Philosopher: Missed Class to Get an Abortion? Not Excused.


A philosophy professor and a finance professor at the University of Texas at Austin have joined with the state in a lawsuit against the Federal government, particularly the US Department of Education’s “Final Rule” regarding the interpretation of Title IX, which aims to prevent “discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance.”

Daniel Bonevac & John Hatfield

The professors are Daniel Bonevac and John Hatfield.

The lawsuit says that with the Final Rule the Federal government oversteps its authority by requiring “students and teachers to, for example, use someone’s ‘preferred pronouns'” and by “reinterpreting the word ‘sex’ to include ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘gender identity.'” It also aims to protect the plaintiffs’ rights to treat student absences from class for the purposes of getting an abortion as unexcused, to regulate the clothing their teaching assistants wear, and to decline to hire as teaching assistants students who have received abortion pharmaceuticals in the mail.

In a section of the lawsuit (reproduced below), Professors Bonevac and Hatfield describe ways they plan to behave that they believe are rendered illegal by the Final Rule interpretation of Title IX—hence the lawsuit. These include:

  • Not honoring any student’s demands to be addressed by the singular pronoun “they”. (“I will not violate the rules of grammar or make a fool of myself to accommodate a student’s delusional beliefs.”)
  • Not allowing his teaching assistants to teach or otherwise interact with students while wearing clothing traditionally not associated with their genders.
  • Not treating absences to obtain an “illegal abortion” or “purely elective abortion” as an excused absence. (Note that in Texas, abortions are generally illegal with few exceptions.)
  • Not knowingly hiring teaching assistants who have received shipments of “abortion pills and abortion-related paraphernalia”.

Here’s the full text of Professor Bonevac’s declaration (Professor Hatfield’s is the same):

I, Daniel A. Bonevac, declare as follows:

    1. I am over 18 years old and fully competent to make this declaration.
    2. I have personal knowledge of the facts stated in this declaration, and all of these facts are true and correct.
    3. I am a named plaintiff in this litigation.
    4. I am a professor of philosophy of the University of Texas at Austin. The University of Texas at Austin is subject to Title IX and its prohibition on “sex” discrimination. As a professor at UT-Austin, I am also subject to the requirements of Title IX in my capacity as an educator and scholar.
    5. I have no intention of complying with the Biden Administration’s recently announced Title IX edict, which has nothing to do with “sex” discrimination and represents nothing more than an attempt to force every educator in the United States to conform to a highly contentious interpretation of gender ideology and abortion rights.
    6. The new Title IX rule purports to define “discrimination on the basis of sex” to include “discrimination on the basis of sex stereotypes, sex characteristics, pregnancy or related conditions, sexual orientation, and gender identity.” See 34 C.F.R. § 106.10.
    7. The new Title IX rule also purports to define “pregnancy or related conditions” to include abortion. See 34 C.F.R. § 106.2 (“Pregnancy or related conditions means . . . Pregnancy, childbirth, termination of pregnancy, or lactation”). It requires professors to accommodate student absences from class to obtain abortions—including illegal abortions and purely elective abortions that are not medically required. See 34 C.F.R. § 106.40(b)(3)(ii)(C); 34 C.F.R. § 106.40(b)(3)(iv); see also 34 C.F.R. § 106.40(b)(6)(vi)(4) (“[A] recipient must treat pregnancy or related conditions in the same manner and under the same policies as any other temporary medical conditions”).
    8. There are at least four ways in which I will not comply with the Biden Administration’s Title IX rule.
    9. First. I will not honor any student’s demands to be addressed by the singular pronoun “they”—regardless of whether those demands come from a biological man or a biological woman, and regardless of whether the person making those demands identifies with a gender that matches or departs from his biologically assigned sex. “They” is a plural pronoun, and it is ungrammatical to use a plural pronoun to refer to a single person. I will not violate the rules of grammar or make a fool of myself to accommodate a student’s delusional beliefs. Nor will I honor demands to use other “made-up” pronouns that are not a standard part of the English language. This is not “sex” discrimination of any sort, even under Bostock v. Clayton County, 590 U.S. 644 (2020), because I will enforce this policy equally against male and female students. See id. at 660 (“Take an employer who fires a female employee for tardiness or incompetence or simply supporting the wrong sports team. Assuming the employer would not have tolerated the same trait in a man, Title VII stands silent.”).
    10. Second. I will not knowingly permit my teaching assistants to engage in cross-dressing while teaching my classes or interacting with my students. My teaching assistants—both male and female—must wear professional attire while on the job, and I will not allow a male teaching assistant to wear a dress or high heals or any type of drag attire while working for me. Although I am not opposed to hiring a crossdresser or transvestite as a teaching assistant, they must refrain from this behavior while on the job and when interacting with my students in any way.
    11. Third. I will not knowingly treat an absence from class to obtain an illegal abortion or a purely elective abortion as an excused absence. The law of Texas has outlawed and criminalized abortion in all circumstances unless the mother’s life is in danger. See Tex. Health & Safety Code § 170A.002(a). And federal law imposes criminal liability on any person who obtains abortion drugs through the mail, or from an express company or common carrier or through an interactive computer service— including pregnant women who obtain these pills for use in a self-managed abortion. See 18 U.S.C. § 1461–1462. I will not accommodate or become complicit in these crimes by excusing a student’s absence from class if that student skips class to obtain an illegal abortion in Texas, or to perform a self-managed abortion with illegally obtained abortion drugs.
    12. Nor will I knowingly excuse a student’s absence from class if that student leaves the state to obtain a purely elective abortion. I will certainly accommodate students who are seeking medically necessary abortions in response to a pregnancy that threatens the student’s life or health. But I will not accommodate a purely elective abortion that serves only to kill an unborn child that was conceived through an act of voluntary and consensual sexual intercourse. Pregnancy is not a disease, and elective abortions are not “health care” or “medical treatment” of any sort. They are purely elective procedures, and I will not accommodate an act of violence against the most vulnerable and defenseless members of the human family.
    13. Fourth. I expect my teaching assistants to obey and respect the laws of Texas and the laws of the United States, so I will not knowingly hire a teaching assistant who has violated the abortion laws of Texas or the federal-law prohibitions on the shipment or receipt of abortion pills and abortion-related paraphernalia. See 18 U.S.C. § 1461–1462. The Title IX rule purports to ban “discrimination” against anyone who has had an abortion, even if the abortion was illegal and even if the woman violated or aided or abetted violations of 18 U.S.C. § 1461–1462 to obtain the abortion. But I do not hire criminals or lawbreakers to serve as teaching assistants, and I will not comply with this concocted non-discrimination rule.

I declare under penalty of perjury that the facts stated in this declaration are true and correct.

You can see the whole lawsuit here.

UDPATE: Quite understandably, I’m seeing a lot of vitriol in the comments on this post. Comments are moderated, and I would ask commenters to reacquaint themselves with the Comments Policy. I’m sure you can make your points effectively without, for example, name calling, etc. Thank you.

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Fritz Allhoff
Fritz Allhoff
26 days ago

Wow.

Marc Champagne
Reply to  Fritz Allhoff
24 days ago

Anyone wishing to get beyond the incredulous stare to a study of REASONS should look at Bonevac’s arguments for “civilizational consequentialism” given in the collection on Dissident Philosophers reviewed here: https://quillette.com/2022/03/30/dissident-philosophers-a-review/

Last edited 24 days ago by Marc Champagne
Michel
Reply to  Marc Champagne
24 days ago

I think I’ll respond to my students’ ChatGPT-generated discussion posts instead, thanks.

Wowee Zowee
Wowee Zowee
Reply to  Marc Champagne
24 days ago

Not considering abortion a legitimate excuse for missing class is part of his gambit to maximize civilizational survival? Double wow.

I’m often struck by how much those who talk the most about saving “Western civilization” seem to pose the biggest threat to it (see Norcross’ comment below). Then again, as Case notes in the Quillette review, Bonevac’s civilizational consequentialism might recommend undermining Western civilization in favor of a more durable form of civilization. Maybe Bonevac is a Eurasianist.

Sam Duncan
Reply to  Marc Champagne
24 days ago

I mean it seems like he takes the dumbest parts of Hegel and runs with it. Even Case doesn’t seem terribly sympathetic to it. Which is understandable because, it doesn’t even make sense as far as I can tell. Hegel thinks civilizations are important because in some sense God himself comes to know himself through them. As an answer as to why they matter in ways individuals don’t it’s nuts but at least it’s an answer. Does Bonevac likewise believe that civilizations have experience? If not why care as a consequentialist? Or do they instantiate some incredibly high degree of some kind of Moorean good? That’s also a pretty problematic view. Or is it that civilizations enable some kind of flourishing on the part of their citizens? That might be true but even if it is it’s just bog standard utilitarianism with some rather dubious empirical assumptions. It’s possible he has some answers to those questions but it’s also possible cat food is delicious. Both seem quite improbable and what’s much more likely is that giving Bonevac or cat food the benefit of the doubt would be an experience that lowers my own utility however you define it.

grymes
grymes
26 days ago

Purely procedurally speaking, Bonevac seems to misunderstand the professional relationship between instructors and TAs.

David Hildebrand
David Hildebrand
Reply to  grymes
21 days ago

In the sense that the TA is technically hired by the department Chair, not the Instructor/Professor?

Ariana Peruzzi
Ariana Peruzzi
26 days ago

Yikes on a bike.

Katrina Sifferd
Katrina Sifferd
26 days ago

WT actual F.

Katrina Sifferd
Katrina Sifferd
Reply to  Katrina Sifferd
26 days ago

Relatedly, if philosophers in southern states need to put a student in touch with someone in a northern state that provides reproductive services, please feel free to reach out. I can connect students with https://www.chicagoabortionfund.org/ and offer transport or other help.

apeiron
apeiron
26 days ago

Are women allowed to wear pants or only tradwife sundresses?

Claire Katz
Claire Katz
Reply to  apeiron
21 days ago

I was literally going to ask this! If so, he’s already allowing cross dressing.

Hieronymus
26 days ago

“It’s not a skirt, but a kilt I have on with my high heals (sic).”

A grad student
A grad student
Reply to  Hieronymus
26 days ago

High-heels which, it should be noted, I am wearing as a man in continuation of a European tradition which goes back to the Persia-mania of the 17th century and which reached Scotland through the Auld Alliance with France.

newly tt
newly tt
26 days ago

I guess I find this morally wrong, but the aesthetic wrongs here (“can you make us sound as much like Mr. Collins as possible, please?”) are just overwhelming.

An adjunct
An adjunct
26 days ago

it’s the parity between the rules of grammar and the laws of texas that indicates the presence of a first-rate mind behind this impressive action.

Michael Kates
Michael Kates
26 days ago

This is just appalling professional and human behavior.

Nathan Howard
Nathan Howard
26 days ago

I’m sure you can make your points effectively without, for example, name calling, etc.”

But my point was to call Bonevac something that rhymes with bucking fonster.

Justin
Justin
26 days ago

All else aside, they’re wrong about the rules of grammar. “They” has been used as a singular pronoun in some cases for centuries, typically when referring to a subject that doesn’t have a male or female gender or whose gender is unknown. “Someone came through here earlier; they left footprints.”

OED’s earliest reference for singular they is from 1375. https://www.oed.com/discover/a-brief-history-of-singular-they/?tl=true

These guys are a pair of controlling bullies who have no business teaching.

Circe
Circe
Reply to  Justin
26 days ago

I know, right? It is utterly bizarre…

Jamie Dreier
Jamie Dreier
Reply to  Justin
26 days ago

That thou hast used a plural pronoun as singular for hundreds of years doth not make it singular.
Grammar is mine, I will correct, saith the Lord.

Eric Hagedorn
Eric Hagedorn
Reply to  Jamie Dreier
25 days ago

God (or at least the King James Bible) used singular ‘they’ on more than one occasion.

http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003572.html

Last edited 25 days ago by Eric Hagedorn
A grad student
A grad student
Reply to  Justin
25 days ago

This is a pet peeve of mine, but I think the use of singular “they” for definite referents is an innovation in English grammar. The earliest citations for “they” as a singular pronoun are for cases in which the antecedent is grammatically singular but notionally plural. The sentence could be rephrased using a plural antecedent without a significant change in meaning. The type of (1), which could be rephrased as “All students…”:

(1) Every student should hand in their homework by the end of class.

Significantly later, you get citations in which the antecedent is notionally singular but indefinite. The speaker does not know who they are and they could not (e.g.) refer to them demonstratively, as in (2).

(2) Whoever stole the silver candlestick should return their loot to the Rector’s office by midnight.

Usage with definite referents as in (3) only systematically emerges in the late 20th century:

(3) This is Kim. They are my best friend.

Many languages draw a grammatical distinction between cases like (2) and (3). From the 20th century and early, you see people who seem to be sincerely struggling with how to refer to people who don’t fit in the gender binary. If (3) was fully grammatical in their idiolect, that would be strange. So, I think it’s plausible that for most English speakers in the 20th century, (3) was ungrammatical. The construction is a genuine innovation.

Don’t get me wrong though. I think it’s a great innovation! It serves serves valuable needs, e.g. respecting the preferences of people who are not appropriately referred to as either ‘she’ or ‘he’ as well as denoting a definite referent whose gender we do not know, do not want to reveal or do not want to attract attention to. It fits very naturally into the fabric of the English language, which already has usages like (1) and (2) as well as “you” as a shared singular and plural pronoun and occasional instances of singular “we” and “us”. Whatever reasons we might have for abiding by inherited rules of grammar are outweighed by reasons to use singular “they” as in (3).

But I think as speakers of English, many conservatives have a feel for the distinction between (1)/(2) and (3). Mocking them as ignoramuses is fun, and not undeserved in general. However, we are not going to convince anyone by it who is not already with us. Besides, the extension of singular “they” to definite referents is a great example of how speakers can more or less deliberately shape language to reflect their values. We are not powerless against the language we inherit (pace Sapir and Whorf)/

Louis
Louis
Reply to  A grad student
25 days ago

I am equally peeved by the continual insistence that the use of “they” in (3) is not a linguistic innovation, when clearly it is. It is disappointing that academics are increasingly willing to place their pursuit of activism ahead of their pursuit of truth.

