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I’m a huge fan of NBC’s show Community, and over the last few months I’ve managed to get my entire family and core friends into it as well. That means going back and watching old episodes over and over again, which I can’t say I mind, especially since the show is forever on the verge of cancellation and there are likely precious few new episodes that I’ll be able watch over and over again. #SixSeasonsAndAMovie

In one episode, the study group that comprises the seven main characters is trapped in their group study room while a puppy parade goes on outside. The problem is that someone has stolen Annie’s pen and she won’t let anyone leave until it is returned. As tempers flare and the desire to see adorable becostumed puppies grows, Jeff attempts to reason with the unknown thief.

But what pronoun can Jeff use? The group is evenly split between men and women, so how will he handle English’s unfortunate lack of a singular ungendered human pronoun? Watch the video below, starting at 0:18, to find out (or just scroll to the transcription I put below it).

JEFF: Someone in this room is hiding your pen. Wanna know why? They feel terrible. They made a mistake. They waited too long to come forward and now they feel bad.
BRITTA: They should.

After all I said above about how awesome this show is, you might think this a kind of boring scene, and surely not a good one to convince you to watch it. But it’s the grammatical point that I’m concerned with, and it’s the mundanity of the dialogue that’s crucial to that. There’s nothing odd about this dialogue, despite all the singular theys in it, and we even see that Britta goes along with Jeff’s singular they in her response. It’d sound terrible with he or she replacing every they, and it’d sound like Jeff knew none of the women did it with he replacing every they.

Yes, singular they has shortcomings. So does he or she or “genderless” he or the various invented ungendered personal pronouns people have created. But singular they is natural in a way that the other options aren’t, and it’s the only reasonable solution in this dialogue.

Of course, I’m probably preaching to the choir here, so I hope you’ll forgive me if I’ve wasted your time.

The English subjunctive may well be dying, but I am shedding no tears for it. This unconcern is, perhaps, a minority view amongst men of letters, for whom saying if I were instead of if I was is often a marker of a proper education, but I’m comforted by the fact that it is the majority view amongst users of English.

The subjunctive, if you’re not familiar with it, is a verbal mood* that appears in a variety of languages. It’s prominent in Romance languages (if you’ve taken French or Spanish, you’ve surely encountered it), and it exists to various extents in other Indo-European languages as well, including English. The basic idea of the subjunctive mood is that it expresses something counter to reality. For instance, one might say:

(1) If Alicia were the President, she’d get Party Down back on the air.

Normally, you’d say “Alicia was”; “Alicia were” would be a misconjugation. But because we’re talking about a counterfactual situation (Alicia is not really the president), we can use the subjunctive mood instead. And in the subjunctive mood, the present tense of the verb to be is were, regardless of the subject.

Often you’ll see people using the regular present tense in these situations, writing in (1) “if Alicia was the President”. That’s because the English subjunctive is pretty weak. It can be used in counterfactual situations, but it generally isn’t required. Because it’s optional and subtle (it looks just like the plural indicative forms of most verbs), it’s no surprise it’s disappearing.

Many grammarians wail and gnash teeth for this loss, and try to explain how important the subjunctive is.** Some explain that the subjunctive stresses the counterfactual nature of the situation, as though if you saw “if Alicia was president” in (1), you’d be thinking “I don’t know Alicia was president!”. Of course no one thinks this, because the counterfactuality is already established by the use of if.

What’s interesting to me, though, is that are some situations where the subjunctive is obligatory. And I say obligatory here meaning that I don’t get the right meaning out of the sentence if the subjunctive isn’t used. One occurred to me during a little monologue I was having in my head as I walked across campus the other day:

(2a) He’s obsessed with the idea that everybody admire him.
(2b) He’s obsessed with the idea that everybody admires him.

In (2a), with the subjunctive, our nameless character hopes that everybody admires him, suggesting a dearth of self-esteem. In (2b), with the indicative, our nameless character believes that everybody admires him, suggesting an overabundance of self-esteem.*** Here’s another one that just came to me, and here not using the subjunctive seems very awkward (although I’ve found examples of it in the corpus):

(3a) I require that it be done tomorrow
(3b) ?I require that it is done tomorrow

So, you might say, how can I idly declare the subjunctive on its way out while I also declare its necessity? Well, quite simply, if it disappears, we’ll do something else. In the case of (3b), it seems that this indicative form is gaining traction. As for (2a), by just changing the word idea to hope or desire, we get the same irrealis reading as (2a) without requiring the subjunctive. When language change happens, it doesn’t become impossible to say something. It just becomes impossible to say it the old way.

