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If someone were to lend me a time machine and ask me to go back and figure out exactly what first set me down my road to dedicated descriptivism, I would first ask them if perhaps there wasn’t a better use for this marvelous contraption. But if they persisted, the coordinates I’d start with would be my elementary school days. I suspect it was some time around then that I first asked for permission to do something and was met with one of the archetypal prescriptions.

“Can I go to the bathroom?”, I surely must have asked, and just as surely a teacher must have answered, “I don’t know, can you?”

The irritation that I felt at this correction was so severe that even though I can’t remember when this happened, nor who did it to me, I still can call to mind the way it made me seethe. It was clear to me that the pedant was wrong, but I couldn’t figure out quite how to explain it. So, at the risk of sounding like I’m trying to settle a two-decade-old grudge, let’s look at whether it makes sense to correct this. I say that the answer is no — or at the very least, that one oughtn’t to correct it so snootily.

Let’s examine the “error” that the authority figure is correcting.  Can, we are told, addresses the ability to do something, whereas may addresses permission.  Mom said I can count to ten means that dear ol’ Mum believes in my ability to count to ten, although she may not want me to do so; Mom said I may count to ten means that Mum is allowing me to do so, although she need not believe that I am able to.*

At any given time, there are a lot of things that one is capable of doing (can do) and a lot of things that one is permitted to do (may do), and a few things that fall into both categories.  The prescriptivist idea is that there is a fairly clear distinction between the two categories, though, and so it is important to distinguish them.

Except, well, it’s not so important after all; can and may were tightly intertwined in early English, and were never fully separated.  The OED lists an obsolete usage [II.4a] of may as meaning “be able; can”.  This is first attested in Old English, and continues through to at least 1645.  Furthermore, may meaning “expressing objective possibility” [II.5] is attested from Old English to the present day (although it is noted as being rare now).  Examples of these are given in (1) and (2).  So we see that may does not always address the issue of permission, that may has encroached upon can‘s territory at times in the past and continues to do so to this day.

(1) No man may separate me from thee. [1582]
(2) Youth clubs may be found in all districts of the city. [1940]

As for can, there’s no historical evidence I found of it referring to permission in the distant past.  Back then, may was apparently the dominant one, stealing usages from can.  The OED gives a first citation for can meaning “to be allowed to” in 1879, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and does call the usage colloquial, at least on the British side of the pond.  But still, we’ve got it attested 130 years ago by a former Poet Laureate of the UK.  That’s a pretty good lineage for the permission usage.

Furthermore, I think (at least in contemporary American English) that the may I usage is old-fashioned to the point of sounding stilted or even affected outside of highly formal contexts. Just to back up my intuition, here’s the Google Books N-grams chart comparing May I go and Can I go:

can-may

You can see there’s a changeover in the mid-1960s, when the usage levels of May I finish plunging and Can I starts rocketing away. As you well know, this sort of fairly sudden change in relative frequency tends to generate a backlash against the newly-prominent form as a sign of linguistic apocalypse, so there’s no real surprise that people would loudly oppose permissive Can I. As always, the loud opposition to it is one of the surest signs that it’s passed a point of no return. By my youth, Can I was ensconced as the question of choice, and nowadays, I doubt many of our kids are getting being corrected on it — though it remains prominent enough in our zeitgeist to function as a set-up for a range of uninspired jokes.

So historically, what can we say of can and may and permission and ability? We’ve seen something of a historical switch. In the distant past, may could indicate either permission or ability, while can was restricted to ability. Over time, may‘s domain has receded, and can‘s has expanded. In modern usage, can has taken on permission senses as well as its existing ability senses. May, on the other hand, has become largely restricted to the permission sense, although there are some “possibility”-type usages that still touch on ability, especially when speaking of the future:

(3) We may see you at Breckenridge then.

