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If you haven’t already heard, Texas’s state senate was engaged in a political thriller last night. I was able to catch the last 40 or so minutes of its livestream, riding that delightful roller-coaster of modern politics that trundles from dim optimism that something good will happen to the crushing realization that the deck has been stacked against it so thoroughly that you can only hope to minimize your losses.

Well, thankfully, there was a substantial group of state senators who managed to lack such pessimism and who stood up to do right by their constituents. Literally, in the case of Sen. Wendy Davis, who began a filibuster of an anti-abortion bill 13 hours before the special session was set to end at midnight. By rule, she had to keep talking throughout, stopping only to take questions. She was not allowed to sit, lean against a desk, leave the floor, or eat. None of this “silent” filibuster garbage of the federal senate: no, this is “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, wreck-your-body-because-you-believe-in-what’s-right dedication.

What I hope becomes an iconic picture of this event.

Sen. Tommy Williams couldn’t have looked more like a political caricature while arguing for a second strike against Davis’s filibuster because another member helped her adjust her back brace. [Photo: Patrick Michels, Texas Observer]

Davis made it ten hours before getting three strikes on her filibuster. Other senators took over, stalling until 11:45, when the Republican majority managed to trigger a vote to trigger a vote on the contemptible SB 5. With this first vote passed and the bill’s passage imminent, Sen. Leticia Van de Putte challenged the first vote on the basis of her having an outstanding inquiry at the time of the vote, a challenge the Senate president overruled by noting that he had not recognized her inquiry.

With calm fury reminiscent of Joe Welch, she asked, “At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over the male colleagues in the room?” The gallery erupted in cheers that continued for the last fifteen minutes of the day, a cacophony that prevented the final roll-call vote from happening until after the midnight deadline. It was powerful stuff, and my eyes welled more than once throughout it.

But this is a grammar blog, and I wouldn’t bring this up unless there was a grammatical discussion to be had. Let’s go back to the second of the three strikes against Davis’s filibuster, the objection I’ve included Patrick Michels’s excellent picture of above. Claire Cardona wrote at the Dallas Morning News’s filibuster liveblog:

“Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, raised a point of order on the filibuster because Davis had help from Sen. Ellis to readjust her back brace. […] but Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, brings up a part in the rules that would permit Davis to sit. […] Zaffirini notes that the rules said ‘may not lean on his desk, his chair, and that note doesnt apply to Sen. Davis.'”

The rule in question, which I think is Senate Rule 4.01 [PDF, p. 8-9], reads:

“When a member has been recognized and is speaking on a motion to re-refer a bill, he must stand upright at his desk and may not lean thereon (61 S.J. Reg. 1760, 1762 (1969)).
When a member has the floor and is speaking on a bill or resolution, he must stand upright at his desk and may not lean or sit on his desk or chair (61 S.J. Reg. 1059 (1969)).”

Of course, we all know what is meant there, that the intended interpretation is gender-neutral he. We see such usages regularly, probably think little of it, and move on. To claim that the use of he in this rule means it doesn’t apply to a woman is crazy, surely.

Or is it? During a filibuster, pedantry is everywhere. I learned but one thing from the time I volunteered at a Model Congress convention: intent and common usage mean little as the parliamentarian sifts through Robert’s Rules of Order to decide which of the fourteen simultaneous objections takes precedence over the rest. Grammatical pedantry, so often out of place, is only fair in this situation.

[Rt. Hon. W.L. Mackenzie King and guests unveiling a plaque commemorating the five Alberta women whose efforts resulted in the Persons Case]

The Canadian “Persons Case”, in which women were suing to be granted the right to be appointed to the Senate, depended in part on whether he included women. The legal gender-neutrality of he had in fact been specified in 1889’s Interpretation Act.

I’m no legal expert, and I’m certainly not an expert at what terminological choices are taken as given in the Texas Senate rulebook, so take this discussion with a grain of salt. But Zaffirini’s argument isn’t without merit. I found no declaration at any point in the Senate Rules that he is to be assumed as gender-neutral. In fact, there are eight instances of “his or her” in the rules — one occurring in the first sentence of Rule 4.01, the very rule being debated. If he is understood to be gender-neutral in the third and fourth sentences of Rule 4.01, why is he insufficient in the first?*

I wrote last year about how such uncertainty of the interpretation of gender-neutrality on the male pronoun in governmental settings was not a new concern: even the first U.S. Congress, in 1790, used “he or she” in some of their bills. It’s all hair-splitting, of course, but it’s a hair that may need to be split. When the issue at hand is so entwined with gender, maybe it’s a good time to examine our assumptions, starting with a little pronoun.

