Answer To Alice

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

Alice in Wonderland

From time to time, a conflict breaks out between a certain type of conservative and… well I’m not sure what to call the opponent, over standards of correctness in speech and writing. This is a good example of the former. The conservative points to linguistic change with alarm as if movement away from what is at one time considered correct is simply movement away from correctness. This inspires a variety of reactions in the opponent, usually equally multivalent and politicized. Underneath the former view is the notion that language, being rule-governed, implies that there is a difference between correct and incorrect, which is right as far as it goes. Underneath the latter view is the notion that usage determines what is correct, and therefore it makes no sense to say that a pervasive change in patterns of usage could be incorrect. This too is right as far as it goes.

Both views are ultimately misguided, not because the truth lies somewhere in between, but because both are blind to the context of linguistic usage. What both views fail to capture is that language is a tool, that it serves communicative and coordinative functions in actual social life. Between the fanciful notion of objective correctness, and the equally fanciful notion of linguistic norms as utterly arbitrary lies the more plausible notion that linguistic norms exist to achieve communicative goals in actual social settings.

It is in this context that the eventual triumph of the singular “they” should be understood: it is not incorrect “just because,” nor is it correct “just because,” but rather it will be correct because all the available alternatives force a choice between the sexism of the masculine inclusive pronoun and awkwardness of “one” and “he or she.” I have observed first-hand academia’s unsuccessful struggle to solve this conundrum without resorting to “they.” By contrast, the degradation of “begs the question” from its use exclusively to mean unargued for assumptions and circular reasoning, to meaning that as well as being synonymous with suggests the question, effaces a useful distinction and makes communication more difficult. Only pragmatism can help us makes sense of the difference. Other analogous conflicts, and not merely linguistic ones, might very well yield to similar considerations.


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