered by our idioms and they
have a completely different sense of grammar-the results can be
astonishingly poetic and inventive sentences.

We have been talking about rhetoric-according to Vickers, (thanks for
the tip, whoever you are), the rules are there to be mastered in the
same manner as sketching, scales, vocalises, are used in other art
forms.  From this mastery comes virtuosity.  For example, he points out
some of Shakespeare's earlier uses of figures which seem a bit strained,
next he gives examples from Winter's Tale, and other later plays where
Shakes uses the same figures with such grace that one cannot imagine the
thoughts and emotions of the characters in any way being extricated from
the figures and tropes.  We should not forget that we are all (on this
list, I hope) "masters" of the English language, so we should take some
liberties and make words sing out our ideas.

Why is the choice between "he"-"they"-or "he/she"?  I just use "she"
when I feel like it and "he" when I feel like it.  Sometimes I even fall
back on Middle English pronouns and use "it" (our ancestral
neuter)--that really messes people up, "Oh my God, no gender!"  Hey, I
might even start a revolution with this one.

The passive voice is just a fact of academic writing, most professors
don't even seem to notice it.  Creative writing people notice it more
and it seems to be more of a taboo in that type of writing. Frankly, its
worth getting rid of wherever possible, but it isn't wrong, it's just a
matter of style.

 TR

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Stephanie Hughes <
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Date:           Thursday, 17 Dec 1998 09:48:23 +0000
Subject: 9.1309  Re: Language and Syntax
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.1309  Re: Language and Syntax

>Why not avoid the problem altogether and simply opt for the plural when
>you are not talking about a specific individual student (or person)?
>
>Instead of <<a student can far outshine their own previous work>> why
>not, since "student" is generic rather than specific, say
>
>"Some students can far outshine their own previous work"?
>
>There usually are ways to be precise and grammatically correct without
>distorting either meaning or language.  We just need to take a bit more
>time to phrase our communication.  Because we don't take that time often
>enough, our purportedly profound communications are riddled with errors
>and weak expressions like the two in this paragraph: beginning w/ the
>limp "there" and using passive voice in this sentence.
>
>Yours for active, vivid, but ACCURATE language!
>
> Marilyn Bonomi

Today's English is the lingua franca of the world because it has always
opted for elasticity and accommodation over grammar and syntax.
Definitions of what is "accurate" and what isn't have changed
continually over the centuries as new needs and ways of expression have
arisen.  As a writer I glory in the choices that English gives me, but I
find this pronoun thing to be unbearably onerous.

As an artifact left over from the centuries when men published the
writings of men for the male graduates of all-male universities, it
simply shrugs off the possibility that women might play any part in the
world of thought or action, and I'll be darned if I'll step over it or
around it by rearranging my thoughts to accommodate it. There are times
when it is more to the point to refer to an indefinite subject in the
singular. To be forced to use the plural simply to avoid this sexist
artifact is not only limiting, but in my opinion it actually leads away
from the active voice.

>This sort of thing is rather irritating. Critics carry-on as if syntax
>is some sort of active male conspiracy to keep women under the thumb.
>Given the focus on language of post-modern theory it is not surprising
>that syntax has come under fire for sexism and maintaining power
>structures, but I tend to find the debate somewhat trivial and
>distracting.  Most, but not all -and not you Stephanie,  who get worked
>up about the use of (e.g.) male pronouns do not know the first thing
>about the grammar they criticise.

Simon, you are certainly free to have your feelings, but your irritation
is nothing compared to what a woman writer feels when told by a male
that the universal use of the male pronoun is "trivial."  Pronouns are
the screws that hold the language together. They are gendered only
because of a long history of male dominance, and it is time to change
that. Certainly neither I nor any woman writer of any sense blames you
or any individual male for this situation, but we are certainly
justified in asking that it be recognized by our male colleagues, even
though there remain honest disagreements over possible solutions.

> Still, if some wish to change the system, the onus is on them to come up
> with a viable alternative.

Which I why I use "themself" and will continue to comment favorably on
others who use it as well.  I have been looking for something better for
many years, and when and if that something shows up, I'll be among the
first to adopt it.

>Maybe the OED will help: it has recently
>dismissed the dangers of the split infinitive and, thank goodness,  it
>now offers advice on when and how to use words so as to avoid
>contravening the canons of political correctness (never mind "whose
>'syn'?"; rather whose "political correctness?".  It cuts both ways)

The OED will only follow where usage leads. One can only hope that it
will not be down the path of  (yuck!) "he/she."

Stephanie Hughes
 

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