I also agree with you that it’s a good innovation but the fact that it’s an innovation is highly relevant to question of whether it is reasonable to mandate it use in classrooms, workplaces, etc.

(Since it’s likely that someone will try to interpret this post in the most uncharitable way possible, let me add a few points to clarify my broader position:

(i) I agree that the use of “they” in (1) and (2) is NOT a linguistic innovation (in the relevant sense).

(ii) I’m not weighing in on whether the use of “they” in (3)–which is an innovation–should be mandated in classrooms or not, but I suspect not.

(iii) I am not endorsing anything else that Bonevac is saying. In particular, I think that it’s none of his business whether and why his TAs seek an abortion, and his concern for what they wear is frankly quite odd–although the rules for what counts as professional dress in workplaces is often quite odd. For example: in many high-end law firms woman are REQUIRED to wear heals and make-up, which has always struck me as extremely unreasonable.)

Descriptive Grammarian
Descriptive Grammarian
Reply to  Louis
25 days ago

Significantly later, you get citations in which the antecedent is notionally singular but indefinite. The speaker does not know who they are and they could not (e.g.) refer to them demonstratively, as in (2)[:]

(2) Whoever stole the silver candlestick should return their loot to the Rector’s office by midnight.

Is the distinction between the usage illustrated by (2) and the plural pronoun use Bonevac objects to a grammatical one, though? It seems important, since Bonevac claims his problem with the singular ‘they’ is that it violates grammar rules.

Your first criterion for distinguishing (2) from what Bonevac doesn’t like seems epistemic (“the speaker doesn’t know who [the referent is]”), not grammatical.

On the second criterion (usability of demonstratives): it seems to me that, in (2), the speaker could refer to the thief with a demonstrative determiner, as in ‘this thief’ or ‘this person.’ But it seems like that’s almost always the typical way to use a determiner to refer to a person (we rarely just say ‘this’ or ‘that’ to refer to a person). Even if there’s a kind of demonstrative they couldn’t use, is there an argument that this “couldn’t” is one of grammar?

I don’t doubt that the use of ‘they’ for a specific, known person is an innovation. It’s just not clear to me what kind of innovation it is, and so I see no reason to accept the premise of a (revised) version of Bonevac’s argument to the effect that it’s a violation of the rules of grammar. It could be a linguistic innovation of another kind (maybe pragmatics, broadly construed?). Or, couldn’t it be more like a theoretical innovation, like if a community were to go from applying ‘fish’ to whales and seals to not doing so?

Matt
Matt
Reply to  Descriptive Grammarian
25 days ago

I’m fine with using singular “they”. But everyone should note how odd it is to insist that use of “they” in singular reference to one individual is “ungrammatical”. Because we still use the *plural* copula when using singular “they”. Thus when speaking of someone — whether because they prefer such a pronoun, or when one doesn’t know their gender or preference — (1) is fine, but (2) is ungrammatical:

(1) They are sleeping.
(2) # They is sleeping.

But “is” is the correct copula for singular terms: in terms of grammar, we’d be required to use “is” for other singular pronouns like “he”, “she”, even “it”. Incidentally though, this point also throws water on the idea that such a use of “they” is singular. It’s singular in intended referent, but grammatically (still) plural. Thus in this ‘debate’, the two sides are rather talking past each other.

Jonathan Kendrick
Reply to  Matt
25 days ago

This is only the case in Standard American English and other prestige dialects. In AAVE and the dialect of Southern American English I grew up speaking, “They is sleeping” is perfectly grammatical. This whole conversation seems to be premised on a tacit acceptance of linguistic prescriptivism, which I find odd.

Jonathan Kendrick
Reply to  Jonathan Kendrick
25 days ago

https://ygdp.yale.edu/phenomena/expletive-they (I grew up speaking Ozark English btw)

Meme
Meme
Reply to  Jonathan Kendrick
25 days ago

Perhaps the discussion above is best understood as tacitly restricted to Standard American English, since that’s what its participants appear to be speaking. Restricted in that way, the discussion seems appropriately descriptive. Of course, that’s not to say that we should only care about SAE—but presumably the discussants aren’t claiming otherwise.

Last edited 25 days ago by Meme
Matt
Matt
Reply to  Jonathan Kendrick
21 days ago

Jonathan: that’s good to note, but of course I was assuming the community who has internalized (some of) SAE, and I needn’t assume prescriptivism to make my point. Indeed, since my point was that even (in SAE) singular referential use of “they” is ‘grammatical’ given its copula “are”, it’s unclear why it’s relevant to point to other dialects wherein use of singular “they” is also grammatical.

A grad student
A grad student
Reply to  Matt
21 days ago

By the same argument you could say that “you” is not a singular pronoun in SAE in similar dialects. (1) is grammatical while (2) is not.

(1) You are sleeping.
(2) # You am/art/is sleeping.

One reason to think that “singular ‘they'” is grammatically singular in some sense is its use in anaphora:

(3) My best student has handed in their paper.

In SAE and similar dialects, agreement in number between an antecedent and an anaphoric pronoun is a grammatical matter. It’s governed by the antecedent’s grammatical number, not the natural number of the intended referent. This can be seen from the use of “they” with pluralia tantum:

(4) Look at my favorite trousers. They have/# It has such a lovely color.

Compare (5), where the intended real-world referent consists in exactly the same object:

(5) Look at my favorite pair of trousers. It has/# They have such a lovely color.

Given that it agrees with “my best student”, “they” in (3) is genuinely singular (or unmarked for number) in some grammatical sense. This is so even if it is clearly plural for purposes of verbal agreement, as you show.

a grad student
a grad student
Reply to  Descriptive Grammarian
21 days ago

This is an interesting question. Cases in the type of (2) can be rephrased with indefinite noun phrases, just like cases in the type of (1) can be rephrased with plural phrases: “A student has stolen a candlestick; they must return it to the Rector’s office.” The distinction between definite and indefinite noun phrases is clearly grammatical. I don’t have time to test this, but I might conjecture that we can divided the type of (2) into two sub-types. In (2a), the antecedent is actually indefinite in terms of surface grammar. In (2b), it is ‘notionally indefinite’, just like the antecedents in (1) are notionally plural.

However, I suspect this might be an area where the distinction between grammatical and ‘worldly’ knowledge becomes fuzzy. In some sense, a lot of our grammatical knowledge can be said to embody fundamental understanding of the world: There are individuals and properties instantiated by these individuals. There are states as well momentary events (which may or may not constitute a change of state) and temporally extended activities (which may or may not culminate in a final momentary event). All this is encoded in subtle distinctions within the grammar of verbs. Perhaps there used to be another, less fundamental bit of grammatical-worldy “understanding”: Everyone is either male of female, and if you are acquainted with someone, you know which one it is. This understanding has been revised in the 20th century.

James Sherman
James Sherman
Reply to  Louis
20 days ago

Poppycock. “ Over the centuries, writers of standing have used they, their, and them with anaphoric reference to a singular noun or pronoun, and the practice has continued in the 20C. to the point that, traditional grammarians aside, such constructions are hardly noticed any more or are not widely felt to lie in a prohibited zone. ” The New Fowler’s English Usage, p. 779

Justin Kalef
Reply to  James Sherman
20 days ago

Why, how foolish of all the great authorities on grammar (Strunk, the Fowlers, etc. etc.) to have entirely overlooked this seemingly obvious and uncontroversial detail about language. I mean, the editors of today are clearly not skewed toward any particular political faction, just as contemporary intellectuals in general tend to be evenly divided between conservatives and progressives, and there’s just no way that any of them would feel any internal or external pressure to conform to trendy sociopolitical currents. So what could possibly explain the phenomena, other than that the greatest authorities the English language has ever known, as they wrote their great works about a century ago, all suffered from the very same inexplicable lapse in judgment and failed to notice what was right before their eyes the whole time?

Michel
Reply to  Justin Kalef
20 days ago

Phenomenon.

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Michel
20 days ago

The phrase is “explain the phenomena.” The phenomena in this case include the completely different verdicts on singular ‘they’ (when mean to refer to a single person, considered as a person and not as one of countless possible people, etc.) between the great authorities on grammar and style in our time and in the last century.

Michel
Reply to  Justin Kalef
19 days ago

You’ve listed one phenomenon.

Meme
Meme
Reply to  Michel
19 days ago

(If I may) I read Justin as using “phenomena” like a sort of mass noun, much as “appearances” in “this account saves the appearances.” It’s not meant to denote a list of specific phenomena, not even in the singular case (where, I agree, “phenomenon” would be correct).

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Michel
19 days ago

By that standard, Galileo only had one phenomenon to explain by his new theory of the heavens — the appearance of the night sky over time.

a grad student
a grad student
Reply to  James Sherman
20 days ago

The question is if these antecendents were definite and notionally plural. All the early examples I have seen are of the “every student should hand in their homework” type, i.e. notionally plural and indefinite. Use with notionally singular and definite (e.g. proper noun) antecedents could still well be an innovation.

Jamie Dreier
Jamie Dreier
Reply to  a grad student
20 days ago

I think you’re right about the history, and also I think the possessive ‘their’ in your example is significant — that’s much more common in the nineteenth century than singular ‘them’ or ‘they’.
But I don’t quite see why you think this is so important. Sure, you could replace the false-for-centuries claim that singular ‘they’ is ungrammatical with the only recently-false claim that singular ‘they’ with definite known antecedent is ungrammatical. But it’s still false (and asserted without evidence).

Is your point that the charitable interpretation is less absurd?

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Jamie Dreier
20 days ago

Jamie, why do you describe the rule against singular ‘they’ as false-for-centuries?

I’m asking sincerely, since I’m planning to write something longer about this elsewhere, and I want to be sure I understand the view you and others seem to hold about grammatical norms.

My own view is that grammatical norms are similar to rules about the signals we use and read while driving. They are significantly socially contingent, without a doubt; but the whole point of them is to avoid miscommunications and other forms of confusion. Our ability to co-ordinate our following of these rules, and to revise them to avoid problems of ambiguity that are apt to crop up, is the end that they are meant to help us attain. So the rules of grammar and usage are not (as moral realists say about many moral rules) purely an attempt to capture our relationship to mind-independent facts, but they are also not just wholly arbitrary.

Most important, this should make clear how certain changes in the accepted linguistic norms of a given language can be objective improvements or worsenings of the language as a whole.

If the language at a certain point muddles the distinction between two different things we find it useful to distinguish, and authorities on language manage to work out and then promote a way of handling the difference without any confusion, then that new rule improves the language, or at least there is a good reason to favor that new rule. There are other factors to consider, too: for instance, we want to preserve the ability to read the great writers of the past, so there is some reason not to radically change the rules of the language.

Since the grammatical rules are meant to be normative, it seems strange to count instances of earlier writers violating the new rules as false. For instance, suppose that a prominent 18th century English philosopher is found to have said things like, “If God created anything, then (necessarily) God existed at that time.” If philosophers today are careful to limit the word ‘necessarily’ to cases where what comes after that word is true in any possible world, then we should read the 18th century philosopher with the understanding that he wasn’t following the rule we have today: the Principle of Charity demands it. But it seems unfairly harsh to call our new rule about the use of ‘necessarily’ false-for-centuries just because older writers didn’t have that rule.

The same seems to be true of some aspects of singular ‘they’. As far as I know at this point, the application of this rule to cases in which the antecedent of the pronoun is ‘someone’ or ‘anyone’ or ‘everyone’ was not standardized two hundred years ago, though (again, as far as I know) nearly anyone would have seen something very wrong in replying to, “I’d like to introduce you to my cousin” with, “Oh, what’s their name?” The rule that we should avoid ‘they’ to refer back to ‘someone’, ‘anyone’, and ‘everyone’ was meant to enhance the logic and clarity of the language — it avoids the ambiguity, for instance, of saying, “If you meet someone with many enemies, give them your support.” But since the clarified rule at that time was not intended to be a categorical description of all previous usage but rather a norm that helps clarify our use of language, it seems odd to me to call it false. That implies to me that it was introduced as a description rather than a prescription.

Have I misunderstood what you are saying here?

T.J.
T.J.
Reply to  Justin Kalef
19 days ago

Sorry to butt in since you addressed your reply to Jamie.

The rule isn’t false; that’s a category mistake.

The claim that there was such a rule is what’s false. The examples given above of cases where singular ‘they’ was used centuries ago are supposed to be what demonstrates that claim to be false.

The recently false claim is that there is currently a rule against singular ‘they’ with a definite antecedent. The widespread use of singular ‘they’ with a definite antecedent is what’s supposed to demonstrate that claim to be false.

Justin Kalef
Reply to  T.J.
19 days ago

But what you’re assuming here is just what I’m calling into question. To say that a rule ought to be followed is to make a normative utterance. To say that a rule has not always been followed is to make a descriptive utterance. The fact that a rule has not consistently been followed does not entail that there is no such rule, since the rule is normative rather than descriptive.

Compare: if, in April 2020, someone claims that there’s a social norm of standing at least six feet away from others, it will not do to show all sorts of instances of people standing closer to each other than that and use this to establish that there is no such rule. Some people break rules, and some rules are established or clarified at different times.

T.J.
T.J.
Reply to  Justin Kalef
19 days ago

You’re making a mistake in conflating regulative and constitutive rules (as Jamie points out below).

The rules of grammar are constitutive; they help define what it is for something to be an utterance of Standard American English (or what have you).

Social norms are regulative rules; they help define how one ought to behave.

Maybe the point you have in mind is that the existence of an utterance is compatible with either its being grammatical or its being ungrammatical. So, the mere existence of an utterance won’t tell in favor of one or the other claim.