The worst case scenario is that the meanings of (2a) and (2b) get said the same way (with the indicative form admires), that they become a little bit ambiguous, and that we have to rely on context to tell them apart. Even that isn’t a bad situation, since we already do that with so many other things in language. The difference is critical in our current form of English, but it probably won’t be in future forms.


*: The subjunctive is properly called a mood, not a tense, because it exists across tenses; there are past, present, and future subjunctives. This Wikipedia article has some good info on this. The “standard” mood of English is known as the indicative, because it indicates what is really there.

**: I’m especially fond of the Academy of Contemporary English’s thoughts on the matter: “[Not using the subjunctive forms] is so common, in fact, that few people realise that they are using bad English when they mix them up. The difference is of the utmost importance […]”

NB: when only a few people notice a language distinction, it is not important, let alone of the utmost importance.

***: I won’t spoil the minor mystery by revealing which of the two I was actually thinking.

One of the major problems I have with hard-line prescriptivists is that they follow their convictions to the point of absurdity, arguing that something completely standard ought to be changed because it doesn’t conform to a rule they’ve decided is inviolable. Today’s example is aren’t I.

Yes, I has a problem. Well, it’s not so much a problem with I, but with its companion am. Unlike the other conjugated forms of to be, am doesn’t form a contraction with not. Are and is are flexible, contracting equally readily with a pronoun (we’re) or the negation (isn’t). But am apparently fancies itself too good to consort with a debased negation. And so we find a hole in the English language, a word that should exist but doesn’t: amn’t.

Unlike am, English as a whole is flexible, and so another word (aren’t) pulls overtime and fills the hole. And this earns the ire of the accountants of the English language, who fume and fuss that this isn’t in the job description of aren’t. Didn’t they negotiate an agreement between subjects and verbs that aren’t can work with you and we and they and other plural subjects, but not with I?

So there is a hole in English, and there is a word that fills it. But filling the hole requires breaking a common rule in English. What do you do? If you are like pretty much every speaker of English, you break that rule. But there are those who put rules above reasonability and consider aren’t I bad grammar. Let’s look into the matter.

History. Aren’t is first attested in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1794. Google Books offers examples from 1726 and 1740. All of these are instances with you or they as the subject. As for aren’t I:

(1a) Aren’t I rich? You know I am! Aren’t I handsome? Look at me. [1878]
(1b) “I’ve got threepence,” she said, “Aren’t I lucky?” [1876]
(1c) “Aren’t I?” seems to be thought the correct thing; but why should we say “Aren’t I” any more than “I are not”? [1872]

Aren’t I appears in Google Books by the 1870s, and writing is conservative with respect to spoken usage, so aren’t I likely appeared in speech much earlier. In the earliest attestation — (1c) from 1872 — aren’t I was already perceived as standard. No one still alive today spoke pre-aren’t-I English. So if it’s been standard for 130 years, why wouldn’t it be fine still? Here are some possible (but misguided) objections to it.

Logic? The primary objection to aren’t I is that it has subject-verb disagreement. You wouldn’t say I aren’t, so you can’t say aren’t I. The first part of that is correct, but the second doesn’t follow. After all, if I aren’t being incorrect blocks aren’t I, why doesn’t are not you being incorrect block aren’t you?

You can’t apply simple logic to language and expect there to be no exceptions. Emily Morgan has noted before that the logic of language is far more complex than prescriptivists make it out to be.

Informality? One site claims that aren’t I is unacceptable in formal writing. But that’s the case for all contractions, not just aren’t I, because they’re informal transcriptions of speech. The fact that aren’t I doesn’t appear in formal writing is no more a condemnation of it than the fact that aren’t you doesn’t appear in formal writing. (And, by the way, both do appear in formal writing.)

