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Monday, April 16, 2012

Arguing About Language | Gary Gutting, New York Times

In this column, philosophy professor discusses the linguistic conflict people who advocate adherence to widely recognized rules for grammar and usage, rules and people who favor being open new, evolving rules and uses.

Near the start of this column, he Gutting writes:
[T]here will always be a tension between sticking to and violating linguistic rules. We can, however, often fruitfully discuss emerging linguistic innovations if we keep in mind three main goals of language use: effective communication, pleasing expression and moral solidarity.
Later, he concludes:
Language usage is and should be a battleground. Our task is to make the conflict fruitful. To do this, we need to understand what precisely is at issue in any particular dispute. Does a new locution advance or retard our power to express our ideas effectively? Is the issue primarily one of different aesthetic sensibilities? Or is our argument over language rooted in deeper disagreements over who we are and how we should live? Once we understand what is really at stake, we may be able to learn much through arguing about language.
I'm a stickler for following rules when they aid readers and writers in understanding each other, with limited confusion. When writers follow the rules (just as when car drivers follow the rules) they limit surprises for readers (and pedestrians or people in other cars). Readers know what to expect when the rules are followed--and they can pay more attention to the content. And isn't that usually the point for both reading and writing something?! (I realize and accept that my last statement doesn't always apply in creative writing.)

Yet I also favor changing some rules to reflect the reality of changes in communication and interactions among the diverse cultures of our countries and within cultures. A widely recognized and essential change, for example, was dropping the outdated use of "he," "his" and "him" as both male and generic pronouns. But to aid that change, the growing but still disputed use of pronouns like "they," "their" and "them" as both and singular pronouns makes sense to me. That change is not unprecedented! Think of the pronoun "you." It's both a singular pronoun and a plural pronoun. 
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