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Home :: Archive :: 1998 :: December ::
Re: Language and Syntax
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.1323  Monday, 21 December 1998.

[1]     From:   Stephanie Hughes <
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        Date:   Friday, 18 Dec 1998 11:52:16 +0000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.1316  Re: Language and Syntax

[2]     From:   Barbara R. Hume <
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        Date:   Friday, 18 Dec 1998 14:19:57 -0700
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.1316  Re: Language and Syntax

[3]     From:   Maijan H. Al-Ruwaili <
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        Date:   Saturday, 19 Dec 1998 03:51:36 +0300
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.1316 Re: Language and Syntax

[4]     From:   C. David Frankel <
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        Date:   Saturday, 19 Dec 1998 08:47:51 -0500
        Subj:   RE: SHK 9.1316 Re: Language and Syntax


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Stephanie Hughes <
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Date:           Friday, 18 Dec 1998 11:52:16 +0000
Subject: 9.1316  Re: Language and Syntax
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.1316  Re: Language and Syntax

Tiffany wrote:

> 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.

Of course, you are free to use whatever works for you, and who would say
you nay? The question is whether to allow a construction that is at
present reprehended as non-grammatical to solve what some (not all)
writers regard as a problem. In former times "it" worked, as did "one,"
but times have changed; "it" has lost any reference it once had to
gendered beings, and "one" brings in all kinds of Victorian connotations
that most writers regard as baggage.

The pronoun is there to allow a flow of thought without calling
attention to itself (in my humble opinion). It refers back to a known
entity that the reader already has in mind, or, less often, establishes
an entity that the writer prefers to keep general, not specific
(otherwise they would use a noun). The use of "he" or "she" forces an
unwanted specificity, just as "it" forces too broad a generality (all
things in the universe, humans being just one tiny percentage).

Our language has taken a quantum leap in global importance in the last
twenty years or so. It has become the second language of every nation on
the planet. The linguists of the sixteenth century, of whom Shakespeare
was certainly one, though no one would have used the term at that time,
labored with much thought and argument over the form the language would
take at that time of tremendous growth (development of a vernacular
literature, expansion of education opportunities, cheaper printing
techniques, spread of ideas, etc.).  We stand at a similar juncture, and
I believe it is of great importance that we consider before we accept an
awkward term like "he/she" as an accepted way around a sexist
construction whose time is gone.

Well, certainly we (I) have run the course on this one. I simply want to
point out that "themself" is not always a mistake, or if it is, it is
one of those mistakes that the mind makes out of an instinctive effort
to find a better way. Only grammarians feel a twinge when "themself"
swooshes past them in the flow of discourse. Most people don't notice it
at all. Which is my point exactly. Pronouns are not meant to be
noticed.  Whenever I hear "he" I automatically see the hazy form of a
male in my mind's eye and "she" a female and "it" an object and "they"
something human, vaguely plural, but not specifically either male or
female. Since that comes the closest to the response I hope to elicit,
that is the choice I will make, knowing that grammarians won't like it.
Grammarians didn't like Shakespeare's choices either.

As for passive/active, again English is good because it gives us a
choice. The passive voice has its part to play as does the active
voice.  There is a time and a place for each. Nothing is more ridiculous
than to discourage the use of the passive voice altogether.

I have seen the same thing with sentence length. Hemmingway created a
generation of writers that learned to write in short declarative
sentences, as a reaction, no doubt, against the elaborate sentences the
Victorians were so fond of.  Long sentences are needed for elaborate
thoughts. When we force students to chop up complex thoughts into single
phrase sentences we are doing something to the way they think, something
bad.

Well, time to pack up my soap box and get on with writing greeting
cards, and thanks to all who listened to these grudging and ungracious
grammatical gripes.

Happy holidays,
Stephanie H.

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Barbara R. Hume <
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Date:           Friday, 18 Dec 1998 14:19:57 -0700
Subject: 9.1316  Re: Language and Syntax
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.1316  Re: Language and Syntax

>The passive voice is just a fact of academic writing, most professors
>don't even seem to notice it.

When I was teaching writing at Brigham Young University, I could often
tell which major a student was in by the way that student used passive
voice. The social studies majors were the worst, by the way.

My main objection to the passive voice is that people often use passive
voice agent deleted in order to distance themselves from responsibility.
The best example I can think of is the Watergate hearings. People would
say "A decision was made" and "A mistake was made" to avoid saying "I
stupidly tried to advance myself through unethical conduct and by so
doing I screwed up royally."  You can see the analogue at home, when
your child says, "You remember that green vase on the hall table? Well,
it got broken" instead of "I was throwing the basketball in the house
like you told me not to and I smashed the green vase into a zillion
pieces."

Then, too, passive voice is wordier ("Bill was hit by Bob" requires 40%
more words than "Bob hit Bill"). We've all read painfully padded,
pedantic, pretentious, pathetic passages piled up with passives. (Now we
can have a discussion on what's wrong with alliteration.)