Alternatives. Now, let’s say you’re unconvinced that we should leave well enough alone, and you really want to fix aren’t I. How are you going to do it? Look at the prominent alternatives that are available for aren’t I: am I not, amn’t I, ain’t I. Am I not is fine if you’re being poetic or intensely formal or need to stress the negation, but in most cases, it’s going to sound completely unnatural and overly stuffy. Amn’t I is perfectly fine if you are Irish or Scottish, where it persists as a standard form, but it’s exceedingly rare outside of those Englishes, and you’ll look affected if you use it in another dialect. Furthermore, it’s hard to pronounce the neighboring m and n distinctly, so people may think you’re using ain’t I instead. Ain’t I, of course, used to be a standard form, and Fowler himself fought in its favor, but nowadays is one of the most condemned words in the English language, one that will make even most moderate prescriptivists write you off as ill-bred.

The fact of the matter is that there is no other option that is acceptable in most English dialects and at an appropriate formality level. This is why aren’t I has taken hold.

Suppletion & Syncretism. I want to conclude with two final reasons why aren’t I shouldn’t concern you: suppletion & syncretism. Suppletion is a specific type of irregularity, where one irregular form fills in (or overtakes) the regular form. Usually, suppletion is talking about a case where the irregular form is from an unrelated paradigm: e.g., better instead of gooder in English, or mejor instead of más bueno in Spanish. No one complains that better is wrong because gooder follows the rules better. With aren’t I, the suppletive form is only from a different part of the paradigm, not a whole different paradigm, but the basic idea is the same. There is a seemingly regular rule (add n’t to the conjugated verb) that in one instance is ignored in favor of an irregular form. If you want aren’t I done away with, you ought to want to see better consigned to the scrap heap as well.

Furthermore, it’s only suppletion from a contemporary perspective. Actually, we’re dealing with syncretism, where two distinct syntactic forms happen to look identical. David Crystal has a very nice explanation of the history behind aren’t I, which came from people mistaking an’t for aren’t in non-rhotic (“silent-r“) dialects. Genealogically, the aren’t in aren’t I and the aren’t in aren’t you aren’t the same. Which means that, technically speaking, aren’t I isn’t an example of subject-verb disagreement; it’s a case of mistaken identity of one aren’t for another.

Summary: No, aren’t I isn’t incorrect. It’s been in use for at least 130 years, the alternatives are all insufficient, and the “logical” arguments against it are fallacious. It’s no more incorrect than using better instead of gooder.

Sometimes I worry that I’m not properly using this blog as a chance to get the word out about linguistics, so to rest my troubled mind, let’s talk a little about a component of syntactic theory: case. (Please stop clicking on the nearest link in an attempt to escape.) If you’ve never heard of case, here’s a quick overview. Syntactic theory dictates that all noun phrases must be assigned a case in order to be grammatical. This requirement is called the Case Filter. The Case Filter explains why (1a) is grammatical but (1b) is not; an inflected verb like ate can supply case to its subject (the man), but the uninflected infinitive to eat can’t supply case to its subject.  As a result, the man is not assigned case in (1b), breaking the Case Filter and resulting in an ill-formed sentence.  We can remedy this situation, as in (1c), where told supplies case for the man, satisfying the Case Filter and fixing the sentence.

(1a) The man ate seven sour cream donuts.
(1b) *The man to eat seven sour cream donuts.
(1c) I told the man to eat seven sour cream donuts.

In an attempt to build suspense, I’ve so far avoided saying what exactly this “case” thing is that’s being assigned. Roughly, case is a marker on a noun phrase (NP) that indicates what the NP’s role is in the sentence. English only has three morphological cases: the nominative (or subjective), accusative (or objective), and genitive (or possessive) cases. I’m going to overlook possessive case in this post, because it’s not relevant to the final point and is rather different from the other two cases. Nominative case is used to mark a subject, while accusative marks an object. These two cases are only apparent in pronouns. The nominative forms of the personal pronouns are I, you, he, she, it, we, they, while the accusative forms are me, you, him, her, it, us, them. (2a) is correct because the subject is in the nominative case and the object is in the accusative. (2b) is incorrect because the cases are swapped.

(2a) I saw him.
(2b) *Me saw he.

(2c) The octopus ate the cuttlefish.
(2d) The cuttlefish ate the octopus.

