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Home :: Archive :: 1998 :: December ::
Re: Language and Syntax
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.1346  Thursday, 31 December 1998.

[1]     From:   David J. Kathman <
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        Date:   Sunday, 27 Dec 1998 16:26:03 -0600 (CST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.1337 Re: Language and Syntax

[2]     From:   Louis Swilley <
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        Date:   Sunday, 27 Dec 1998 20:46:56 -0600
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.1337 Re: Language and Syntax

[3]     From:   Ed Taft <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 29 Dec 1998 10:39:34 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Language and Syntax

[4]     From:   Douglas Chapman <
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        Date:   Thursday, 31 Dec 1998 10:49:33 EST
        Subj:   RE: Language and Syntax


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David J. Kathman <
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Date:           Sunday, 27 Dec 1998 16:26:03 -0600 (CST)
Subject: 9.1337 Re: Language and Syntax
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.1337 Re: Language and Syntax

David Klappholz wrote:

>While my background is in *descriptive*, not prescriptive, linguistics,
>I had my early-high school-training in grammar and literature from a
>wonderful teacher who spoke impeccable English.  As a result, I
>understand and accept the fact that every language changes, but I am
>still bothered by neologisms like "they" for "he" or ""she" and the use
>of the nominative, rather that the genitive before a gerund, as in:
>
>"I ask them to identify what is dislocating about me, a man, saying 'we
>must protect our ovaries from cancer'."
>
>as opposed to
>"I ask them to identify what is dislocating about *my*, a *man's*,
>saying 'we must protect our ovaries from cancer'."

I don't have any citations to back this up, but I would guess that the
construction with the nominative/accusative ("me") is older than the one
with the genitive ("my").  In any case, the two constructions have
coexisted side by side in English for many years, with the genitive
version having a somewhat more formal tone to it (at least to my ears).
That probably has something to do with the fact that the genitive
version was declared to be the "correct" one by prescriptive
grammarians, even though neither version is inherently superior to the
other.  The persistence of the nominative/accusative version has a lot
to do with surface constraints:  you use the nominative/accusative
version of a pronoun after a preposition, such as "about" in the above
example.  (Technically it's a complementizer, but that's not really
relevant here.) In the above example, where there is an appositive noun
phrase ("a man") separating the pronoun from the rest of the clause, the
surface constraint becomes even more powerful, and the vast majority of
people would write/say "me" instead of "my".  I know that it never once
occurred to me that there could be anything questionable about that
sentence until your post pointed it out, and I'm a professional writer
with a couple of advanced degrees in linguistics, capable of being as
pedantic as the next person if the mood strikes me.

As to the broader point, virtually every linguist I know is bothered by
at least a few changes in usage, even though they all know that such
changes are inevitable in any living language.  There ain't a thing you
can do about it, sorry to say.  Living languages have minds of their
own.  In many cases such changes are essentially arbitrary, as in the
"me" vs. "my" conundrum discussed above.  In other cases extralinguistic
factors contribute to a change, as in the preference for "they" over
"he" (or "he or she") as a genderless pronoun.  "They" is truly
genderless in English, so it's natural that people want to use it in
instances where gender is explicitly ambiguous (how's that for an
oxymoron?).  I personally don't see anything wrong with saying things
like "Everybody must bring their own book".  And by the way, this use of
"they" is not a neologism; it's been around for centuries.  The same
goes for "he or she", contrary to popular misconception; people were
saying "he or she" in Shakespeare's day.

>I will forever hate Justice Ginsburg (sp?) for introducing the use of
>the word "gender" as a synonym for "sex."  (A person is of one sex or
>another; a Latin or French or Russian or Hebrew or ... noun is of one
>gender or another.)

