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Over break, I’ve had the chance to take advantage of my girlfriend’s cable TV, which means that I’ve had the chance to be utterly underwhelmed with the mediocrity of mid-day programming. On the plus side, though, I’ve been able to catch a few re-runs of shows I’ve often thought I ought to watch. One of these is WordGirl, a PBS show designed to convince kids that words are fun and cool and hip and so on. It’s full of the self-awareness and meta-jokes that my generation respects, not the sing-song dreck that made Barney and Teletubbies so horrendously popular amongst the younger generations. I still remember, upon first catching it, thinking that Power Puff Girls was the best kids’ show in history because of the way it played with the conventions of the genre — and I have to say that WordGirl manages to hit the same chord. Sure, I share Mark Liberman’s concern from 2007, when the show premiered, that WordGirl can be condescending when she corrects people’s word usages and that no doubt this will influence some viewers to become the judgmental prescriptivists that I so hate. But the show is surprisingly reasonable in its grammar.

In the episode I caught yesterday, the writers offered us linguists a conciliatory gesture. After being convicted of robbing a hair salon, the criminal mastermind Granny May was sentenced to house arrest.  This house arrest was to be served at the house of one of Granny May’s relatives, but Granny May was not told in advance whose house it was.  The house, which for some reason Granny did not recognize, was her mother’s, and the police were evidently being quite careful not to spoil the big reveal by giving away any details about the relative.  In fact, when they got to the front door of the house, the policewoman accompanying Granny May remarked that “we’re taking you to a relative’s house so they can watch you”. The policewoman was completely aware that Granny May’s mother was the only resident of the house, and that her mother was a woman, but to avoid revealing prematurely whose house they had taken her to, the policewoman chose to use the neuter pronoun they. (Note that, no matter what anyone tells you about he/him/her being gender-neutral, “so he can watch you” would not have worked in this situation.)

Good for WordGirl‘s writers. I’m glad to see them taking their case directly to language learners. If the kids agree that singular they is illogical and unacceptable, and stop watching the show, then I suppose the prescriptivists will be proven right. But I’ll bet dollars to donuts (both of which I am quite fond of) that kids will be fine with this eminently useful, historically well-attested, and entirely reasonable construction. Maybe at last we’ll be able to outgrow these stupid grammar myths.

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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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