But, parsimony speaks in favor of interpreting an example of an utterance as grammatical. It’s a worse explanation of a centuries old utterance to say there was a grammar rule which this utterance failed to follow while the explanation that the utterance was grammatical is on the table. We’re forced to imagine the existence of a rule for which we’ve seen no evidence.

So, the burden is on the person claiming the existence of such a rule to show that it existed. It’s not enough to merely imagine that it might have existed.

A grad stude
A grad stude
Reply to  Jamie Dreier
19 days ago

I think this matters as a practical point about rhetoric. Some conservative insists that singular ‘they’ is ungrammatical, having in mind recent examples with definite referents. Some liberal responds with an example that is 700 years old, but features a notionally plural antecedent. Any reader with a native speaker’s feel for the English language can sense that the example is besides the point. If they already agree with the liberal, they might be happy the conservative got owned. If not, they probably feel the argument is disingenuous and sophistical. And I think we should try to convince some people if we choose to argue about a topic, even if not directly those we are arguing with.

Jamie Dreier
Jamie Dreier
Reply to  A grad stude
18 days ago

That’s interesting.
To me it seems like the grammatic conservative is the one trying to pull a rhetorical trick. Just insisting that the construction in question is ungrammatical is lame. So instead they say, ‘they’ is plural and it’s illogical to use it as a singular. That sounds like an argument!
Pointing out that it has been used as a singular for 700 years utterly defeats that trick. Then we’re back to facts on the ground, as it were, and each side can just give evidence. (And I’m pretty confident about who will win.)

Jamie Dreier
Jamie Dreier
Reply to  A grad stude
18 days ago

p.s. I am very sorry to see that you have lost your ‘nt’. I am worried that some overambitious surgeon performed an unwanted contractionectomy by mistake.

Louis
Louis
Reply to  James Sherman
12 days ago

I’ve already acknowledged that ‘they’ can be used as a singular pronoun in some contexts. The context under discussion is displayed in the following sentence (provided by “A Grad Student” above):

(3) This is Kim. They are best friend.

(3) is a linguistic innovation. It may or may not be a grammatical innovation. I said nothing about grammar. Are you really claiming that English speakers regularly uttered statements like (3) a hundred years ago? Or even 50 years ago?

If you are claiming this, then you should be studied a paradigm case of an academic willing to put their activism ahead of their pursuit of truth.

Or are you claiming that English has largely changed in the last 30 years and that most people now find it perfectly natural to say things like (3)? Again, this is manifestly false. Even people who are willing to say things like (3) often find it sounds jarring and unnatural.

Greg
Greg
Reply to  Justin
24 days ago

I would not cite grammar as the main reason for my refusal to address people based on their self-perceived gender identity. I simply have the right not to have my speech policed. I do not see these individuals as having their preferred gender identity, and that is grounds enough to address them by the pronouns which are congruous with my conception of gender identity: in my opinion, gender identity necessarily follows biological sex.

Tim
Tim
Reply to  Greg
22 days ago

Sometimes, to know whether you should do something, you don’t need to ask whether you have a right to do it, since you can just ask whether you’d be a jerk and stop there.

krell_154
krell_154
Reply to  Tim
19 days ago

Sometimes, for some things. But it doesn’t mean that you are always a jerk if you refuse to do things the way somebody else wants you to do them.

And this (gender pronouns) is one of such cases.

Brad
Brad
Reply to  Justin
4 days ago

“They” has been used as a singular pronoun by no less a luminary than Bonevac himself, in point 2.

“Although I am not opposed to hiring a crossdresser or transvestite as a teaching assistant, *they* must refrain from this behavior…”

Julian
Julian
26 days ago

It is striking that for their first point they take time to explain how they intend to skirt Bostock, but not for the second point, which seems like an obvious and egregious violation.

One more in a long line of sad embarrassments for our profession.

A grad student
A grad student
Reply to  Julian
26 days ago

I guess they think that the notion of ‘cross-dressing’ gets them around it. The relevant action-type, they think, is not “wearing a dress” but “cross-dressing”. Cross-dressing is something that (they say) they don’t tolerate for male or female TAs. AFAIK, this was a standard interpretation of Bostock for a time, but is now contrary to established precedent! Also, I suspect it would be hard to find a ‘masculine’ way to dress that they could forbid for TAs whom they consider women without being seen as overbearing even by mainstream conservative standards. I they really going to object to any TA wearing a suit and tie?

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
26 days ago

Third. I will not knowingly treat an absence from class to obtain an illegal abortion or a purely elective abortion as an excused absence. The law of Texas has outlawed and criminalized abortion in all circumstances unless the mother’s life is in danger. See Tex. Health & Safety Code § 170A.002(a). And federal law imposes criminal liability on any person who obtains abortion drugs through the mail, or from an express company or common carrier or through an interactive computer service— including pregnant women who obtain these pills for use in a self-managed abortion. See 18 U.S.C. § 1461–1462. I will not accommodate or become complicit in these crimes by excusing a student’s absence from class if that student skips class to obtain an illegal abortion in Texas, or to perform a self-managed abortion with illegally obtained abortion drugs.

Will Professor Bonevac wait until a conviction to mark the student absent, or will he bypass due process? If the former, will he be classy and then email the student, after they (sic, per the new Bonevac grammar) have been convicted, “Oh, by the way, your absence is unexcused, bummer, you’re also going to jail.”? Regarding complicity, am I complicit if a student of mine is in the hospital after driving under the influence and I excuse their absence? Is Professor Bonevac complicit with the famously law-abiding president he has publicly supported and helped to elect? When is it okay to break the law? Asking for many friends.

Nor will I knowingly excuse a student’s absence from class if that student leaves the state to obtain a purely elective abortion. I will certainly accommodate students who are seeking medically necessary abortions in response to a pregnancy that threatens the student’s life or health. But I will not accommodate a purely elective abortion that serves only to kill an unborn child that was conceived through an act of voluntary and consensual sexual intercourse. Pregnancy is not a disease, and elective abortions are not “health care” or “medical treatment” of any sort. They are purely elective procedures, and I will not accommodate an act of violence against the most vulnerable and defenseless members of the human family.

A vasectomy is also a purely elective procedure and yet it’s a medical procedure. The fact that pregnancy is not a disease is completely irrelevant.

Fourth. I expect my teaching assistants to obey and respect the laws of Texas and the laws of the United States, so I will not knowingly hire a teaching assistant who has violated the abortion laws of Texas or the federal-law prohibitions on the shipment or receipt of abortion pills and abortion-related paraphernalia. See 18 U.S.C. § 1461–1462. The Title IX rule purports to ban “discrimination” against anyone who has had an abortion, even if the abortion was illegal and even if the woman violated or aided or abetted violations of 18 U.S.C. § 1461–1462 to obtain the abortion. But I do not hire criminals or lawbreakers to serve as teaching assistants, and I will not comply with this concocted non-discrimination rule.

If the abortion was in fact illegal, will he, again, wait until conviction? What if it was performed in a state in which abortion is legal? How much will Professor Bonevac invade people’s privacy to enforce his personal morality in the classroom and in the workplace?

yikes
yikes
26 days ago

I find their concern for “professional attire” re: gender fascinating, given Bonevac’s increasing use of AI-generated images of young, attractive women as thumbnails for his YT videos, including the most recent which involves gratuitous cleavage (irrelevant to the lecture’s subject matter) – in contrast to the images of men he includes, which are always neck-up and historically appropriate. As a female TA, you’re presumably welcome to present yourself as a sexualized feminine object! All in the name of professionalism, of course.

Dr. Lothar Leidernicht
Dr. Lothar Leidernicht
Reply to  yikes
25 days ago

That’s the whole point, isn’t it? Female TAs should be appropriately attractive, otherwise they won’t be hired.

Phaedra
Phaedra
26 days ago

Professor Bonevac was (in)famous for his support of Donald Trump. And DailyNous appeared to report him before, see https://dailynous.com/2017/09/18/political-uniformity-religion-philosophy/

Circe
Circe
Reply to  Phaedra
26 days ago

He apparently will not hire criminals or lawbreakers. Will he vote for one?!

Kav
Kav
26 days ago

It doesn’t take a singular use of ‘they’ to make a fool out of yourself. I wonder if the Humpty Dumpty argument holds up in court.

Last edited 26 days ago by Kav
Circe
Circe
26 days ago

The rules! Won’t someone think of the rules!

Dave Wilton
26 days ago

“Although I am not opposed to hiring a crossdresser or transvestite as a teaching assistant, they must refrain from this behavior while on the job.” 

James Sherman
James Sherman
Reply to  Dave Wilton
26 days ago

I think it’s particularly cool that the singular ‘they’ begins its 650 year-old history in a romance called ‘William and the Werewolf’: ‘Hastely hiȝed eche . . . þei neyȝþed so neiȝh . . . þere william & his worþi lef were liand i-fere.’ https://www.oed.com/discover/a-brief-history-of-singular-they/?tl=true

Sam Elgin
Sam Elgin
Reply to  Dave Wilton
25 days ago

I am extremely confident that the irony will be lost…

Dr. Lothar Leidernicht
Dr. Lothar Leidernicht
26 days ago

This is awesome, more power to hims! We need more such Hatfields and Bonevacs unions to spread the rule of grammatics that is being violeted (sometimes even pinked or outright magented!) on daily basis by willfully cross-dressing teaching assistants and purely elective student hobby-abortionists whose will it is to make fools of their well-intentioned mantors and profanissors. I applaud these well-timed efforts to promote covfefe.

James Sherman
James Sherman
26 days ago

 I will not honor any student’s demands to be addressed by the singular pronoun “they”—regardless of whether those demands come from a biological man or a biological woman, and regardless of whether the person making those demands identifies with a gender that matches or departs from his biologically assigned sex

Is anyone else *shocked* to learn that Dan thinks biological sex is assigned??

I am so confused.

V. Alan White
Reply to  James Sherman
25 days ago

And someone born with sex characteristics of both? Will he not respect such a request from them? Or just assign one given his best guess based on some kind of superficial appearance? What a/an ________. Fill in your best impression, based on his appearance here. (With respect to Justin.)

Mike Austin
25 days ago

I’ll just say, as a Christian philosopher, instead of this we could just try to love our students.

Mike Titelbaum
Mike Titelbaum
25 days ago

How exactly can a professor “permit” or “allow” their TA—a contracted state employee—to wear certain types of clothing in class, especially at the professor’s own personal discretion?

grymes
grymes
Reply to  Mike Titelbaum
25 days ago

aye, not to mention the purported ability to refrain from “hiring” “lawbreakers”

Mark van Roojen
Mark van Roojen
Reply to  Mike Titelbaum
24 days ago

Yes this. The professors seem to think that supervising a TA extends way beyond the normal bounds of making sure they do the job of teaching and grading well and working within the terms of themselves being part of a department and university that set the general standards of such supervision.

Anat Schechtman
Anat Schechtman
25 days ago

As a UT faculty member, I want to emphasize that neither I nor many of my colleagues here share Professor Bonevac’s positions. I honor students’ and colleagues’ preferred pronouns and would be happy to work with all TAs regardless of their attire. Nor do I question students’ or TAs’ reasons for their medical absences. 

John Bengson
Reply to  Anat Schechtman
25 days ago

What Anat said.

Karl Schafer
Karl Schafer
Reply to  Anat Schechtman
25 days ago

I just want to second what Anat says. Like many others, the department at UT contains a wide range of opinions on some of these issues, but almost all of us would agree with her on the points she makes here.

Katherine Dunlop
Katherine Dunlop
Reply to  Karl Schafer
25 days ago

What Anat and Karl said.

Dr. Lothar Leidernicht
Dr. Lothar Leidernicht
Reply to  Anat Schechtman
25 days ago

What if they only wear a sock like RHCP’s Flea of Princess Leias dress when she was Jabba the Hutts prisoner? Or come in a wedding dress or dressed like policemen? I think the problem is that we all rely on standards of professional decency and general reasonabless but once we try to put rule on these conventional standards think can get quickly out of hand. I fear Bonevac might succeed since I think dressing however one likes at work is not a human right.

Samuel Wolf Cantor
Samuel Wolf Cantor
Reply to  Dr. Lothar Leidernicht
25 days ago

As a grad student at UT philosophy who despises RHCP and takes Return of the Jedi to be the single greatest blow to the quality and integrity of the Star Wars franchise: I second Dr. Liedernicht’s sentiment.

Mike Titelbaum
Mike Titelbaum
Reply to  Dr. Lothar Leidernicht
23 days ago

This is an employment matter. If a TA showed up to my class wearing, say, only a sock, I would first say something to them (probably leading with an inquiry into whether they were doing okay). If the behavior persisted, I would bring it up with my department leadership, who would take it to HR, at which point various procedures would be followed. Any complex decisions in the vicinity about professional attire would not be up to me to adjudicate.

Dr. Lothar Leidernicht
Dr. Lothar Leidernicht
Reply to  Mike Titelbaum
23 days ago

So you’d let them teach until ‘various procedures’ were followed?

Mike Titelbaum
Mike Titelbaum
Reply to  Dr. Lothar Leidernicht
23 days ago

I don’t have the power to “let” or not “let” anyone teach. TAs are state employees, working under a contract, and I don’t have the authority to unilaterally violate that contract.

Dr. Lothar Leidernicht
Dr. Lothar Leidernicht
Reply to  Mike Titelbaum
20 days ago

That’s interesting. In regular jobs, there is usually someone with a supervising authority. I would have assumed that that is the primary instructor and/or departmental chair. It has nothing to do with violating a contract. I know that many departments have this explicitly defined – that the supervisor can, in case of incompetence or other factors impacting the class, intervene and even replace the TA.

I don’t agree with what Bonevac is doing at all. I think it’s absurd posturing, and it goes very much against the spirit of academy and university. But I do wonder if he might have a case (legally) precisely because of how relatively blurry the rules are. Say “professional attire” – what is that for us? Not distracting to the students and relying on some “accepted” standards? What are those? I don’t know how things work, hopefully the whole thing can be dismissed but I don’t know…

a grad student
a grad student
Reply to  Dr. Lothar Leidernicht
17 days ago

Based on Bostock v. Clayton County, he cannot apply different standards of dress based on what he takes to be the sex of the TA. So, if he tolerates some students wearing dresses or skirts, he must tolerate all students wearing dresses or skirts. So, perhaps he could try to enforce a dress code where everybody has to dress in a gender-neutral way. But that doesn’t seem to be what he is up to.