The can expansion is a bit recent in historical terms, but that still means it’s been acceptable for over a hundred years — judging by the Tennyson citation — and commonplace for the last fifty or so. The recency explains the lingering resentment at permissive can, but it doesn’t justify it. Permissive can is here to stay, and there’s no reason to oppose it.**

*: Not to telegraph my argument, but even here I find Mom said I can count to sound more like a statement of permission than ability.

**: I have some thoughts on whether it’s really even possible to draw a clear line between permission and ability — in essence addressing the question of whether the smearing together of can and may is an accident or inevitability. I’ll try to put them together at some point & link to them, but given my history of failing to follow through with follow-up posts, I’m not going to leave it as only a possibility, not a promise.

I’ve mentioned my fondness for compiling historical grammatical errors as a reminder that we are not, point of fact, destroying what used to be a perfect language. Previously, I’d found unnecessary quotation marks in a 1960 World Series celebration, it’s for its in a 1984 John Mellencamp video, and an apostrophe incorrectly marking a plural in a famous 1856 editorial cartoon. But these were all punctuation-based errors. Today’s is a proper grammatical error, and one that people full-throatedly bemoan nowadays.

I found this error by admitting to myself that I am secretly an old man, and coming to terms with it by spending much of the summer sitting in parks, reading books on naval history and international relations. One of them, Nathaniel Philbrick’s Sea of Glory, tells the story of the U.S. Exploring Expedition, who discovered Antarctica and created the country’s first accurate naval charts for the Pacific islands. It’s a good book, but then it turned great by having two interesting old quotes four pages apart.

In the first, the Expedition is approaching Fiji and takes on another pilot due to the many coral reefs in the area:

“Wilkes felt it necessary to secure yet another experienced pilot at Tonga named Tom Granby. ‘You will find when we get to the Islands,’ Wilkes assured Granby, ‘that I know as much about them as you do.’ Granby smiled. ‘You may know all about them on paper,’ he replied, ‘but when you come to the goings in and goings out, you will see who knows best, you or myself.'”

Myself here is clearly non-standard, as no first-person pronoun has appeared anywhere in the sentence. The standard rule for reflexives, known as Principle A in Government and Binding theory, and discussed in pretty much every introductory syntax class, is that a reflexive must be bound in its governing category. Or, to say it in a more theory-agnostic and somewhat looser way, the coreferent of the reflexive (I/me for myself) has to appear within the smallest clause that contains the reflexive, and structurally “above” the reflexive. The syntactic specifics they depend on which syntactic theory you’re adhering to, but luckily they don’t really matter here; there’s no possible coreferent anywhere within the sentence, so any standard definition of Principle A will label the sentence ungrammatical.

Turning from this syntactic jungle to the Fijian jungle, a few pages later the Expedition lands on an island and hikes to its peak:

“Almost two years at sea had left them ill-prepared for such a demanding hike. ‘I have seldom witnessed a party so helpless as ourselves appeared,’ Wilkes wrote, ‘in comparison with the natives and white residents, who ran over the rocks like goats.'”

Again, it’s obvious that this is a non-standard usage, since no first-person plural noun phrase appears in the sentence to justify the reflexive.

Now, I’ve been marking these as non-standard rather than incorrect, and there’s a reason for this that is more than a desire to be non-judgmental. These supposedly erroneous uses of reflexives are widespread — so much so that I’d argue they’re at least borderline acceptable in many people’s forms of Informal Spoken English. That means that they ought to be explainable, that there ought to be some option in the rules of English that allow you to consider these uses acceptable without having to change much else in the language. I’m going to speculate for the rest of this post, so feel free to bail out here.

But before you bail, let me just brag about where I get to read.

Here’s my idea, which I don’t think is novel.* Reflexives are allowed only when, in some sense, there’s a sufficiently salient coreferent for the reflexive. Salience is standardly assessed syntactically, meaning that a coreferent appears structurally above the reflexive, and close enough to remain salient when the reflexive appears. But there is pragmatic salience as well, for people and things who haven’t been explicitly mentioned but remain prominent in the discourse all the same. And what is more pragmatically salient than the speaker? In both of these cases, it seems that the speaker is thinking of themselves as sufficiently salient to trigger the reflexive.