Barbara Hume

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Maijan H. Al-Ruwaili <
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Date:           Saturday, 19 Dec 1998 03:51:36 +0300
Subject: 9.1316 Re: Language and Syntax
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.1316 Re: Language and Syntax

Tiffany Rasovic wrote:

(Since clarity at issue, I took the "liberty" to be seriously
"playful.")

> Language is here for us to use and shape-be
> playful-we created it so we can re-create it!

It would be creatively wonderful if we create and recreate the language.
The problem, however, is that language itself creates and recreates us.
I am not quite sure that we have created it; we are born into it (we
have no say in what it says. Of course we can impose our own wishes and
say language is a convenient medium discovered by some ingenious MAN but
never by a WOMAN).

> 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.

Is not it strange that when things get murky (especially when language
and its grammar/syntax are at issue), China has to come to the front. I
can cite linguists throughout the 18th, 19th, and even 20th centuries
who cannot help opposing European (mainly English and French) languages
to those of the Far East, particularly Chinese (sometimes
Hieroglyphics). Only a foreigner (and a Chinese at that) can ignore the
grammar and syntax. Who else can ignore grammar with impunity? Only
poets have that license. No wonder then that Chinese have to be poetic
in order to pay no attention to "our [not mine] idioms ... [and] can be
astonishingly poetic and inventive..." This is too generic; it is gender
par excellence (gender has never been limited to sex only). Let us not
forget that genre and gender are essentially one word.

> 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.

Does "taking liberties" mean to become poets or chinese? or only Masters
of the English language can take liberties? Masters are always "masters"
by virtue of their slaves, and I am not quite sure that words will obey
their "masters." Only people with great "ideas" (related to visual
capacity and sight) can be masters, so did Aristotle say in the opening
of the Metaphysics; others who work physically are "slaves" that ought
to receive orders from the Master.

> 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.

Of course, a Master can choose whenever according to the Master's "I
feel like it." One should note the "it" at the end of "I feel like it."
It is this very pronoun without gender, a monster, that will mess people
up:  "Sometimes I even fall back on Middle English pronouns and use 'it'
(our ancestral neuter)--that really messes people up." Nothing messes
people up except something from the past, a form of genealogy, ancestral
of sorts, that one inadvertently falls back on whenever one feels like
it. From someone who feels at liberty to do away with all conventional
idioms, this falling back seems only nostalgic, at odd with the very
ideas one is trying to have "its" words sing. One can never distance
oneself from one's own idiom, even if one is about to start a
revolution. It all falls back on style, it seems.

>  Frankly, its worth getting rid of wherever possible, but it isn't wrong,
> it's just a matter of style.

So how can one "get rid of style" especially when the ancestral
generations said: "Style is the Man." This is of course oxymoron, since
style is related more to the feminine than the to masculine, at least as
far as the language "which we created and recreated to sing our ideas"
is concerned.

Maijan

 Stephanie Hughes wrote:

> As an artifact left over from the centuries when men published the
> writings of men for the male graduates of all-male universities, [gendered
> pronoun]
> 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.
>

The problem seems to inhere in language itself; it is as a whole an
artifact.
To single out pronouns does not solve the problem. Feminine and
masculine
pronouns are a necessity; what you seem to be up against is the whole
institution of language, a prior artifact into which you are born. You
have to
re-start a new convention, and believe "themselves" or not, you have to
rearrange your "ideas" around it because the very fabric of what you
call your ideas is nothing but this very syntax and grammar. The active
voice itself is an artifact. As for the direction of "away from" or
"towards" the active voice: everything leads away from the active voice;
only the passive, syntactically speaking, leads back to the "I" of the
voice. And even then, it would not obliterate sexism. This utopian myth
is by definition impossible.  There will always be sexism; and the
solution is not in doing away with pronouns or nouns.
The solution would seem to inhere in maintaining the distance between
the two.  Without this distance (including the preservation of gendered
pronouns) you cannot have a space of your own, and you would not have a
space across which the other would pay HIS respect for the other as
distinctively other. The active voice itself will lose its mark (style,
if you will).

> 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.

By so doing, you will be much closer to male dominance than you think.
One always receives one's gender from the other. Even if you changed the
"pronouns," you still would have to have an "other" from which you
receive your "gender." One's gender is always already imposed from
without, and is thus that which is beyond one's reach. It is strange
that one can only deny that which is not one's own. It makes no
difference whether one rejects or affirms one's own gender; but it makes
all the difference to affirm the gender of the other as other. It is
here perhaps that your intention to articulate the plight of "women,"
throughout history, makes all the difference because they are gendered.
Without gendering them, one would not know what you are talking about.

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           C. David Frankel <
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Date:           Saturday, 19 Dec 1998 08:47:51 -0500
Subject: 9.1316 Re: Language and Syntax
Comment:        RE: SHK 9.1316 Re: Language and Syntax

A modest (and I'm sure impracticable) proposal:

A student can far outshine hizzer own work, but only if shehee practices
diligently at the craft of writing.
 

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