Alastair Norcross
25 days ago

This is very sad. Dan used to be a reasonably well respected member of the profession. He’s completely gone off the deep end in recent years. His support of that stupid statistical argument to argue that Biden’s vote numbers were somehow manipulated was a complete embarrassment (easily and often debunked), but this latest stuff takes it to a whole new level.

Kimberly Dill
Kimberly Dill
Reply to  Alastair Norcross
25 days ago

I agree, Alastair. In graduate school at UTAustin, I considered Dan both a mentor and friend. We had rich discussions about comparative philosophy (e.g., Buddhism and Confucianism), multi-valued logic, virtue ethics, and the importance of compassion. I TAed for him and Stephen Phillips in their co-taught “Philosophy, East and West” and, once graduated, even taught some of my intro students from their co-edited book, _Introduction to World Philosophy: A Multicultural Reader_. I feel very disheartened and disappointed to witness all of this, and have since been vocal with him about the inappropriateness and dangerousness of his actions (in relationship to UTAustin undergrad and grad students), for what it’s worth.

Last edited 25 days ago by Kimberly Dill
Jonathan Kendrick
Reply to  Alastair Norcross
25 days ago

Yeah, he is/was an excellent philosopher. I really like a lot of his work in deontic logic. This is a good reminder that even extremely intelligent people are susceptible to culture war brain rot.

Fritz Allhoff
Fritz Allhoff
Reply to  Jonathan Kendrick
22 days ago

I mean, this one applies to some liberals as well; it’s not only the conservatives that are susceptible to it.

Jonathan Kendrick
Reply to  Fritz Allhoff
21 days ago

Absolutely. In my opinion, the Republican election deniers, like Donevac, and the Russia-gate Democrats are two sides of the same coin. However, anecdotally, the conservative crazies appear to behave in ways that are much more problematic than the liberal crazies. Storming the capital or shooting up a synagogue is, I think, clearly far worse than Rachel Maddow running her 100th segment about how Trump is a secret Russian agent.

Louis Zapst
25 days ago

This screams inconsequential moralistic expression. This teacher says he won’t knowingly be complicit in an abortion. How will he know the student is planning to get an abortion? I doubt that in Texas a teacher has the right to know the particulars of a medical appointment before excusing a student. The teacher could ask for a “doctor’s note” but that need not (actually should not) mention the particular medical condition without the student’s consent. That the appointment is out of state is irrelevant, as many people travel for all sorts of medical appointments. My own view is that students and colleagues should be glad for this teacher’s immature moralistic performance. Now they know exactly what he thinks and they know to avoid him if they can.

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Louis Zapst
25 days ago

This screams inconsequential moralistic expression.

That perfectly summarizes my thoughts on reading a great many comments in this thread! I try to read charitably, but I cannot find a plausible explanation (other than mere moralistic expression) for why the people who posted them thought it would advance the discussion to do so.

Pageturner
Pageturner
Reply to  Justin Kalef
23 days ago

I tried to read your comment charitably, but I cannot for the life of me discern why you think it appropriate to hold a comments section to the same standard of a lawsuit. Purely moral expression is perfectly acceptable in the first context, but not the second.

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Pageturner
23 days ago

I don’t see why. Isn’t the point here to have a conversation in which we explore issues by having conversations with other people who have something useful to contribute to the discussion?

Here’s a model of useful conversation: there’s some issue on which some people think one thing, and other people think another. The people on both sides give reasons for why they think what they do, and engage with what the other people are saying. As they discuss the matter, they get closer to the truth or at least to understanding each other.

Here’s another: an argument is presented for some surprising conclusion. Nearly everyone is initially inclined to think that the conclusion is wrong, which is what makes the thing so interesting and useful to discuss. A few people end up defending the argument, even though they might find the conclusion counterintuitive. That’s what makes the conversation so great to read.

Here’s one more: some new problem is presented that nobody has really thought much about at all, and everyone explores it together.

By contrast, the following seems to me an embarrassingly bad kind of conversation to have on a philosophy blog: someone does something that it seems hardly anyone will want to defend. The initial post gives all the details that will cause most of the readers of the blog to get outraged. This gives them the moral exhilaration that arises from comparing yourself to people you and your peer group see as significantly morally inferior. A number of readers add comments that express the extent of their shock, outrage, and/or moral condemnation of the person. No arguments are needed in the context, as virtually all the readers will already think that the behavior is outrageous. The point is not to persuade anyone, but rather to revel in a sense of collective outrage and grandstanding. Once enough people have expressed their condemnation and astonishment, some commenters move into the next phase, which is sarcastic mockery, low blows, and the presentation of apparent inconsistencies, all aimed at the target. Other people who want a piece of the action try to keep the thing going by remembering or discovering other things about the target that can be raised to heighten the festival of contempt, disparagement, and ridicule. Once the crowd has got the target on the ground and is beating on him, it seems, the wish to get one’s own kick in is hard to resist.

When I see these last sorts of discussions, especially among professional philosophers or people who are soon to become professional philosophers, I grow so despondent that I often end up internally rooting for the target, even if I would generally be inclined to condemn whatever the target did. It’s high school all over again, except that I avoided people who did this back in high school. I got into philosophy as a way of associating with people who wanted to spend their conversations thinking through interesting things rather than engaging in gossip and character assassination as a way of bonding with one another and feeling good about themselves. No matter how many times it happens, some part of me is surprised that any philosophers would find any interest in doing it.

Julian
Julian
Reply to  Justin Kalef
23 days ago

I do not understand the impulse to respond to “I intend to mistreat people (and will overstep my authority to do so)” with “interesting, let’s discuss it”.

Where’s the argument? The problem? What is the subject of discussion you envision?

It’s not like Bonevac and Hatfield are engaged anything like inquiry. Why should we pretend that they are?

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Julian
23 days ago

I’m not saying that Bonevac or Hatfield engaged in anything like inquiry, or that we should pretend that they are. There are many cases in which someone has acted wrongly and there is no dispute about it. Perhaps this is one of those cases.

If this is one of those cases, then I fail to see the point of having more and more people express their shock and outrage at what has happened, other than providing an outlet for the commenters to make themselves feel and look great by piling onto the wrongdoer. In a setting where nobody feels that the behavior in question is worth defending, nobody will be apt to jump in when people make cheap shots against the person in question in furtherance of their moralizing high. The consequence is more or less always the trashy sort of discussion that makes me feel embarrassed to be a philosopher, whether or not I agree with what the target originally did.

Even if the person in question were revealed to be a serial killer who slaughtered innocent students and colleagues, or something, I would have the same reaction. I would judge that the action was immoral, but would fail to see the point of a whole comment section filled with people adding more and more comments about how bad serial killing is, how stupid and morally contemptible and ridiculous different things the serial killer did, and so on, all providing the readers and contributors with a cheap source of laughs and smugness while doing nothing to make anything better.

Julian
Julian
Reply to  Justin Kalef
22 days ago

You fail to grasp that language is not merely for persuasion or for two people being rational at each other. Sometimes moral condemnation is all there is to do.

It might seem obvious to you that Bonevac acted badly, and perhaps it is obvious to all. But it is not obvious that a majority of philosophers agrees that he obviously acted badly. It is also not obvious that he stands alone with such optionins at Austin.

Moreover, this is a public forum. There’s an audience of onlookers, perhaps only tangentially associated with philosophy, or considering getting into philosophy. Group sentiments among philosophers are certainly not obvious to *them* but conversely might be very important for them to know.

Thus, there is informational value in such condemnation. Most importantly, in some people from the department condemning & clarifying that this is a lone figure.

There’s no need for *discussion* on any of this, but (even when we mistakenly constrain the use of language to purely informational purposes) there is a need for it to be *said*. The kind of jocularity we see here is the socially standard way of doing so.

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Julian
22 days ago

I think there are much better ways of promoting moral norms than publicly shaming and ridiculing a member of the profession, or any person for that matter, in a context in which calls for clemency are frowned upon. It would be different if there were a thriving debate on the rightness or wrongness of the person’s actions in that context. When there is not, I think there are strong reasons to refrain.

Michel
Reply to  Justin Kalef
22 days ago

Bonevac has publicly shamed himself, here. He’s trumpeting his vice for all to see.

And it is vice. He is both morally and factually wrong. This isn’t some liminal case, or someone with good intentions accidentally or incidentally doing something bad.

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Michel
22 days ago

Let’s imagine that someone — call him Jones — has done something clearly immoral, and that he has done that thing on purpose, with bad intentions. Let’s take something that isn’t politically exciting, and suppose that Jones was caught stealing $200 out of a fellow professor’s wallet at a conference.

Let’s also imagine that Jones’ theft of the money is mentioned in a professional forum with a huge readership, so that a discussion of Jones’ case there is taking place, for all intents and purposes, in front of all Jones’ colleagues. But — and this is crucial — imagine that there is no dispute on that forum about whether Jones’ theft of the money was wrong.

Finally, imagine that a large number of people show up to add negative comments about the theft of the money, and sometimes just critical comments about Jones. These condemnations of Jones are written by people who have already seen all the other ones. But more people keep adding such comments, mostly written with a great air of gloating moral superiority, even though the writers can see all the similar comments that have already been written.

One can see why the people who write and revel in such comments would like to paint their pile-on in a flattering light by seeing themselves as collectively engaging in the teaching of a moral lesson to the defenders of stealing money. But that would not be a very plausible justification of the pile-on. If there really were a significant number of readers of the forum who felt that stealing the money was morally permissible, then why wouldn’t any of them be speaking up in defense of Jones?

I don’t see how the ‘moral education/ clarification’ justification can be plausible in such a case.

Michel
Reply to  Justin Kalef
22 days ago

You forgot to mention the part where Jones wrote a proclamation declaring his crime for all to see, and telling us why it was a good and desirable thing.

grad student
Reply to  Justin Kalef
22 days ago

I think the thought experiment is a false analogy to the Bonevac case and misses a few points that Julian makes:

“It might seem obvious to you that Bonevac acted badly, and perhaps it is obvious to all. But it is not obvious that a majority of philosophers agrees that he obviously acted badly. It is also not obvious that he stands alone with such optionins [sic] at Austin.”

I think in the case of stealing all these are pretty obviously true.

“Moreover, this is a public forum. There’s an audience of onlookers, perhaps only tangentially associated with philosophy, or considering getting into philosophy. Group sentiments among philosophers are certainly not obvious to *them* but conversely might be very important for them to know.”

Again I think in the case of stealing the onlookers do not generally wonder whether philosophers think stealing is wrong.

So I’d agree with you that moral education / clarification is indeed not a plausible rationale in the stealing case. But it may still be a good justification for expressing condemnation in this comments section.

Julian
Julian
Reply to  Justin Kalef
22 days ago

I didn’t say anything about moral education, or moral clarification, or about promulgating moral norms.

I’m here to reassure myself that professional philosophers at large agree that what he’s doing is bad, and to contribute to providing this reassurance to others.

At this point, to be fair, my purpose has moved on to reassurance that “of course X is bad, but the real bad guys are ones who say that X is bad” is also bad behavior.

Jordan
Jordan
Reply to  Julian
23 days ago

I think Justin’s point was that this particular issue ISN’T worth discussing (because it is so clearly morally abhorrent), and so isn’t worth having a comment section about, since the comment section could only serve the purpose of providing a moral grandstanding platform for the commenters.

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Jordan
23 days ago

Exactly right. Thank you, Jordan.

Julian
Julian
Reply to  Justin Kalef
23 days ago

How odd of you to agree with this, Justin. You referenced a “discussion” that is not advanced by the present moral grandstanding. What is that discussion?

Or more broadly, what do you think the proper response to morally contemptible behavior is? Pretend there is something to discuss, and proceed under that pretense? Politely nod? Privately disapprove and let the behavior stand unopposed?

Julian
Julian
Reply to  Jordan
23 days ago

Justin’s first complaint, above, was that the present comments do not “advance the discussion”. I am wondering which discussion he means.

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Julian
23 days ago

If there’s an interesting matter to explore here, then I mean the discussion of that issue. If there is nothing to discuss because everyone agrees that these people acted wrongly, then why say anything? In that case, the discussion is already over.

Julian
Julian
Reply to  Justin Kalef
22 days ago

See above, you seem to think (falsely) that language is just for discussion.

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Julian
22 days ago

I do not think that.

Pageturner
Pageturner
Reply to  Justin Kalef
23 days ago

None of Bonevac’s actions will be exonerated by a debate of the sort you describe, because the morality of his actions doesn’t turn on whether the philosophical positions that motivate him are correct.

Bonevac claims authority and powers to which he has no claim at all: to regulate the dress of the students who teach for him, and to punish people for personal decisions of which he doesn’t approve.

We all face a decision in our social lives. Bonevac couldn’t be more explicit about his decision to be openly uncooperative and intolerant of the sincere philosophical differences between him and his students.

Consider this situation. A large group of acquaintances invited me to a French restaurant with no vegetarian options. I sincerely believe that eating meat is morally wrong, and as a matter of conscience, I never eat meat for any reason.

But rather than making some specious argument about the violation of my right to conscience, or threatening to break off all my other cooperative endeavors with these people if we go to the restaurant,

I got up from the table and ate somewhere else for dinner. That’s the way rational adults conduct their social lives, and I’m saying that as someone with genuine social deficits. It’s not hard to be kind, co-operative, and respectful of these differences.

I make no apologies for taking pleasure in the mockery in this comments section.

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Pageturner
23 days ago

But I’m not saying that Bonevac’s actions will be exonerated by a debate. If they might be, then there is something to discuss, and it would be better to discuss it than to do this. If they definitely will not be, then I fail to see the point of the conversation in the first place.

