A columnist in the Christian Science Monitor recently expressed surprise over the fact that meaning sometimes trumps grammatical agreement in English. She worries that editors are allowing sentences like, A number of people find this appalling, even though number, which is singular, should take the singular verb finds. Another writer in the Hartford Courant rails against imprecise grammar. He doesn’t like it when reporters call people in the news actors – for example, The politicians were key actors in the passage of the bill.
And educators and amateurs alike have reacted in alarm to suggestions that students in Scotland and New Zealand may be allowed to use textspeak, or txtspk, on standardized tests.
All these complaints have one thing in common, something paradoxical. While protestors recognize thatl anguage changes, and that it must change in order to remain vital and communicative, each adds a caveat: “The particular change that I object to must not be allowed to stand.”
What they mean is, “Change is good. This change is bad.”
They have another thing in common. They’re wrong.
The sense of a statement – for example, whether it seems singular or plural to us, whether it seems general or specific, whether it seems gendered or gender neutral – has always been able to overrule agreement. Speakers of English have always been able to say Everyone loves their mother if they wanted to, since everyone, while singular in form, is plural in meaning. And they have always been able to write it, as well.
And never mind that actors were people who managed things or represented clients in court long before they were people performing plays (or players, as they were often called) – what the Connecticut columnist is objecting to is imprecise meaning, not imprecise grammar. So either he’s guilty of the same language crime he’s complaining about, or it’s not a crime to extend meaning metaphorically. After all, such extension is one way that language changes.
As for the evils of texting, well writers have always employed abbreviations to save time or space without angering readers. Medieval scribes used shortcuts writing Latin. So did Gutenberg when he printed the Bible. Academics still pepper their carefully-edited and highly-formal texts with e.g.’s, i.e.’s, and etc.’s without examiners marking them down or reporters outing them. And texters didn’t invent swak,ttfn, luv, or cuz – they were used by children long before children had cell phones.
All of this has led me to propose Baron’s laws of English usage. They are both simple and infallible:
1. Whenever someone complains about a change in the language, if you listen to them long enough, or read enough of what they write, eventually you’ll find them committing the very sin they rail against.
2. Whenever someone complains about a language innovation, that’s a sure sign that it’s already too late to do anything about it.
But wait, there’s more.
The third of Baron’s laws of English usage states this even more universal truth:
3. Everybody dislikes some aspect of grammar, usage, vocabulary, pronunciation, or idiom, whether it’s new or old – that’s human nature, but it’s also a natural feature of how we all use language. Just as it’s natural for language to change, it’s also natural that some people will resist the change, even as they adopt it themselves.
So, given all of the above, my advice to you is simple and direct: feel free to innovate and complain, to contradict yourself and to be imprecise, to err and to point out the errors others make. Because if you don’t, you can bet that someone else will do it, they’ll do it in print, and it just might be you they’ll be complaining about.