My intuition is that there are more instances of inappropriate reflexives for first person (myself, ourselves) than second person (yourself), and more of either than for third person (himself, herself, itself, themselves). I did a quick corpus search on COCA for sentence-initial As for *self, and the intuition wasn’t fully borne out; as for myself was the most common, but combined as for him/herself showed up almost as often (64 to 60), and as for yourself only registered one instance. So maybe I’m totally off-base on the specifics.** But something is going on that allows so many people to view reflexives as standard in positions that we don’t expect to see them, and like this or not, that needs explained.


*: If you know of any references to discussions about this issue, please share. I’m not primarily a syntactician, and didn’t see anything in a cursory search of the literature, but I really doubt this discussion hasn’t been had before.

**: I think the as for *self construction may be a special case. Most of the third-person uses look to be about how some third party views themself, and while one can state one’s own introspections and speculate about a third party’s, it’s a little bit weird to tell someone their own introspections. That could artificially deflate the second-person counts.

I think the best explanation of this construction may be as an indicator that we are switching mental spaces, if you’re familiar with that theory. Saying as for Xself establishes a new mental space focused on X and their inner workings or opinions, rather than the more generic mental space of the rest of the conversation. Sorry, I’m really going down a rabbit hole here.

If English words were Norse gods, perhaps than would be the best candidate to play the role of Loki, the trickster god.* It causes confusion not only due to its similarity with then, but also by raising the question of what case the noun phrase it governs should have. Of course, there’s no confusion if you are a brilliant grammaticaster, as in this example from a list of peeves:

12. I/Me: We had several different takes on this, with one correspondent nailing it thus: “The correct choice can be seen when you finish the truncated sentence: He’s bigger than I am. ‘He’s bigger than me am’ actually sounds ridiculous and obviates the mistake.”**

Now, there’re two questions one should be asking of this explanation. First, can you just fill in the blank? By which I mean, does a sentence with ellipsis (the omission of words that are normally syntactically necessary but understood by context) necessarily have the same structure as a non-elided sentence? There are many different types of ellipsis, so this is a more complex question than I want to get into right now, but the short answer is no, and here’s a question-and-answer example:

Who drank my secret stash of ginger-grapefruit soda?
(1a) He/*Him drank it.
(1b) Him/*He.

(The asterisks indicate ungrammatical forms.) The second question to ask here is whether there even is an elision. We know that “He eats faster than I do” is a valid sentence, but does than necessarily trigger a clause after it? Could it be that “He eats faster than me” is not an incomplete version of the above structure but rather a different and complete structure?

This boils down to the question of whether than is strictly a conjunction (in which cases the conjoined things should be equivalent, i.e., both clauses) or can function as a preposition as well (in which case the following element is just a noun phrase, with accusative case from the preposition). It’s pretty easy to see that than behaves prepositionally in some circumstances, pointed out in the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, via Language Log:

(2a) He’s inviting more people than just us.
(2b) I saw no one other than Bob.

But this prepositional usage has become frowned upon, save for instances like (2a) & (2b) where it’s unavoidable. Why? Well, it’s an interesting tale involving the love of Latin and the discoverer of dephlogisticated air. It all starts (according to the MWDEU) with Robert Lowth, who in 1762 claimed, under the influence of Latin, that than is a conjunction and noun phrases following it carry an understood verb. The case marking (e.g., I vs. me) would then be assigned based on the noun phrase’s role in the implied clause. So Lowth’s grammar allows (3a) and (3b) but blocks (3c):

(3a) He laughed much louder than I (did).
(3b) He hit you harder than (he hit) me.

(3c) *He laughed much louder than me.