If you are invited to a restaurant by people who are willfully insensitive to your commitment to ethical vegetarianism, then I agree that protesting about that and then leaving the restaurant would be an acceptable course of action. But that would be different from sitting around with a bunch of people who already agree with you and publicly airing a mocking discussion about the various character flaws and supposed inconsistencies you find in the people who invited you to dinner. That just seems petty to me.

David
David
Reply to  Justin Kalef
22 days ago

I’m not sure whether it’s wrong to pile on people expressing odious views or engaging in odious behavior. It may be that this kind of piling on can play a valuable role in maintaining social norms in human communities, but I’m agnostic.
But I would say there’s a model of truth-pursuing conversation that doesn’t fit easily into any of the three you define and that the conversation in this section might conform to:

“here’s something we all agree is wrong or in bad faith or…. As we critique it, we’ll get clearer about what makes it wrong, in bad faith, etc.”

I think it’s important to have these kinds of conversations and not just conversations in which serious cases for both sides of an issue can be made (your models one and two) or in which we don’t know what to think (your model three). Restricting ourselves to topics conforming to one of those three models would keep us away from many influential real-world ideologies, such as Bonevac’s, which are sometimes obviously wrong and have nothing to be said for them. And it seems to me important to discuss and analyze real-world ideologies.

I’m not saying every last comment on this blog post is a constructive contribution to understanding Bonevac or what’s wrong with his views or behavior. But that would be an inappropriate standard to hold “the discussion” to. I do see several comments that explain why Bonevac’s arguments are weak or why his views are wrong. I would think that would be a reasonable standard to hold comments on blog posts to.

Justin Kalef
Reply to  David
22 days ago

Please note that I listed three different examples of productive conversation-types, but did not say (and do not think) that those examples are exhaustive. I did not at any point say that we should restrict conversations to those three.

I also did not say, and do not think, that none of the contributions in this thread attempt to give reasons for thinking that Bonevac’s arguments are weak. I am saying, however, that a significant number of the commends are not doing that.

David
David
Reply to  Justin Kalef
22 days ago

I think by revising your claim from one about “the discussion,” as in previous comments, to one about an undefined “significant number of posts,” you’ve turned it into a platitude that it wouldn’t be constructive to debate. For one, thing, trying to get the number of non-constructive blog comments down to a non-significant number is too ambitious given the very nature of the medium. For another, the phrase, “significant number” is too vague to ground a substantive debate, if anyone were to disagree with the claim.

Furthermore, your particular approach to trying to reduce the number of non-constructive comments (I’m assuming that was your goal given your interest in constructive discussion) is likely to be counter-productive, given its use of uncharitable mind-reading applied generally to an unspecified set of comments critical of Bonevac. This kind of contribution is more likely to make people double-down than change their minds.

I also have to say that I find it a bit strange that, elsewhere, you write agnostically not only about whether Bonevac has done anything wrong, but also about whether he might have done anything wrong. If you don’t want to take a stand on the latter question, I don’t see how you could know that the debate here doesn’t conform to one of your three models (and, indeed, there have been a few defenses of aspects of Bonevac’s arguments in the comments).

(I know you didn’t say the things you say you didn’t say.)

Last edited 22 days ago by David
Justin Kalef
Reply to  David
19 days ago

I have already explained why much of this mischaracterizes what I have said, and I don’t think that moderately charitable readers will be misled by it. I did not revise my claim in the way you say. I have never denied that “there have been a few defenses of aspects of Bonevac’s arguments in the comments.” I do not intend to “ground a substantive debate” of a sort that requires precision about the number of comments here I am apt to object to. I am merely registering my unhappiness with the sorts of comments I have described.

I am confident that many readers will know what I am talking about and see my point, whether or not you are among them. That is sufficient for my purposes.

BCB
BCB
Reply to  Justin Kalef
22 days ago

You know, I’m normally fairly sympathetic to this kind of complaint.

But Bonevac’s stated policy crosses a line: inarguably, it is both (a) a gross overreach of institutional authority, and (b) really f&#ing stupid (to an extent unbecoming to a philosopher). For that, I think it deserves public shaming.

Last edited 22 days ago by BCB
Justin Kalef
Reply to  BCB
21 days ago

BCB, I’m grateful that you’ve frankly admitted something that many others seem reluctant to do: that the idea here is to punish Bonevac through a public shaming on this blog.

After reading Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed a few years ago, I find I can no longer support online shaming as a punishment. That’s not to deny that some limited shaming is sometimes appropriate as a punishment. But like any reasonable punishment, the shaming has to be carefully meted out so that it does not become excessive, and there are limits to how widespread and enduring it should be.

Internet shaming is typically permanent. and typically visible the world over. Someone who has been shamed on the internet typically has nowhere to run to, no way to start over. And the shaming process tends to attract people who find it exhilarating to join in the grandstanding and mockery, so that it becomes a sort of bloodsport of reveling in the humiliation and disparagement of the target.

Some will say that what Bonevac did is so bad that there is no need to worry about going too far. But how plausible is that? Does he deserve the death penalty? Live in prison? A life of dishonor? Isn’t there somewhere we need to draw the line? And how can we draw it in an online shaming? How many people dare to stand up to the crowd of shamers and say, “Okay, that’s enough?”

BCB
BCB
Reply to  Justin Kalef
21 days ago

Again, I’m quite sympathetic to what I think is your underlying sentiment here. But to paraphrase the modern classic Quigley Down Under, this ain’t Twitter, and Bonevac ain’t Justine Sacco.

Bonevac isn’t getting dragged in front of an audience of millions, for losing his temper at a dog park or making a politically incorrect joke that was never intended to go viral. He’s getting dragged in the comments section of the Daily Nous, for a formal legal declaration clearly intended to spark controversy. And nobody’s calling for blood here: if he’s subject to any sanctions (and of course I have no idea whether that’s actually likely), it will be because he self-consciously violated the requirements of his job, not as a direct or indirect result of public pressure. So I don’t think there’s any need to worry about social death here—not all slopes are that slippery!

Justin Kalef
Reply to  BCB
21 days ago

That’s a fair point, BCB: I agree with you that the stakes are lower, and that Bonevac knowingly put himself in the public eye in this way.

Still, I think we’re hardly at our best when we engage in this kind of sniping and sneering. And I think there are better ways to get one’s jollies than to line up for a chance to add a punch or kick to the beating down of a politically marginalized colleague.

Daniel Swaim
Daniel Swaim
24 days ago

Are video posts allowed in the comments? I can’t think of a better potential use of that video of the gameshow host dude from Billy Madison being like, “We’re all now dumber for having listened to that.”

DoubleA
DoubleA
24 days ago

Man, tenure in Texas must not really be under attack if you’re allowed to declare your intentions to possibly violate Title IX and definitely violate the norms regarding TAs without consequence.

Also, taking the “rules of grammar” as demanding reverence but spelling “high heels” like it’s a stoner health spa is certainly an interesting approach.

Last edited 24 days ago by DoubleA
Jill Hernandez
Jill Hernandez
Reply to  DoubleA
21 days ago

DoubleA wins all the comments.

Claire Katz
Claire Katz
Reply to  Jill Hernandez
15 days ago

Agree Jill!

Greg
Greg
24 days ago

I support this man.

grad student
24 days ago

I do not hire criminals or lawbreakers to serve as teaching assistants.”

I’m certain that Bonevac has already had lawbreakers as his TAs: we’ve all violated traffic law at some point.

I declare under penalty of perjury that the facts stated in this declaration are true and correct.”

Does this mean Bonevac has already committed perjury?

BCB
BCB
Reply to  grad student
22 days ago

I’m certain that Bonevac has already had lawbreakers as his TAs: we’ve all violated traffic law at some point.

More than that, I doubt there’s a philosophy department in the country where refusing TAs who smoke weed (which remains illegal in Texas) wouldn’t rule out many if not most of the best grad students.

Gordon
22 days ago

Look, they’re obviously being offensive morons who wouldn’t ordinarily deserve the attention (because this is also clearly attention-seeking behavior, and when toddlers do that, you ignore them). But. This is Texas, and they forum shopped themselves a courtroom almost 500 miles away from Austin to get in front of Matthew Kacsmaryk, who’s one of the craziest of the Trump judges. There is a 100% chance he will rule in their favor if he is allowed to get to a ruling. He’ll cite the Bible, make up random additional things he doesn’t like about TAs and issue a nationwide injunction against all of Title IX. Then it will get appealed to the 5th Circuit, which will stay the injunction but then also rule in their favor and make up something about how neither students nor TAs have first amendment rights. That means it will have to go to SCOTUS, which means that Alito will have to fly more upside-down flags (sorry: Alito’s *wife*, the only woman in America who deserves privacy!) and SCOTUS will have to rule 6-3 that they only decided Bostock a few years ago and Gorsuch is still sitting *right here* and so don’t be in such a hurry! But they’ll quietly narrow Title IX in the process and maybe add legitimacy to Texas’ abortion laws too. And SCOTUS will have to decide this case instead of something actually legally worthwhile – a disarming percentage of their docket this term has been swatting down 5th Circuit malpractice.

This is a well-worn right-wing playbook, and absent compelling evidence to the contrary we should assume it is a strategic assault on Bostock and Title IX, chosen because the case will have exactly the trajectory they want. The forum shop tells you everything you need to know.

It’s also made at least one national news media outlet: https://www.salon.com/2024/06/03/texas-professors-to-fail-students-seek-abortions/

Gah-Kai Leung
Reply to  Gordon
15 days ago

We shouldn’t forget there is also probably a giant well-funded legal machine that is either already behind this or is very willing to get behind this. Especially if this goes all the way to SCOTUS. Leftist and progressive causes generally do not have billionaires in their corner who are willing to fight their legal battles (instead they often have to rely on crowdfunding mechanisms, e.g. the very excellent Good Law Project in the UK).

Eve
Eve
21 days ago

A dress code for TA’s, a pronoun ban, a medical inspection for excused student absences…what more could 2 privileged white guys do to make themselves obnoxious & ridiculous?

Eve Levin
Eve Levin
21 days ago

These two professors have announced their intention to violate university rules and professional ethics. If they actually do so, the university will have ample grounds to charge them with misconduct and the faculty hearing committee will have ample grounds to find them guilty.

Michel
20 days ago

Can we call this what it is, already?

Vice signalling.

Jamie Dreier
Jamie Dreier
19 days ago

Justin Kalef;

The text blocks were going to get too skinny, so I’m answering in an independent comment.

What I meant, when I wrote

the false-for-centuries claim that singular ‘they’ is ungrammatical 

is that it has been perfectly grammatical for centuries to use ‘they’ with singular antecedent. The rules of grammar are constitutive rules, not regulative rules! The ‘authorities’ you’re talking about (if I understand you) are just giving style advice. I was talking about the actual rules of English grammar.

Philosophers are particularly sensitive to the problem of ambiguous pronouns, maybe because we have a bottomless supply of them (which we call ‘variables’). To disambiguate “My dad told his coworker that he was the best driver in the company,” try using ‘they’ to refer to the coworker. That’s style advice.

Some changes are, of course, for the worse. It’s entirely possible that our language was better when ‘you’ was only plural. Men make their own grammar, but they do not make it just as they please.

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Jamie Dreier
19 days ago

Thanks for the reply, Jamie. That’s helpful.

As I see it, assuming your constitutive/grammar vs. regulative/style dichotomy, the rule about ‘they’ being plural will come down on the side of grammar, not style. But that doesn’t in itself fix what we are obliged to do with ‘everyone’, ‘anyone’, etc. I interpret most of the writers throughout history who have used ‘they’ in those cases as thinking that the plural pronoun is appropriate there. After all, it still seems counterintuitive to many people that ‘everyone’ should be singular.

By contrast, I would certainly not use ‘they’ in the case you raise: It’s true that, as you suggest, “My dad told his coworker that he was the best driver in the company” could plausibly taken as a report that the father was boasting, when in fact he may have been complimenting the co-worker and saying nothing about his own driving. But substituting ‘they’ for ‘he’ doesn’t just fail to resolve the ambiguity for me (for all I know, the speaker may be indicating that the father likes to be referred to in the singular as ‘they’), but it grates as the violation of a grammatical norm. A sentence that begins “My dad told his coworker that they…” indicates that the subject of the father’s comment will be plural, and I prepare to figure out what that plural subject is. Only when I come up with nothing as the sentence continues do I recover and miss a step turning to the alternative hypothesis that ‘they’ is being used in the singular. I have seen the endlessly-reposted instances of Jane Austen, etc. using ‘they’ for ‘anyone’ or ‘everyone’, but I cannot recall any instance of her or any other great author using ‘they’ in something like the case of the father’s coworker.

You might respond that I, in seeing this as a matter of grammar rather than style, am confusing a regulative matter with a constitutive one. After all, once I hear the phrase ‘they were the best driver,’ I have enough information to realize that the speaker means to use ‘they’ to refer back to a singular antecedent. Therefore, the speaker’s meaning is conveyed by the sentence alone, which some may see as evidence that the speaker must not have violated a constitutive rule: otherwise, how would the reference been possible?

I don’t know whether that’s your basis for thinking that the rule against singular ‘they’ is stylistic rather than grammatical: if I’ve got it wrong, I’d be interested in learning what your argument is. But if that is your reasoning, then I just don’t think it makes the distinction. For instance, suppose that someone writes the following sentence:

“Yesterday I eats only one bananas”

There are four errors here: ‘eats’ is in the present tense, ‘eats’ is only the correct form for a third-person singular subject, ‘bananas’ is plural, and there is no final punctuation mark in the sentence. All four of these are unquestionably(?) problems in grammar, not merely style. But I would still be able to understand from the sentence that the speaker had eaten only one banana on the previous day.

These four sorts of errors seem to me very similar to a case in which someone says of me, “My philosophy prof tried their best to learn our names.” The hearer can sort out what is going on, but that doesn’t make the sentence grammatically correct.