Now, I really don't think that Justice Ginsburg introduced the use of
the word "gender" as a synonym for "sex".  In fact, I'm sure of it.  I
don't have the OED at hand to give you a citation, but the Webster's
Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary that I have at my side gives "SEX" (i.e.
biological sex) as the earliest meaning of the word "gender", dating
from the 14th century, and it gives an illustrative quote from Charles
Dickens ("black divinities of the feminine gender").  So you see, it's
really the meaning of "grammatical category" that's a neologism,
strictly speaking.  I've never understood why some people get so enraged
on this issue-I have one acquaintance who will stop and loudly "correct"
someone who uses "gender" in the biological sense.

>I do have one serious bone to pick with a previous poster and a
>terminological question for a number of posters.
>
>>>Today's English is the lingua franca of the world because it
>>>has always opted for elasticity and accommodation over
>>>grammar and syntax.
>
>I wonder if Ms. Hughes can explain what she means by "elasticity and
>accommodation."  All languages evolve to suit the changing situations of
>their speakers-even languages which, like French, have (almost
>universally) ignored  Academies ... and even so called "primitive"
>languages, which, it turns out, have grammars as complex as those of
>English or French or German or ...
>
>Finally, When I was a student of linguistics-my research since grad
>school has been mostly in computer science rather than in linguistics-
>"grammar" was a synonym for "syntax."  What exactly do posters mean when
>they refer to "grammar *and* syntax, as a few have done.

I think they're probably using "grammar" to refer to the sum total of
all the systems (phonology, morhology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics,
etc.) which make up a language, and "syntax" to refer specifically to
the system of arrangements and interrelationships between words and
phrases that a specific language allows.  At least that's the way
linguists often use the terms, very roughly speaking.  Or perhaps more
likely, people are using "grammar" to refer to the collection of
prescriptive rules they learned in school, and "syntax" to refer to the
stuff they were supposed to learn by diagramming sentences.  At least
that's the general impression I get from Stephanie Hughes' post, since
she appears to be referring to "grammar and syntax" in a disparaging
way, even though every language, including English, has both grammar and
syntax from a linguistic standpoint.

Dave Kathman

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[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Louis Swilley <
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Date:           Sunday, 27 Dec 1998 20:46:56 -0600
Subject: 9.1337 Re: Language and Syntax
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.1337 Re: Language and Syntax

>.. I am
>still bothered by neologisms like "they" for "he" or ""she" and the use
>of the nominative, rather that the genitive before a gerund, as in:
>
>"I ask them to identify what is dislocating about me, a man, saying 'we
>must protect our ovaries from cancer'."
>
>as opposed to
>"I ask them to identify what is dislocating about *my*, a *man's*,
>saying 'we must protect our ovaries from cancer'."

For what it's worth, the two statements above make slightly different
points. The emphasis in the first construction is on "me" and "a man";
in the second, it is on the gerund, "saying".

        L. Swilley

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Ed Taft <
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Date:           Tuesday, 29 Dec 1998 10:39:34 -0500 (EST)
Subject:        Language and Syntax

I think that Billy Houck has misinterpreted the language and syntax of
my previous post. In it, I DESCRIBED how people were actually using the
pronoun *they.* I did not call unilaterally for a new use of *they* or
suggest a new pronoun (*t*?).

The difference is fundamental. I was attempting to describe language
change as it is actually occurring, not advocating a language change on
my own! (Such PRESCRIPTIVISM is, of course, doomed to fail, as Houck
himself points out.)

Happy new year,
--Ed Taft

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Douglas Chapman <
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Date:           Thursday, 31 Dec 1998 10:49:33 EST
Subject:        RE: Language and Syntax

>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.

At the risk of jumping into a controversy too early (I just started
subscribing), I just would like to point out that when I was in school,
this was considered the problem. We were taught that complex thoughts
were of necessity best expressed in clear, simple writing. I still
believe that.
Is it possible that I am already a fossil?

Perhaps this explains why so much "scholarly writing" of late is so
(purposely) difficult to read. Reminds me of my favorite bumper sticker:
"Eschew Obfuscation."

Douglas Chapman
 

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