*: Possibly because the third and fourth sentences are based on 1969 formulations and the first sentence isn’t. But are Senate rules to be interpreted diachronically or synchronically?

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:


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.

goofy recently posted at bradshaw of the future about momentarily and some strange advice Grammar Girl sent out about it. Her advice:

“Don’t use momentarily to mean “in a moment”; you may confuse people. If you mean in a moment, say or write that. There’s no need to use momentarily in such cases, and doing so will irritate language purists.”

A quick note first: both the “in a moment” and “for a moment” meanings of momentarily have been around for 140 years, so the purists are completely unjustified in their complaint. Also, sure, there’s no need to use momentarily here, but then, there’s no need to ever use any given word. You can always paraphrase or re-write the sentence.

But the real question is two-fold: whether the benefits of using a questionable word outweighs its costs, and whether there’s a better word. You might think of this as a satisficing condition and an optimization condition.* And I suspect — although I don’t know if anyone’s studying this, or what they’ve found — that there’s some sort of a switch-off between the two methods depending on what production task you’re doing. When speed is one’s primary concern, presumably it’s sufficient to check that the word is beneficial; only when one has the luxury of time does full optimization kick in.

So is momentarily costly — i.e., will it confuse readers? goofy makes a good point about the potential confusion:

“If it’s more common for people to use momentarily to mean ‘in a moment’, then why advise people not to use it that way? It seems that Grammar Girl is essentially saying ‘don’t speak like everyone else in your speech community speaks.’ This seems counterproductive. […] it might confuse people – but if most people already use it that way, why should it be confusing?”

He gives the example of a pilot saying “we’ll land momentarily”, and notes that no one except for an uncooperative speaker will think “that means ‘for a moment’!” But one might harbor doubts. Maybe no one will end up with that interpretation, but maybe they’ll be distracted by it during interpretation. Yeah, that’s certainly possible — but listeners are more adept at ignoring irrelevant ambiguities that we tend to give them credit for.

The famous example from introductory linguistics classes of this is Time flies like an arrow. The first time someone sees this sentence, it just sounds like a standard aphorism, and the only meaning they’re likely to seriously consider is “time moves in a swift manner, akin to an arrow”. But this sentence is ambiguous, of course, as almost all sentences are. Many of the words have different senses and different parts of speech that they can take on.

If we switch from a Noun-Verb-Preposition reading of time flies like to an Noun-Noun-Verb one, we get: “‘Time flies’ (as opposed to houseflies or gadflies) appreciate an arrow”. There’s also a Verb-Noun-Preposition reading, yielding an imperative: “as though you were an arrow, record the time the flies take to complete a task”. There are other interpretations, too, but none of these is likely enough, given our world-knowledge and parsing probabilities, to register in our minds. We can reasonably expect that Time flies like an arrow will be correctly understood, without time lost to alternative interpretations, by any audience that isn’t actively looking for implausible interpretations.

So too should we expect momentarily to be correctly understood; claiming to have difficulty with it marks the complainer, not the speaker, as the one who doesn’t understand language. As an editor, one generally ought to foolproof writing, looking for and eliminating potential (even if fairly unlikely) misinterpretations. But there’s a difference between editing to protect fools from ambiguity and editing to protect uncooperative readers from ambiguity. The former is difficult, but generally doable. The latter is often simple, but generally worthless.**

Let me conclude with a good question from Jonathon Owen in the comments on goofy’s post:

“And if the problem is simply that purists will be annoyed, why not direct our efforts to teaching the purists not to be annoyed rather than teaching everyone else to avoid offending this very small but very vocal set of peevers?”

*: “Satisificing” is an idea I’m fond of, though one that doesn’t get talked about much outside of human decision-making tasks. In the familiar optimization strategy, you’re trying to find the best of all possible options, whereas a satisficing strategy is just looking for any option that’s better than some threshold. For instance, if you go to the store with two dollars and need to buy milk, you can optimize by comparing multiple sub-$2 cartons before picking the best of that lot, or you can employ a satisifice by buying the first carton that costs less than two dollars.