Jamie Dreier
Jamie Dreier
Reply to  Justin Kalef
18 days ago

The example you give, with ‘eats’, is obviously ungrammatical. That’s not stylistic advice, it’s just information about the syntax of English. Right? But singular ‘they’ is grammatical. (Today in more forms than in bygone centuries; I thought I’d made it clear that I agreed with ‘A Grad Student’ about that part.)

All the stuff about avoiding ambiguity is style advice. Are we agreed on that? A lot of self-styled grammarians give out style advice but declare it to be dictated by grammar. We’re less likely to get confused if we keep them straight. That’s why I broached the distinction.
 
Of course, I’m fine with (what I understand to be) your report that ‘they’ can’t get definite singular antecedents in your… dialect, or idiolect, or whatever. Many years ago, my freshman roommate seemed to me to speak exactly the same dialect as I did – he grew up in New Jersey and I in New York – until he told me “I’m taking Ec10 anymore.” I was dumbfounded. It wasn’t an error! It turns out that in parts of Jersey, positive polarity ‘anymore’ is grammatical!

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Jamie Dreier
18 days ago

“All the stuff about avoiding ambiguity is style advice. Are we agreed on that? A lot of self-styled grammarians give out style advice but declare it to be dictated by grammar. We’re less likely to get confused if we keep them straight. That’s why I broached the distinction.”

I agree with those things. I just don’t see your basis for saying that “singular ‘they’ is grammatical.”

The only case I recall seeing, anywhere, for singular ‘they’ being grammatical is a long list of instances in which people have used ‘they’ in the singular (in most historical cases, again, not even to refer to a specific person but just to refer back to ‘everyone’, ‘someone’, or ‘anyone’). But I don’t see how one is meant to get a grammatical ought from that empirical is. It doesn’t follow from the fact that many people have said something that it’s grammatical — do you agree? And if you do agree, then what is your basis for asserting that singular ‘they’ is grammatical?

It is hard for me to think of anything more central to grammar than morphology and agreements in tense, number, and so on. The fact (or at least, I take it to be a fact!) that the third person singular personal pronouns are he, she, and it while the plural one is they appears very much to be a grammatical one, not a stylistic one.

That’s not to say that there cannot be any grounds for speaking or writing ungrammatically in some cases. For instance, while my way of handling the case you gave of the co-worker, I would be inclined to keep things strictly grammatical by saying, “My father complimented his co-worker for being the best driver in the company,” while for you it may seem preferable to take a liberty with the grammar and just use ‘they’ for the co-worker. But you are saying more than that this is a defensible lapse in grammar for the sake of the style you prefer: you’re insisting that there is no lapse in grammar at all. I’m puzzled by what makes you feel that using ‘eat’ for ‘ate’ or ‘bananas’ for ‘banana’ are grammatical faults but that ‘My professor tried their best’ is not one.

Julian
Julian
Reply to  Justin Kalef
18 days ago

Verily, ’tis like the erudite Thomas Ellwood said about the agreement betwixt number and person.

“The Corrupt and Unfound Form of Speaking in the Plural Number to a Single Person (YOU to One, instead of THOU ; ) contrary to the Pure, Plain and Single Language of TRUTH THOU to One, and YOU to more than One) which had always been used, by GOD to Men, and Men to GOD, as well as one to another, from the oldest Record of Time, till Corrupt Men, for Corrupt Ends, in later and Corrupt Times, to Flatter, Fawn, and work upon the Corrupt Nature in Men, brought in that false and senseless Way of Speaking, YOU to One ; which hath since corrupted the Modern Languages, and hath greatly debased the Spirits, and depraved the Manners of Men.”

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Julian
18 days ago

Ah yes, the well-worn implied argument by analogy between singular you and singular they.

It’s very satisfying to throw out supposedly knock-down arguments. Unfortunately, they don’t fit in easily with a sincere exploration on the issues.

I hope I can trust that someone else — maybe you, Julian — will put in a little work and mention some of the relevant differences between the two cases, historically considered.

Julian
Julian
Reply to  Justin Kalef
18 days ago

Prescriptivism is silly, is the point.

Jamie Dreier
Jamie Dreier
Reply to  Justin Kalef
18 days ago

It doesn’t follow from the fact that many people have said something that it’s grammatical — do you agree? And if you do agree, then what is your basis for asserting that singular ‘they’ is grammatical?

 
 
It doesn’t “follow”? You mean, it isn’t a logical consequence?
It doesn’t follow from the fact that it’s June that it won’t snow in New Jersey tomorrow, either. But that’’s a pretty good basis for asserting that it won’t

Obviously, we don’t expect a deductive proof here – but the fact that an impressive array of the best writers of English use it is extremely good evidence.
(By contrast, nobody ever gives any evidence that singular ‘they’ is ungrammatical.)

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Jamie Dreier
18 days ago

I think this really gets to the heart of what I’m calling into question, Jamie.

Perhaps it’s easiest to put it this way: when you say that “nobody ever gives any evidence that singular ‘they’ is ungrammatical,” what sort of thing would you even count as evidence?

You’ve already made clear, if I understand you correctly, that you would not count any number of classic books of grammar as evidence, on the grounds that, on your view, the question of whether to use ‘they’ for a singular antecedent is a matter of style, not grammar, and that anyone who writes against the practice is merely a stylist illegitimately addressing a grammatical question.

On the other hand, you imply here (in your snow in New Jersey case) that the fact that people speak in a certain way is very strong inductive evidence that they are doing so correctly. So perhaps your view is that the norms of grammar are fixed entirely by whatever the common usage happens to be in the time and place of writing or utterance.

I think there are many reasons to doubt that view, and I plan to explore them elsewhere at greater length. But even leaving those aside, I think that even on this strictly relativistic view, the best that could be said for singular ‘they’ is that some famous writers of yesteryear sometimes used ‘they’ to refer back to ‘anyone’, ‘someone’, or ‘everyone’, but that the usage of singular ‘they’ in a case like “My professor tried their best” is practically never found until recently.

Therefore, if the brute statistical facts of usage are the only marks of grammatical correctness, singular ‘they’ in the sense in which many people advocate using it today is not only historically wrong but quite possibly also wrong today (since I suspect that most English speakers would find it to be wrong).

If all you want to say is that singular ‘they’ is on its way to becoming correct as more and more young people are told that it is, and if you are willing to accept a radical relativistic view of grammatical norms, then I can see what you are saying, even if I don’t agree with your presupposition. In that case, though, there certainly would be a great deal of evidence against the correctness of singular ‘they’ in the professor example: I would estimate that the majority of English-speakers of all ages would flag that usage as incorrect.

Also, if the model of grammar we need to presuppose is the radically relativistic one according to which grammatical correctness is merely a matter of currently popular usage, then why invoke historical usage at all?

Jamie Dreier
Jamie Dreier
Reply to  Justin Kalef
15 days ago

You’ve already made clear, if I understand you correctly, that you would not count any number of classic books of grammar as evidence, on the grounds that, on your view, the question of whether to use ‘they’ for a singular antecedent is a matter of style, not grammar, and that anyone who writes against the practice is merely a stylist illegitimately addressing a grammatical question.

Well, Fowler and Strunk are obviously giving style advice. (I thought you’d agreed with me about that.) But there are such things as real grammar books. I highly recommend The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language

So perhaps your view is that the norms of grammar are fixed entirely by whatever the common usage happens to be in the time and place of writing or utterance.

Basically, yes. (There are dialects, which tend to be roughly but not precisely geographical.) What is the alternative to this view?

But even leaving those aside, I think that even on this strictly relativistic view, the best that could be said for singular ‘they’ is that some famous writers of yesteryear sometimes used ‘they’ to refer back to ‘anyone’, ‘someone’, or ‘everyone’, but that the usage of singular ‘they’ in a case like “My professor tried their best” is practically never found until recently.

Agreed. This is the point “A Grad Student” made ten days ago. (I think you added that the explanation is that some of these yesterwriters take ‘anyone’ to be plural, but that is not a good explanation for a couple of reasons, so I accept the standard explanation that it’s singular ‘they’.)

In that case, though, there certainly would be a great deal of evidence against the correctness of singular ‘they’ in the professor example: I would estimate that the majority of English-speakers of all ages would flag that usage as incorrect.

I doubt it. Probably the majority of self-styled sticklers (e.g., the American Heritage Usage Panel) reject it. But the majority of them also reject double modals (like “might should”), and positive polarity ‘anymore’. I know what I think this shows. What do you think it shows?

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Jamie Dreier
15 days ago

Hi, Jamie.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language describes itself, in the first sentence of the blurb, as “The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language is the first comprehensive descriptive grammar of English to appear for over fifteen years.

That word ‘descriptive’ already gives the game away. It would be akin to a new work on ethics describing itself as “the first comprehensive descriptive ethics book” over a certain period of time. That already shows that the project it is engaged in is not the same as the one I’m interested in. Nor would it be the sort of thing people should turn to if they are interested in what the _correct_ thing to say is (unless they think it’s fairly straightforward to derive normative claims in grammar from merely descriptive claims).

The view I hold is that the descriptive changes in a natural language can be objectively better or worse, and that those who care about communication, etc. in a given language should therefore take an interest in the changes in the descriptive rules, and try to resist those that worsen the language.

It would be helpful to me if I could understand whether, and why, you disagree with that.

Jamie Dreier
Jamie Dreier
Reply to  Justin Kalef
14 days ago

Yes, the <I>Cambridge Grammar</I> describes the constitutive rules of English, rather than telling you what Huddleston and Pullum think those rules should be.
Nigel Short thinks chess would be a better game if getting stalemated counted as a loss. But he doesn’t conclude that a stalemate is, in fact, a loss, and he doesn’t tell stalemated players that they actually lost.
Just keep in mind that there are two questions: what is the actual grammar of the language, and, what nearby rules are better or worse?

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Jamie Dreier
14 days ago

But what is it that, in your view, makes the rules of grammar what they are, constitutively? And what is it that, in your view, makes the rules of chess what they are, constitutively?

I’ve been thinking of this along the lines of chess rules also, and mentally composing the draft of my paper with that in mind. But I don’t think the conclusion to draw from it can be what you seem to think it is.

You seem to be saying that Huddleston and Pullum are able to speak authoritatively on the constitutive rules of English grammar because their research on the trends in _purely descriptive_ grammatical usage have led them to correct _descriptive_ conclusions, and (you seem to think) the normative facts of grammar follow straightforwardly from those descriptive facts.

In other words, as I read you — and please correct me if I’ve misunderstood — you are a radical relativist about grammar: that is, you believe that the normative rules about grammar can be derived immediately from the descriptive facts about the patterns of language use among the totality of speakers of the given language at that time, with no room whatsoever for any legitimate talk of right or wrong that cannot be reduced to talk of the frequency of a certain linguistic practice.

You seem to think that my own view is parallel to the view that Nigel Short’s stated conviction that a stalemate should be counted as a victory for the stalemating side is adequate for him to declare that he has beaten any player whom he has stalemated. But that is not remotely like what I am saying. In fact, that sounds like a kind of subjectivist view, in which any speaker’s opinion about grammar would automatically become authoritative, just because that speaker happens to have that believe about grammar. That radical grammatical subjectivism is perhaps even further from my view than radical grammatical relativism is.

What I am arguing for is not meant to be a form of radical relativism at all: in fact, that is just what I disagree with. My view is that some (limited) room must be left for the role of objective standards of better and worse in the rules of both grammar and chess.

Here’s a case from chess that works in parallel with my actual view: the rule of how many moves must pass under certain circumstances before one side may declare a draw. How was that rule decided on? Not by just looking at what the majority of players happened to be doing in their games — it is unlikely that there was any clear majority of players around the world who independently came to any views on the matter. And also not by making room for any random expert on chess to make his or her own declaration on the subject: that would lead to chaos, where what we need is clarity on what the rules are.

Instead, a number of experts look into the matter objectively and try to come up with a rule that harmonizes existing practice with the objective constraints on the rules, given the ends the rules are made to serve. It should be neither too easy nor too difficult for a player to claim a draw by this rule, and that stands as an objective constraint on the rule it would be reasonable to put in place.

If the committee put in charge of the matter by FIDE wisely comes to the conclusion that the rule should be that either side may claim a draw after both sides have made fifty moves without any pawn moves or captures, and this is confirmed after there has been room for fair discussion, then that decision ought to be held as authoritative by players everywhere — NOT because someone happened to declare that that’s the rule, but because everyone is better off with some sort of rule on the matter, and a good faith (and successful) effort has been made to come up with a rule that harmonizes existing practice with an objective consideration of what is reasonable and helpful, given the aims of the game of chess.

Now, let’s say that some YouTuber who knows almost nothing about chess manages to make chess a far more popular game than it currently is, and that this YouTuber ignorantly claims that any chess game that lasts for more than thirty moves is an automatic draw, regardless of what the players want it to be. As a result, let’s imagine, the number of chess players triples in 2025, and two thirds of them, having learned everything from the YouTuber, believe that all games lasting more than thirty moves are automatically drawn. The serious players of the world try to explain that this is not how the rules of chess work. But along come some researchers on chess from Cambridge, who make a quick survey of the beliefs of chess players in 2025. They discover that the majority of them do in fact hold that a chess game is a draw if neither player resigns or gets checkmated in the first thirty moves. On your view, does it follow from this that the FIDE rules are incorrect, just because of the influence of the ignorant YouTuber?

What if the ignorant YouTuber had falsely claimed that every chess game is a draw if nobody captures a piece within three moves? Would the sheer numbers of people who think this be sufficient, on your view, to change the rules of chess to make that the case, thus spoiling the game by making it quite silly?

