Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

Spelling, Usage and the Singular "They"

A couple of weeks ago we ran the first part of our fascinating conversation with Professor Anne Curzan of the University of Michigan, an expert in the history of English and a member of the American Heritage Dictionary's usage panel. Here is part two of our interview -- a jaw-dropper for anyone interested in language -- where we focus on gender, spelling and much more:

VT: Do you sometimes find your work as an English teacher and linguist at cross purposes?

Anne: I sometimes describe it as an almost hypocritical position. I teach my students to look at language diversity and change not as wrong or as evidence of the decay of English, but as a natural part of language and something to see as interesting. Then I get their papers, and as an English teacher it's my responsibility to make sure they have control of prescriptive rules of usage, some of which certainly aid in clarity but some of which are arbitrary, some of which do not correspond to spoken language, and some of which, frankly, I don't really believe in. But it's my responsibility to make sure that students know all of these rules because they will be judged in other contexts by whether or not they control them. I talk with them explicitly about this, and explain my position, which is that I don't grade them down for usage issues.

Typos I feel differently about, but for "who" for "whom," or a singular "they," I underline or circle them and make a note about what the prescriptive rule says so students can make the choice. What I don't do is cross these things out in papers, because that's a very different message. Now compare this to the work we're asked to do on the usage panel, where we get a survey that asks, is this pronunciation or meaning "acceptable?"

VT: What the heck does that mean?

Anne: Exactly the right question. It puts you in an interesting position of what does it mean to be "acceptable." You realize there are meanings and pronunciations that may or will be judged as not acceptable in certain contexts. But I lean towards a more inclusive approach. If I see pronunciations that I know younger people are using, I tend to say, "This is happening, and we need to recognize that this is happening."

VT: Interesting. You mentioned the singular "they."

Anne: Yes, I feel very strongly about that one.

VT: Pro or con?

Anne: Pro. It's a very efficient and natural solution to he/she. In fact, English speakers have been using the singular they for centuries. I've done research on the history of gender constructions in English, and you can find the singular they back into at least Middle English.. English speakers and writers have been using this solution for years. It wasn't until the end of the 18th century when we got the first prescription about it from the grammarian Lindley Murray. He advocated the singular generic he and that got picked up in other grammars. So we had a rule prescribing singular generic he until the 1980's, when feminists urged a different solution, the result being he or she. But in the spoken language we say they all the time.

VT: They seems much more elegant than he or she.

Anne: Most people don't notice it. Imagine if I said, "I was talking to a friend of mine, and they said it was a terrible movie." That would be under the radar for most of us. Occasionally I will have people say to me: "But they is plural, so it doesn't work." My response is that in the example I just gave, they is clearly singular, because it's referring to a friend. My second defense of the construction is that in the course of English history, the pronoun you has done exactly the same thing. We used it to make a singular/plural distinction between thou and you. Then thou died out over time, and you took on both the singular and plural functions. And it does so with the same verb: we still say "you are," even in the singular. They has done exactly the same thing, which is to take on a singular function in addition to a plural function.

VT: This, of course, goes against all the rules I learned in high school.

Anne: I was giving a lecture the other day in a Jane Austen class I teach. Jane Austen actually uses singular "they" fairly frequently. I asked students, "Are you all allowed to use this in your papers?" Most of them answered "no" (except the few who had taken classes with me!). I then asked, who says you can't? The students responded, "English teachers." But I said, who told the English teachers that they shouldn't allow it? Several of the students answered, "Grammar books." But who wrote the grammar books? And as we ask these questions, we can start to realize, wait, who has the authority to tell me that? I think it's an important question to ask.

VT: Another important question that you raise in your work is about spelling. You describe English spelling as the "world's most awesome mess." Why is this so?

Anne: I'm quoting someone else on that, and there are multiple reasons. One is that we have continued to experience pronunciation change after spelling became standardized. So if you take a word like knight, that actually used to be pronounced k-nicht. The "k" was pronounced, and the "gh" was used to represent a fricative in the k-nicht. The "i" was also pronounced like "ee." We've since simplified the consonant clusters, like the "gn" and "kn," which used to be pronounced. We also underwent a change called the Great Vowel Shift, where historically long vowels were raised, but the spelling continued to capture their old pronunciation. Think of the words mouse and mice. They were pronounced like "moose" and "meese," but then the long "i" and "u" became diphthongs. And "boot," as the spelling indicates, used to have a long "o" which was then raised to "u."

VT: Interesting.

Anne: We also have idiosyncrasies. For example, we don't know where the "u" in forty went. It used to be there, but now it's not.

VT: That pesky "u."

Anne: Exactly. And then we borrow from other languages, which have different spelling systems than we do. For example, the French use the "c" to represent an "s" sound, which is how we get city and cellar with an "s" sound, but a "c" spelling. But the word colonel is one of the truly idiosyncratic stories of the English language. At the end of the Renaissance we borrowed colonello from Italian, and around the same time we borrowed coronelle from French. What we managed to do was standardize the French pronunciation with the Italian spelling.

VT: My jaw has dropped!

Anne: You can see these things happening around us right now. Here's one story which I love: I was teaching phonology, how you transcribe the pronunciation of words, and one of the words I had on the board was "larynx." I pronounced it the way I say it, which is lar-inx. But I noticed a student looking puzzled. When I called on her, she said, "That's not how I say it." She pronounced it lar-nyx. And I, being the accepting teacher that I am, said "No you don't!" But she insisted she did, so I turned to the class of 50 students and asked if anyone else pronounced the word lar-nyx. And I had six or seven students raise their hands!

VT: Lar-nyx.

Anne: Lar-nyx. I now have students go out and survey people about the word. This is a process called metathesis, where sounds switch places. For example, "bird" used to be brid, and "third" used to be thrid, which actually makes much more sense - thrice, three, thrid. Also, "ask" used to be aks.

VT: Now, of course, that's considered non-standard.

Anne: It's a highly stigmatized usage. But when I tell people that Chaucer actually used aks, it often rocks their world. So now "larynx" is changing, and at some point people may say, "Well why is it spelled this way if people say lar-nyx?"

VT: This is fascinating.

Anne: It is fun. But I also hope that when I'm working with students or when I'm writing about this kind of thing, it unsettles for people their ideas about right and wrong in language, be that about non-standard dialects of language or about the way younger people are speaking. This, of course, is natural to language. You will have variation and you will have change in language. I ask people to think about the evolution of our language differently.

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