Lowth’s explanation was not without its wrinkles; he accepted than whom as standard (possibly due to Milton’s use of it in Paradise Lost), and worked out a post hoc explanation for why this prepositional usage was acceptable and others like (3c) weren’t.

Lowth’s explanation was also not without its dissenters. Joseph Priestley, a discoverer of oxygen, argued against it in his Rudiments of English Grammar (1772 edition). Priestley noted that the combination of a comparative adjective and than behaved prepositionally, and that good writers used it as such. Regarding the Lowthian argument against it, he wrote:

“It appears to me, that the chief objection our grammarians have to both these forms, is that they are not agreeable to the idiom of the Latin tongue, which is certainly an argument of little weight, as that language is fundamentally different from ours”

Another pro-prepositionist was William Ward, whose 1765 Essay on Grammar argues that than in phrases like to stand higher than or to stand lower than is akin to prepositions like above or below, and thus that the prepositional usage of than should be allowed. That’s not much of an argument, because semantically equivalent words and phrases don’t have to have the same syntax — consider I gave him it vs. *I donated him it. But then again, Lowth is basing his argument on a completely separate language, so this is a slight improvement.

The real key, of course, is usage, and the MWDEU notes that Priestey and Ward are backed by standard usage at the time. Visser’s Historical English Syntax strengths the case with examples of prepositional than from a variety of estimable sources, including the Geneva Bible (1560), Shakespeare (1601), Samuel Johnson (1751, 1759), and Byron (1804). And of course prepositional than continues in modern usage — why else would we be having this argument?

Despite the irrelevance of his argument, Lowth’s opinion has stuck through to the present day, reinvigorated by new voices repeating the same old line, unwilling to concede something’s right just because it’s never been wrong. It’s the MWDEU, not the commenter mentioned at the top, who nails it:

“Ward’s explanation [that both conjunctive and prepositional uses are correct] covered actual usage perfectly, but it was probably too common-sensical—not sufficiently absolutist—to prevail.”

So in the end, we’re left with this. Than I and than me are both correct, in most cases. Than I is often regarded as more formal, but interestingly it’s the only one that can be clearly inappropriate.*** Using the nominative case blocks the noun phrase from being the object of the verb. I can’t write The wind chilled him more than I to mean that the wind chilled me less than it chilled him.

Sometimes this can be used to disambiguate; I love you more than him is ambiguous while I love you more than he isn’t. This only matters for clauses with objects, and in general, these tend not to be ambiguous given context, so the benefit of disambiguation must be weighed against the potentially over-formal tone of the nominative case. (I, for instance, think the second sentence above sounds less convincing, even though it’s clearer, because who talks about love so stiltedly?)

I’m branching a little off topic here, but I’d like to conclude with a general point from Priestley, a few paragraphs after the quote above:

“In several cases, as in those above-mentioned, the principles of our language are vague, and unsettled. The custom of speaking draws one way, and an attention to arbitrary and artificial rules another. Which will prevail at last, it is impossible to say. It is not the authority of any one person, or of a few, be they ever so eminent, that can establish one form of speech in preference to another. Nothing but the general practice of good writers, and good speakers can do it.”

Summary: Than can work as a conjunction or a preposition, meaning that than I/he/she/they and than me/him/her/them are both correct in most situations. The latter version is attested from the 16th century to the present day, by good writers in formal and informal settings. The belief that it is unacceptable appears to be a holdover from Latin-based grammars of English.

*: Interestingly, and counter to the mythology I learned from the Jim Carrey movie The Mask, Wikipedia suggests that Loki may not be so easily summarized as the god of mischief.

**: I’m pretty sure the use of obviate is a mistake here. I can just barely get a reading where it isn’t, if thinking of the full version of the sentence causes you to avoid the supposed mistake. But I suspect instead that our correspondent believes obviate means “make obvious”, in which case, ha ha, Muprhy’s Law

***: Is there a case where than me is undeniably incorrect? I can’t think of one.

Gender-neutral language really burns some people’s beans. One common argument against gender-neutral language is that it’s something new. See, everyone was fine with generic he up until [insert some turning point usually in the 1960s or 1970s], which means concerns about gender neutrality in language are just manufactured complaints by “arrogant ideologues” or people over-concerned with “sensitivity”, and therefore ought to be ignored.