The radically relativistic view could at least make room for the idea that the rules of chess before 2025, so I suppose the people who want to keep playing the game more seriously could say even then that they are playing the pre-2025 rules of the game. But now suppose that people start flooding the internet with evidence that many people — like some guy down at the bar in town — believed in a twenty-move rule for draws even back in the 1970s or perhaps even the 1670s. They rack up these stories and love to reel them off, one after the other, and then use them as a basis for jeering at anyone who says that there was a pre-2025 understanding that the game is only drawn after fifty moves with no pawn moves or captures. When defenders of the pre-2025 rules point to clearly-stated rules under FIDE, the US Chess Federation, etc. showing that the fifty-move rule was generally understood, the radical relativists scoff and say that that proves nothing, since FIDE and the USCF are just associations of self-important sticklers who failed to understand that the rules of chess can be derived immediately from the practices of the time, and that the practices were enormously flexible among, say, the sum total of players at different times (including all the kindergarteners, drunks, etc. who ever tried to play the game).

None of that would come close to establishing that the fifty-move rule should not be followed, or that it as a historic falsehood before 2025, I hope you will agree. What I’m saying is that something similar is going on with grammar. We cannot determine the rights or wrongs of grammar _merely_ by looking at what people happen to be saying and writing: we have to make some room for what is reasonable, or good or bad, given the aims of the language.

But in saying that we should work out good rules of grammar that do their best to coordinate both the ends of language and existing practice, I am certainly not saying that any random person, or even any single expert on language, should be taken as authoritative on the matter.

Compare: we are all better off if we have good traffic laws. Good traffic laws are to some extent arbitrary, but they must be guided by the needs of drivers and also the needs of pedestrians. An experienced driver’s opinion on the speed limit in school zones, say, should not be authoritative just because the driver expresses the opinion publicly. There ought to be a body of traffic laws that everyone in a locality accepts as binding, and a system with checks and balances should be put in place to determine those laws.

But if the body that tries to determine what the traffic laws ought to be simply does extensive research into what rules people already happen to be following, then they have simply failed to do what we need them to do. We are not looking for the rules people actually follow, but rather for the rules that people ought to follow. A descriptive grammar is something of interest, just as a descriptive summary of what chess players happen to be doing; but these things should not be mistaken for the normative guidelines that chess players, drivers, and speakers of English who aim for correctness are looking for.

I think that statements like “My professor tried their best” would be identified as incorrect by most English speakers alive today, and certainly by most speakers alive twenty or thirty years ago, so it seems that that sort of talk is incorrect both on the radically relativistic view and on the slightly objectivist view I hold. But even if that were not so, it seems to me that the radically relativistic view (as well as the radically subjectivist view of your Nigel Short case) are deeply mistaken.

Jamie Dreier
Jamie Dreier
Reply to  Justin Kalef
13 days ago

You misunderstood the Nigel Short example. But it doesn’t matter.
Chess has an international organization that makes rules, and can change them, like your example of the 50 move rule. (Even so, national organizations sometimes have different rules — USCF has some.) But languages obviously do not have anything analogous. Right? Surely you aren’t saying Henry Fowler or William Strunk are authorities in that sense.
Just to go a little deeper: FIDE makes the rules for FIDE-recognized tournaments, but there are lots of USCF tournaments that are run under USCF rules (which differ slightly from the FIDE ones). It would be just crazy to think that one of these must be wrong. (Thus, relativism is true.)
No organization makes the rules for Hearts. English is more like Hearts than like chess in that way. Hart’s theory applies nicely to Hearts! To chess, too – think of the Rule of Recognition that ultimately authorizes a legislature to make rules. That rule is what it is because of its acceptance by the people.
I liked your deranged YouTuber example. What if instead of some schmo it was chess.com? Who are you betting on: the awesome majesty of FIDE, or Danny Rensch? It’s close. In ten years it won’t be close. And what will make chess.com the more authoritative board? Vox lūsōrum vox dei. (That’s “of the players”; I had to look it up.)

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Jamie Dreier
13 days ago

Thanks, Jamie.

I think that something you (and nearly everyone else with mainstream beliefs today) take for granted as a fundamental fact is something that I just don’t accept. I reject the fundamental claim that Vox lusorum, vox dei in chess, and I think the same goes for grammar and usage. I can imagine many cases in which the majority of language-speakers speak and write ungrammatically in that language, and in which a language can be improved by the agreement to follow the conventions set out by a well-informed scholar, or body of scholars, who writes on that topic, even if most speakers of that language do not follow the rules set down for it. I take it that that sounds ridiculous to you and many others, but I think it is true nonetheless and I also think that I have good arguments for it.

I’ve been hesitant to write up the article I have in mind because I wasn’t sure I correctly understood the view that nearly all philosophers today seem to take for granted. This discussion has been very helpful in confirming that. Thank you for clarifying what seems so obvious to you. This is useful in getting me started.

Take care!

Jamie Dreier
Jamie Dreier
Reply to  Justin Kalef
13 days ago

Maybe some really good stylists could improve on actual grammatical rules. But it’s a confusion to think that means those improved rules are the actual grammatical rules. (This is the point of my Nigel Short story — Nigel thinks the rules of chess would be improved if stalemating your opponent was a win, but he’s not so confused as to think this means that stalemating your opponent is a win.)
I do agree that there’s a complication: there is a distinction between competence and performance, as Chomsky famously noted. So it’s not quite a matter of the sentences speakers actually produce and accept; it’s a bit more complicated than that, and it’s difficult to state exactly what ‘competence’ involves.
My favorite example is that sentences with more than two negations are very often misinterpreted by audience and speaker alike: “The Skilling indictment demonstrates in no uncertain terms that no executive is too prominent or too powerful and that no scheme to defraud is too complex or too fancy to avoid the long arm of the law.”

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Jamie Dreier
13 days ago

Well, you can of course keep *asserting* that “it’s a confusion to think” that any work to clarify and standardize the rules of a language should be taken as authoritative. But this is merely a constant restatement of the very claim that I dispute — that is, the claim that grammatical rules can be inferred directly from the practices of the majority of speakers of that language (give or take the small wrinkle you mention at the end of this comment).

If you have some _argument_ to present for this view, I’d certainly be interested to hear what it is. But if you think it’s just too obvious a thing to argue for, I’m quite happy to leave the discussion where it stands.

(By the way, I have a shorter example of the sort of thing you mention at the end, from my old professor Charles Morgan: “No head injury is too small to ignore.”)

Jamie Dreier
Jamie Dreier
Reply to  Justin Kalef
13 days ago

I see.
I was agreeing that someone (although not Henry Fowler) might come up with rules of grammar that are superior to the actual ones. I was pointing out that the fact that they’re superior doesn’t make them the rules of English grammar (any more than the fact, if it is one, that Nigel Short’s rule is an improvement makes it an actual rule of chess). I didn’t realize you were denying this.
So, to be clear, you think that when Henry Fowler, or William Strunk, published some claims about English grammar, they (a) were better than the actual grammar that people spoke and wrote, and (b) thereby became the rules of English grammar?

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Jamie Dreier
13 days ago

That’s not quite it, Jamie, but it’s moving in the right direction.

What I think is that, in law, chess, and grammar, what fixes the norms cannot be reduced to a mere observation of actual practice. At certain points, we all benefit from the ability to defer to some authority on the matter, who can set rules to co-ordinate things between us. That way, we can avoid difficulties in advance by following the rules; and if there is a dispute about the correct rule, we can refer to what the authority says on the matter.

However, the authority is constrained to a certain extent by current and past practice, and by the purposes of the institution in question (language, chess, driving on roads, etc.). The authority should also be receptive to reasoned criticism, but should not be overturned by the pressure of superior numbers of people who lack the background knowledge to come to decisions. (For instance, if some YouTuber persuades a large number of activists that raising the speed limit on residential streets to 120 miles per hour, and the activists trust the YouTuber on the basis of mere trust in the YouTuber’s authority, the speed limit should not be changed merely because of the number of people who would like it to be).

You ask, “So, to be clear, you think that when Henry Fowler, or William Strunk, published some claims about English grammar, they (a) were better than the actual grammar that people spoke and wrote, and (b) thereby became the rules of English grammar?”

I think the rules of grammar have changed a number of times in this sort of way. For instance, consider the adoption of apostrophes and quotation marks in recent centuries. I take those to be improvements in the precision and clarity of the language, and genuine changes in grammar. But it seems very unlikely to me that we could ever have reached the agreement we take for granted today on those matters if there had been no texts outlining their rules that students could all be taught from and others that older readers and writers could refer to as authoritative reference books. It is, I hold, the writing of these books, and our agreement to take them as authoritative, that has allowed the English language to become clearer and more precise.

There may have been all sorts of other ways of differentiating possessives from plurals, or from indicating when people are expressing their own thoughts and when they are simply quoting others. But if we just left it up to different people to try to popularize their different ways in their different localities and social groups, we English speakers would soon lose the ability to understand each other. And there are many people who are simply not careful in how they speak or think at all. So, yes, I do hold that many writers of dictionaries, style guides, books on grammar and usage, etc. have made improvements on how many people spoke before, and have played an indispensable role in improving grammar and usage.

Sometimes, these books clarified or reminded us of rules that already existed when they were written, but at other times they may establish rules for the first time, by standardizing things.

I also hold that it is possible for the mass of people to become more stupid and illiterate. For instance, if space aliens hit the planet with a ray that reduced everyone’s speech to simple grunts, making communication possible, but the next generation of people were able to speak properly and revived speaking and writing, it would be wrong for someone to complain that the dictionaries and grammar books people turn to are out of date on the grounds that the only word left in the English language is now “ugh.” People who point to the majority of people in English-speaking countries and said that what most of them are speaking must be English would be mistaken. What happened is that people lost the ability to speak properly for a generation. Radical relativism about language rules — a position I reject — leaves no room for the possibility that the majority of people are getting things wrong. I find that implausible as well as harmful.

Jamie Dreier
Jamie Dreier
Reply to  Justin Kalef
13 days ago

Well, as you suspected, I think this is so far wrong as to be not worth much more discussion. For one thing, you seem to think punctuation and vocabulary are parts of grammar. For another, you are still moving effortlessly from “we would benefit from X existing” to “X exists”, which only works if NeoPlatonism is true.

There are authorities of the relevant kind for chess and traffic ordinances, but there aren’t any for grammar, and the ones for chess and ordinances are authorities because the players and citizens defer to them, and not because they are wise and good (as FIDE, and the Providence City Council will witness–gosh, now I’m thinking Henry Fowler wasn’t so bad).

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Jamie Dreier
13 days ago

I don’t think that vocabulary is a part of grammar. I also am not moving from “We would benefit from X existing” to “X exists.” What I am saying is that, since we are all better off agreeing to an organized set of rules, we ought to agree to follow a coherent set of such rules and treat them as helping to determine correct and incorrect speaking and writing. It would certainly be surprising if that entailed neoPlatonism, but again you provide no argument whatsoever: you just scoff at me for being so far wrong and misguided that there can be no point discussing the matter.

Once again, you rely on mere assertion and re-assertion of your claim that there aren’t any authorities of the relevant kind for grammar. I know you think this, and I’ve explained why I think it’s incorrect. Why would you think that saying it yet again, after I’ve asked so many times whether you have any argument for this position, would be more persuasive?

I am still grateful for your participation in this exchange, since I reckon that you have probably thought more about this sort of question than the great majority of contemporary academics, all of whom seem to agree with you. But I have never heard any arguments for the position you all hold. I feel pretty confident that, if you had any arguments for the view, you would have provided them by now rather than continuing to just confidently state the view I take to be doubtful, over and over again.

This actually does tell me what I wanted to know, so thanks again.

grymes
grymes
Reply to  Justin Kalef
13 days ago

JD’s Nigel Short thing looks like an argument to me:

1) we ought to agree to follow a coherent set of grammatical rules (including that the singular “they” is ungrammatical, or whatever) and treat them as helping to determine correct and incorrect speaking and writing..

2) analogously, in chess, we ought to agree that stalemating is better than being stalemated, and treat that as helping to determine which (diachronic) configurations of pieces on the board count as a win.

3) but this normative truth (2) does not entail that stalemating is actually a win in chess games that aren’t operating according to Short’s house rules.

4) by analogy, normative truth (1) should not be taken to entail that the singular “they” is ungrammatical (or whatever) in language games that aren’t operating according to Kalef’s house rules.

Justin Kalef
Reply to  grymes
12 days ago

Grymes writes:

“JD’s Nigel Short thing looks like an argument to me:
1) we ought to agree to follow a coherent set of grammatical rules (including that the singular “they” is ungrammatical, or whatever) and treat them as helping to determine correct and incorrect speaking and writing.
2) analogously, in chess, we ought to agree that stalemating is better than being stalemated, and treat that as helping to determine which (diachronic) configurations of pieces on the board count as a win.
3) but this normative truth (2) does not entail that stalemating is actually a win in chess games that aren’t operating according to Short’s house rules.
4) by analogy, normative truth (1) should not be taken to entail that the singular “they” is ungrammatical (or whatever) in language games that aren’t operating according to Kalef’s house rules.”

I’m not sure that this is Jamie’s argument, since it seemed to me that he was relying on there being a significant difference between chess rules and grammatical rules. But whether or not this is what he means, I’m grateful to you for providing a clear argument to respond to.

It seems that the generalized conclusion of this argument is this: the mere fact that it would be better if some normative rule N were accepted as the correct rule is not sufficient for making N the correct rule.

I certainly agree with that conclusion, but — if it is indeed Jamie’s argument — it does not get to the heart of the issue at all. For again, I do not hold that just anyone’s assertion that some rule would be an improvement is by itself sufficient to make that rule a normatively binding rule. I do not even think that this is true in cases where the rule would be a clear and objective improvement over the existing rule. There is often good reason to make an improvement of some kind to the existing set of rules to achieve a certain end, and yet there could be hundreds or thousands of rules that would do the trick. It certainly does not follow from this that all those possible rules are normatively binding rules!

What I think does follow is that it would be good, in such cases, for one such rule to be accepted as normatively binding. But for this to work, there has to be widespread agreement on the new rule. For the reasons I already mentioned in this discussion, this means for one thing that players of the game, or speakers of the language, should work toward agreements on a set of rules that makes chess, or communication in English, clear, precise, efficient, etc. Where there is an overall need for some sort of change in the rules, they should help along such a change. But where a change is being made in practice that worsens the language overall, due to sloppiness or bad ideas or what have you, they should try to resist the change in the rules while it is still possible to do so.