Satisificing is generally faster and, if I remember my undergrad psych classes correctly, is common in human decision-making processes, especially when time is of the essence.

**: One exception, presumably, is in legal writing/contracts.

Ambiguity and fear of ambiguity are common arguments for a variety of grammatical as well as editorial choices. For example, some people insist that since shouldn’t be used like because (as in “since you’re here so early, let’s build the trebuchet we’ve been planning”), because since could also mean “from that time forward”. The fear is that readers or listeners will commit to that latter reading and find it confusing — if not impossible — to switch tracks to the former reading.

Now, in the case of since, it’s actually rare that both meanings are reasonable for long enough to cause confusion; differences in the type of constituent or verb tense following the since tend to quickly disambiguate the sentence. But in other cases, ambiguity can be real and persistent:

(1) Since I was young, I went to church with my Mom […]

In rare cases, the ambiguity can even be such that a reader can’t confidently determine which is intended, and in even rarer cases, the difference is meaningful. To insure against this confusion, some writers eschew the “because” meaning of since completely.

And that sounds like a good idea, except for one thing: there’s a flip side to the problem. So long as a substantial fraction of the linguistic community continues to permit the ambiguous form, it doesn’t matter whether you personally avoid the ambiguity; the ambiguous situation arises from unambiguous usage as well. In this case, it’s that ambiguity can arise even in the time-based usage of since:

(2) Since I was young, I have understood how right Benito Juárez, the outstanding Mexican patriot, was when he said: “Respecting others’ rights is the way to peace.”

Even if you never use the “because” meaning, your reader (probably) doesn’t know that. When they get to “Since I was young…”, they still might think that you’re using the “because” form. Again, this is probably only a temporary ambiguity. But it’s as much an ambiguous setting as the one that everyone complains about, so to avoid ambiguity, it also needs eschewed.

Here’s another example, from the cover of a book I’m reading:

The book is on Walter O’Malley, a former owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the one who moved them to Los Angeles back in the 1950s. The front cover of the book, pictured above, reads “The True Story of Walter O’Malley, Baseball’s Most Controversial Owner, and the Dodgers of Brooklyn and Los Angeles”.

Now, if there were no such thing as the Oxford comma in this world, this subtitle would be unambiguous — baseball’s most controversial owner would clearly be an apposition referring to Walter O’Malley. (This is, by the way, the intended reading.) But because the Oxford comma exists, this could be a list. That’s the case even if neither the writer nor the reader ever uses the Oxford comma. The possibility of the Oxford comma will still color the interpretations.

I see two lessons here for usage in general. The first is that your writing and speaking do not exist in a vacuum. The principles of usage on which you make your usage decisions ought to take account of how other people use the language. It’s nice*, perhaps, if a writer insists that nauseous can only mean “inducing nausea”, but if no one else adheres to this rule, their readers probably won’t be able to recognize or use that principle in interpreting the writing. Common usage has an unavoidable influence on one’s readers and listeners.

The second is that ambiguity is not limited to contested usages. We tend to think of these debates about ambiguity as each influencing a particular choice or construction, but there’s almost always an overlooked construction that’s affected as well. If the fear of ambiguity is sufficient for a writer to avoid the ambiguous choice (e.g., the Oxford comma or because-since), then the fear of ambiguity also ought to cause the writer to avoid the ambiguity inducer (e.g., appositives in lists, time-since).

There are cases where that second avoidance is reasonable — I think I try to avoid appositives in lists, for instance — but in many situations, this would be tantamount to cutting the word out of the language. If both those senses of since are out, when could it be used? In cases like this, we really have to think hard about the intensity and importance of the ambiguity in the usage before deciding whether or not it’s tolerable. A blanket dictum against ambiguity is too broad a brush.

*: I’m, of course, using nice here in a sense somewhere between the rare “precise or particular in matters of reputation or conduct” and the obsolete “displaying foolishness or silliness” meanings.

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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 an assistant professor at San Diego State University, in the Department of Linguistics and Asian/Middle Eastern Languages, and a member of the Digital Humanities. Prior to that, I was a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. And before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

My research and teaching connects language, the mind, and society (in fact, I teach a 500-level class with that title!). I use probabilistic models to understand how people learn, represent, and comprehend language. These models have helped us understand the ways that parents tailor their speech to their child's needs, why sports fans say more or less informative things while watching a game, and why people who disagree politically fight over the meaning of "we".

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