I have two thoughts on this argument. The first: so what? Society progresses, and over time we tend to realize that certain things we used to think were just fine weren’t. The fact that we didn’t see anything wrong with it before doesn’t mean we were right then and wrong now. Furthermore, women have gained power and prominence in many traditionally male-dominated areas, so even if gender-neutral language had been unnecessary in the past (e.g., when all Congressmen were men), that wouldn’t mean it’s a bad idea now.

But my second thought is this: the very premise is wrong. Concerns about gender-neutral language date back far beyond our lifetimes. Here are a few examples:

Freshmen. In the mid-19th century, the first American women’s colleges appeared. One of the earliest of these, Elmira College, had to figure out what to call the first year students, i.e. freshmen. For its first ten years, Elmira referred to this class as the protomathians, before deciding to return to the established usage. Rutgers, similarly, proposed novian to replace “freshman” when they began accepting female students.

Mankind. You can go pretty far back in English and see examples of mankind being viewed as non-gender-neutral. This led some authors who wanted to avoid any confusion about whether they were including women to use the phrase “mankind and womankind”; here’s Anthony Trollope doing so in 1874, and other people’s attestations from 1858, 1843, 1783, and 1740. This suggests that mankind was viewed as sufficiently likely to be non-generic as to cause at least hesitation if not confusion. In some sense, this is sort of an early generic he or she. Speaking of which…

He or she. He or she really gets people’s goats, and to some extent I can see why; it’s not short and simple like pronouns standardly are, and it can throw off the rhythm of the sentence. (This is why I prefer singular they.) Given that it’s ungainly, you might suspect, as most people do, that this is a new usage that only appeared once it was too politically incorrect to ignore women. But while it only started getting popular in the 70s, it’s been used much longer than that. Here it appears 19 times in two paragraphs in an 1864 book of Mormon Doctrine. Turning from religion to law, here it is in an 1844 Maryland law, and here it is in various British laws from 1815. Here’re examples from Acts passed by the First American Congress in 1790, and so on and so on.

Person as a morpheme. Another common complaint is about supposedly ugly new words like salesperson or chairperson or firefighter.* But such gender-neutralized forms were already being created as needed before the 1970s. Here’s salesperson used 100 times in a book from 1916.** Here’s another example, in the title of an article discussing paying commission to salespeople back in 1919. The OED offers even older examples, with tradesperson in 1886 and work-person in 1807.

Singular they. I know I sound like a broken record on this point, but singular they — using they in place of generic he for singular referents of unknown gender — has been around a long, long time. Henry Churchyard’s site lists off examples spanning from 1400 to the present day, with a special focus on Jane Austen’s 75 singular uses of their.

In conclusion, I’m definitely not saying that gender-neutral language was as prominent in the past as it is today. I’m just saying that when someone says that everyone was fine with non-neutral English up until the 1970s, they’re wrong. Clearly people were concerned about this before then, and adjusted the language to be gender-neutral when it seemed appropriate. This is not something totally new; it is not unprecedented; it is not a dastardly attempt to undermine the English language. It is just an expansion of an existing concern about English usage.


*: I just want to jump in and note that I find firefighter more precise and cooler-sounding than fireman; then again, I may have some unresolved issues with the latter term stemming from the difficulties I had in beating Fire Man when playing Mega Man.

**: The first part of this book is even titled “The Salesperson and Efficient Salesmanship”, showing gradient gender-neutrality decision-making, where gender-neutral forms are used when the gender is prominent or easily removed, and non-neutral forms when the gender is subtler or difficult to remove.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.



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