[Note: This is the earliest book review I could locate, written in 2006 for the benefit of a small group of dear high school friends. Most of us had a charismatic English teacher in 9th grade who was passionate about grammar and, amazingly, was able to impart that passion to some of his 14 and 15 year old students. McWhorter’s book was published in 2003.]
John McWhorter is a former professor at Berkeley, now at the Manhattan Institute in New York. I was attracted to his book because, as the quotation on the cover states, the book addresses “America’s ineloquent babble” and “[c]}elebrates the English language and bemoans our present incapacity to use it in an elegant formal or elevated way.” While I am as likely as the next guy to bemoan America’s ineloquent babble and inelegant usages of the language of Chaucer and Shakespeare, I was more than a little surprised to find 19 sentences of the following nature in the book:
“…[T]his person is indistinguishable in mental sophistication from the semi-literate Third World villager who derives all of their information about the world beyond via conversation and gossip. (p.xxiv)”
“. . .[T]he upshot is that the speaker’s immediate access to vocabulary did not, at least in that segment of their utterance, even succeed in conveying just what they meant at all. (p.11).
“. . .[I]magine eavesdropping on a drunken businessman complaining under gaslight about what happened to them on the commodities market in the Panic of 1893 (.27-28).”
“. . .[T]he semi-literate dropout rarely had the ability to write about their lives later on (p.152).”
“In fact, no classical musician would venture such a gaffe, because now they are on the cultural defensive (p.204).”
And my favorite: “An English professor before the 1960s would never cast their ideas in prose of this kind, now matter how complex or nuanced their ideas might be, because the public norms of American society placed a high value on graceful prose composition (p.244).”
I asked myself throughout whether I was wrong in concluding that each of these sentences is grammatically incorrect, with – and I probably have this terminology wrong; far too many years have passed since the 9th grade — a singular subject that doesn’t correspond to the plural predicate. Have the rules of grammar so changed that these constructions no longer violate accepted rules?
I often hear constructions like these in spoken language and see them regularly in government memos, hardly a recommended venue for grammar purists. But I had never seen quite so many in a published book, let alone one by a language specialist pleading for more elegance in and reverence for the English language. My view is that these constructions are driven by political correctness: “his” is offensive to those who find it unfairly excludes the female half of the human race; “his or her” is awkward; and “her” sounds artificial or forced (and excludes the other half of the race). There is an easy solution that works most of the time, making the subject plural, e.g. “semi-literate dropouts,” “English professors before the 1960s” etc. But I still wonder whether the rules of grammar have changed, and whether I need to chill out and accept the new rules.