Obscure Box

Thoughts from inside the obscure box


April 22, 2009

No wonder the English language is doomed

Posted by : Michael Lund
Filed under : Media

One of the many mistakes journalists make is to mix their singular and their plurals.

It can be difficult, especially in sport when a player is but the team are.

But the greatest offence is when the writer uses both singular and plural language on the same subject.

Take this line from a blog: "In recent decades the Vatican has tried to undo their mistake."

If we accept the "Vatican has" as a singular body then surely it should be "its mistake", but if we allow "their mistake" then it should be the "Vatican have" as a plural.

Personally, I'd opt for the Vatican as singular and most texts I searched agreed.

What made this sentence (above) so interesting though was that it came from a blog entry called "My Dear Galileo Galilei" (2 January 2009).

The blogger is The Language Guy whose biographical details describe him as "a Professor Emeritus in Linguistics at The Ohio State University".

A little digging reveals him to be Michael L. Geis.

Surely an expert on linguistics would not make such a simple mistake in the use of language? I posted a comment on his blog to point out the error.

His reply is astounding.

The Language Guy said...

"their" has become the new singular, as I am sure you know. Linguists tend not to side with language dictators, rather letting language change proceed without interference. Practically everyone now uses "their" this way. This is, by the way, as trivial a linguistic fact as can be imagined. There is no actual substance involved.

I'm sure I do NOT know that their has become the new singular.

While it may crop up from time to time as an alternative to he or she, it's not really acceptable in today's writing. Anyone who uses their this way will have a short career in journalism.

What's more he missed my point that he was mixing his singular and plural in the one sentence. I'm no expert on language, but he says he is and his sentence construction is just plain wrong.

I am amazed at how dismissive The Language Guy is of the criticism and his point that linguists like to let "language change proceed without interference" is probably partly to blame for the poor standards we see today.

He's more than happy in his blog to take the odd shot at journalists and their use of language, yet he can't take the criticism himself.

If language usage proceeds like his, we are doomed.


One Comment so far ...

“In recent decades the Vatican has tried to undo their mistake.”

While I don't promote the use of "their" as a singular pronoun, The Language Guy is correct.

"Linguists tend not to side with language dictators, rather letting language change proceed without interference. Practically everyone now uses “their” this way."

Many linguists these days are descriptivists; prescriptivists seem to be in the minority. As a former grammar snob myself, who has studied linguistics, I've learned to be more forgiving when it comes to others' use of the English language. More important, I accept that language is a living thing that is evolving all the time. And there's nothing we can do to stop it.

Loosen up a little. :-)
We're not doomed, just changing.

Comment on May 30, 2009 11:32 am
(required)
(will not be published) (required)
(opitional)

Just so you know…

All thoughts and comments here are the honestly held personal opinion of Michael Lund and are based on the information available at the time of publication.

Categories

Admin