Note that (2c) & (2d) are both correct because non-pronominal NPs are “zero-marked” in English. That means that they don’t exhibit any outward marking of their cases; a nominative non-pronominal NP looks the same as the accusative non-pronominal NP. Zero-marking appears in some other places in English: the plural of sheep is sheep, and the conjugated verb eat in I eat fish is indistinguishable from the uninflected infinitival form in I want to eat fish.

Because only the pronouns have apparent case markings, English is often said to have an “impoverished” case system. Compared to a Finno-Ugric language like Estonian or Hungarian, which has tons of cases with exotic names like the inessive, superessive, ablative, translative, and exessive, English seems as poor as a pauper on payday. And what’s worse is that English has been steadily reducing its case markings. Back in Old English, not only were all nouns marked for nominative and accusative cases, but also dative and instrumental cases.

Why has English shed so much of its case system? Well, quite simply, it got outsourced. Prepositional phrases took over the roles of morphological case marking for most of the oblique cases, like dative and instrumental. That’s why we now say that Vikings lived by the sword instead of lifde sweorde — the instrumental changed from an -e suffix on the noun to the prepositions with and by. The English equivalents of those exotic Finno-Ugric cases are mostly recreated through humble prepositions. As for the structural cases (nominative and accusative), the modern (relatively) fixed word order has rendered them obsolete. Outside of poetic writing and certain syntactic alternations like topicalization, the word order of Modern English is Subject-Verb-Object. As a result, the structural cases are redundant and their markings have just fallen out of the language.

But not entirely! Pronouns have zealously retained their case markings through hell and high water. Except, of course, for whom, which has been losing its grip on that accusative -m for some time. And this, at long last, brings us to the whole point of this post.  Reading through a column about hypercorrection by Paul Mulshine, I was struck by one supposed example of hypercorrection, the use of whomever for whoever:

(3) Whomever the Republicans nominate should assume he must replace Iowa’s seven electoral votes …

(3) comes from the pen of George Will, who Mulshine claims has engaged in a spot of hypercorrection; according to Mulshine, whomever ought to be whoever. Mulshine asserts that “‘Whomever’ may sound more impressive to the unlettered, but it cannot serve as the subject of a sentence.” But whomever isn’t the subject of (3). The subject is the whole phrase whomever the Republicans nominate. And this is where case assignment gets really tricky, because we start to get a conflict.

Obviously, subjects get assigned nominative case; that’s why I love you is sweet and Me love you is stupid. But the subject in this sentence is actually a whole clause — a “sentential subject”, as it’s known in the biz. Semantically, who(m)ever is the head of the sentential subject, so you might well expect the nominative case to manifest itself on who(m)ever, yielding an m-less whoever. I imagine this is Mulshine’s train of thought here.  But within the sentential subject, who(m)ever is the object!  It has moved from the object position to the front of the clause, but if the embedded question were answered, we’d have “The Republicans nominate McCain”, with McCain, the object, replacing who(m)ever.*   Therefore, who(m)ever ought to get accusative case, yielding whomever. And so it seems that who(m)ever in (3) needs a Schrodinger’s m, an m that simultaneously exists to satisfy the accusative case and does not exist to satisfy the nominative case.

This dilemma ends up being resolved by arguing that the nominative case on the sentential subject doesn’t ever have to visibly manifest itself on an NP; it is an abstract case assigned to the whole sentential subject. That means that the nominative case never gets assigned to who(m)ever, and the problem clears right up, with George Will being technically correct to write whomever. But note that it took substantial analysis to realize that — certainly more than us case-deprived English speakers are prepared to do in fluent speech. Furthermore, note that this is such a weird situation that even native English speakers such as Mulshine will make mistakes on it. But more than anything else, note that it doesn’t matter. There is no ambiguity in the meaning of the sentence, no effect of omitting or including the m. That’s why case is falling out of the language; it just doesn’t do anything for us, and it can get really difficult to apply accurately. In my own speech and writing, I have an alternation between who and whom for the accusative case. I use whom in situations where it pleases my ears and I am confident in the accusative case assignment, and everywhere else I go with who. There are probably a lot of children who are being taught that who is the standard accusative form. I say good for them, and good for the language. It’s moving on.

*: If you’re having trouble with this part of the argument, think of the sentential subject as a question on its own: Whom did the Republicans nominate? Clearly in this question the Republicans is the subject and Whom is the object.

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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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