The first — but certainly not the only! — question to ask in the Nigel Short case is whether the new rule he prefers (stalemate should be counted as a win for the stalemater) is an improvement. My own view is not, and that such a rule would make chess worse rather than better. There were discussions on the topic when Short made his proposal, and as I recall most people argued that there are good reasons for not changing the rule. But suppose instead that the game would in fact have been improved, overall, by the adoption of Short’s rule, and moreover that this could be shown clearly. In that case, chess players would have had a good reason to help promote a change in the chess rules. I don’t see any implicit appeal to Neoplatonism there.

In the case of ‘they’ being used in sentences like “My professor tried their best to learn our names” where (let’s say to make it simpler) there’s no reason to think that the professor wishes to be referred to by gender-nonbinary pronouns, I hold that there already is a rule that such usage of ‘they’ is incorrect, and I also hold that it would make the language worse overall if the rules were changed so that ‘they’ became acceptable (let alone preferred) as correct grammar. I have a number of reasons for thinking that. I therefore hold that there are good reasons for resisting the change of the rule toward allowing or requiring singular ‘they’ in that sort of context.

Unfortunately (as I see it), many people and bodies with the power to influence the way people speak are caving in to pressure to promote ‘they’ as grammatical in the sort of context I mentioned. And, since what determines the normatively binding rules of grammar is in part (but only in part) the practices of the speakers and writers in the language, and the way it is taught and the way the reference books are written, these people are at risk of worsening the language, as I see it. I therefore hold that I and others have good reason for resisting those changes before it is too late to preserve the norm against using ‘they’ in that kind of case, and many others.

One way in which the advocates of (to my mind bad) change on singular ‘they’ operate is, as I see it, to cherry pick instances throughout history of people using ‘they’ in the singular, and to use this as grounds for asserting that the taboo against singular ‘they’ is based on a historical fiction. But, I argue, these cherry-picked instances clearly do not represent a general practice among literate English speakers to use ‘they’ in the ways we are asked to permit it now. ‘The professor tried their best to learn our names’ would have been flagged as ungrammatical by a significant majority of literate speakers, writers, and teachers of English for hundreds of years. This fact is obscured by the dishonest habit of pointing to a well-worn set of carefully selected instances of Jane Austen, etc. using ‘they’ to refer back to ‘anyone’, ‘everyone’, etc., and a smattering of other singular ‘they’ cases that I hold to be extremely rare, and trying to pass this off as standard practice.

The other move that is being made at the same time, and this makes the matter more difficult to deal with, is the insistence that grammar and usage are either purely descriptive or else normative only in a sense that allows one to move immediately from a statement about majority practice to a statement about binding norms. Since ‘My professor tried their best…’ has never (I hold) been accepted as correct English by the majority of literate English speakers, this move actually tells against the permissibility of ‘they’ in that context for now. But the popularity of that view among the intelligentsia makes it harder to get anyone to speak up any longer about resisting the degradation of language, or even to say in public that language can be worsened. With the opposition hamstrung in this way, it is much easier to spread the confusing and multiply-ambiguous ‘they’ as standard practice with very little resistance. If this sort of pressure persists for long enough in the places it is being exerted, the practices of English speakers will eventually be worsened along this and many other lines, and that would be a bad thing. Therefore, it seems to be a good thing to do what one can to resist the pressure.

None of that is parallel with the Nigel Short case. Nigel Short knew that the rule he wanted to introduce would have been a new rule, and there were many good reasons for not adopting the rule he suggested. What I am advocating is not a new rule, but the preservation of an accepted rule. If Nigel Short were to try a sneaky move of pretending that stalemate has always been accepted as a win throughout history, and that it is only a few sticklers at the USDF and FIDE who managed to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes and make a stalemate count as a draw, then he would be doing what I see people as doing when they present “The professor tried their best” as the sort of sentence most English speakers over the past few centuries would accept as perfectly correct. I am far from endorsing that kind of move.

grymes
grymes
Reply to  Justin Kalef
12 days ago

Thanks, this all makes sense. But could you unpack why you think “there already is a rule that such usage of ‘they’ is incorrect”? It’s obviously not, on your view, because it “has never (I hold) been accepted as correct English by the majority of literate English speakers.” So what does make it the case that there’s already a rule?

My own impression of the history is that people didn’t think much at all about such usages until quite recently–and so hadn’t gone through your process of settling on a consensus rule one way or the other. Nowadays there’s a debate about which rule would be best. But I don’t see why we’d think there’s already a clear rule against the singular “they” (any more than we’d think there’s already a clear rule licensing it).

Justin Kalef
Reply to  grymes
12 days ago

Thanks for your reply, grymes.

I am saying that the great majority of literate speakers of English have, for centuries, seen sentences like “My professor tried their best to learn our names” as grammatically incorrect. One hears such things more often now, but I think that the great majority of English speakers today would still see it as wrong.

Moreover, I hold that for nearly all that time, singular ‘they’ (especially in such cases) has been taught as wrong in the reference books on correct English writing, and has been taught as wrong in classrooms and school textbooks. ‘They’ has been understood as a third person plural pronoun, while the third person singular pronouns are he, she, and it. This is how the language has been taught for centuries.

I know that many people feel that we should take a more permissive approach toward the use of ‘they’ as a non-gender-specific singular pronoun in all cases, and that some even feel that we should actively push for more people to change the language. I disagree: I feel that, on balance, there are stronger reasons for continuing to see singular ‘they’, in most if not all contexts, as incorrect. But I can see their reasons for arguing for the change.

But to say that singular ‘they’, especially in contexts like ‘My professor tried their best’, has been standard practice throughout the last few centuries of English is simply empirically false.

I’ll put money on this. We’ll have someone pick, at random, a hundred books or letters or articles written between 1700 and 2000, say, and find the first discussion of a specific person in each one (‘Mr. Francis’ or ‘my friend’ or ‘my cousin’ or what have you). Find the first instance of a personal pronoun used to describe each of these people. If most of the pronouns are ‘they’, ‘them’, or ‘their’, I lose the bet. If 99 or 100 use ‘he’, ‘him’, his’, ‘she’, ‘her,’ or ‘hers’, then I win.

Any takers?

grymes
grymes
Reply to  Justin Kalef
11 days ago

I suppose the onus on you (if you write that paper—you obviously don’t owe anyone anything in a comments thread) is twofold.

First, you’d need to produce actual evidence of the relevant kind of singular “they” being forbidden in grammar books (or other potentially authoritative documents). Note that (as I was insinuating in my last post) finding that these books merely declare that “he, she, and it” are singular pronouns whereas “they” is a plural pronoun will not suffice, since that declaration is consistent with a total lack of consideration of the kind of singular “they” now under dispute (and thus consistent with a lack of judgement on its grammaticality one way or the other, which is quite a different thing than a rule forbidding it).

Second, you’d need a convincing argument that the grammar books (or whatever) that you’re referencing actually have the normative power to set the constitutive rules of the English language. (By your own lights, mere majority usage is neither here nor there, so most of your latest comment seems totally besides the point.)

Anyway, thanks for the exchange. You’ve helped a fellow philosopher while away their Thursday.

Justin Kalef
Reply to  grymes
11 days ago

Sounds right to me. Thanks, grymes.

Jamie Dreier
Jamie Dreier
Reply to  Justin Kalef
12 days ago

 I also am not moving from “We would benefit from X existing” to “X exists.” What I am saying is that, since we are all better off agreeing to an organized set of rules, we ought to agree to follow a coherent set of such rules and treat them as helping to determine correct and incorrect speaking and writing. 

You are saying that we ought to agree to a set of rules.
But are you also saying that the fact that we ought to agree to a set of rules means that those rules, the ones we ought to agree to, are in fact the grammar of English?
That’s what I thought you were saying.

Just for the record: I think we’d speak and write a lot worse if we actually followed the rules laid out in Strunk and White. We’d write a lot better if we wrote the way E. B. White actually wrote. He didn’t follow his own rules, fortunately.

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Jamie Dreier
12 days ago

“You are saying that we ought to agree to a set of rules.
But are you also saying that the fact that we ought to agree to a set of rules means that those rules, the ones we ought to agree to, are in fact the grammar of English?
That’s what I thought you were saying.”

Compare: Jack is playing chess with Fred. Fred ‘castles’ by moving his king to b1 and his rook to c1. Jack objects that that is not a legitimate move: he says that, in castling queenside, White’s king must move to c1 and his rook must move to d1. He shows Fred where that rule is stated on the US Chess Federation website. Fred calls Jack an ignorant, closed-minded rube for thinking that the USCF is any authority on how people should play games of chess in private settings. He finds many examples of chess games, from long before the USCF was established, in which players castled in all sorts of ways. He accuses Jack of being taken in by foolish sticklers who are advancing “historically false” claims about chess rules.

Jack replies that, notwithstanding the somewhat anarchic landscape of chess rules many centuries ago, we are all better off having a clear set of rules and expectations in our chess games. It allows players from around the world, who might not even share a common language, to sit down and play a game of chess together. It makes room for much more precise calculation and fair play, if one doesn’t need to worry that others will have their own idiosyncratic understanding of the chess rules.

Jack therefore holds a meta-normative view that we ought to accept, as binding, a clear set of chess rules. He also holds that the rules that appear on the USCF site are authoritative, and that those rules should be taken as binding. He therefore holds that the rules on the USCF site are in fact the correct rules of chess.

Do you feel that Jack’s reasoning relies on some implicit assumption of Neoplatonism? If so, then why?

If your view is that this sort of reasoning is fine in the case of chess rules or traffic laws, but that such reasoning cannot work for grammar (or usage, punctuation, etc.), then, once again: do you have any argument for your view that the norms of correct language use must be radically different from the norms of chess, traffic laws, and so on? If so, could you please present that argument? If you don’t have any argument but just a conviction on the matter that you find so utterly compelling that you can’t even think of anything to say in support of it, I understand, but then there really does seem to be no way to move the discussion forward.

Jamie Dreier
Jamie Dreier
Reply to  Justin Kalef
11 days ago

I don’t get the analogy.
Chess is obviously different from English grammar in that chess does have a body that changes rules deliberately. But English doesn’t.
But the reason FIDE is an authority of the relevant kind is that chess players treat it as one. Do you agree with that? It’s not that chess is better when everyone follows FIDE rules. Things might go much better if everyone followed chess.com’s rules. But, they don’t follow them, they follow the FIDE rules, so that’s what makes FIDE the authority.
The NeoPlatonist view is that when it would be better to follow a certain central body, that makes it the case that their rules are the constitutive rules.

By the way, I think you have mischaracterized the actual debate. What Dan Bonevac actually said is that it is ungrammatical to use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun. That claim is in fact refuted by the historical record you write off as ‘cherry picking’. As A Grad Student pointed out, the determinate singular antecedents (as opposed to the ones that are more like quantifiers) basically never had ‘they’ as their anaphor (I’m not sure I’m putting that right, but you see what I mean). This is a completely fair point, but… Bonevac didn’t say that it’s ungrammatical to use ‘they’ with singular determinate antecedent. He said it’s ungrammatical to use it as a singular pronoun.
Obviously you are not responsible for what Bonevac said, but you aren’t characterizing the dispute correctly.

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Jamie Dreier
11 days ago

Hi again, Jamie.

First, the main point I’m making with the chess analogy is that there are many cases in which a number of people are better off agreeing to certain normative rules, and in those cases some person or body that can be taken as authoritative can be helpful in co-ordinating that agreement. Also, not all changes made to rules are positive. Some of them make things worse. We have good reason to promote positive changes and resist negative changes when we can help steer things one way or another.

The fact that FIDE has the power to adjudicate and co-ordinate chess tournaments makes it particularly good at co-ordinating agreement to norms, but that is not essential for what I am saying. Think of Hoyle’s book on card games, for instance.

Once again: what I am saying is that

1. There is already long-standing agreement (from significant and respected works on the proper speaking and writing of English, from textbooks on the subject used to teach children for centuries, from standard practice for many centuries, etc.) that ‘they’ is a plural pronoun. (That doesn’t imply that nobody ever used it as a singular pronoun, or in combination with quantifier-terms, any more than the general claim that adultery is wrong implies that nobody has ever committed adultery).

2. The popularization of ‘they’ as a singular pronoun for all cases violates the long-standing agreement and introduces confusion into the language, with a net negative effect.

3. Therefore, we have good reason to resist the widespread introduction of singular ‘they’ for this reason.

4. Moreover, much of the modern case for singular ‘they’ is based on historical distortions of actual linguistic practice, etc.

5. Therefore, we should continue to insist on the more traditional usage: ‘they’ is properly plural, while ‘he’, ‘she’, and ‘it’ are singular.

I don’t see where the ‘Neoplatonist’ move you mock me for is made there.

Second, you accuse me of mischaracterizing the dispute, on the grounds that “Bonevac didn’t say that it’s ungrammatical to use ‘they’ with singular determinate antecedent. He said it’s ungrammatical to use it as a singular pronoun.

All sorts of things were said in the discussion before I joined, and I was responding to some of the general claims other people made about grammar, not to Bonevac. Discussions sometimes shift their focus as they continue: it hardly seems far to accuse anyone who addresses the current state of play in the conversation of mischaracterizing the discussion if he is not aiming to represent what the original speaker said.

Still, let’s look at what Bonevac actually did say:

“First. I will not honor any student’s demands to be addressed by the singular pronoun “they”—regardless of whether those demands come from a biological man or a biological woman, and regardless of whether the person making those demands identifies with a gender that matches or departs from his biologically assigned sex. “They” is a plural pronoun, and it is ungrammatical to use a plural pronoun to refer to a single person.”

I leave aside here the questions of whether it is ethical, professional, or grammatically sound for Bonevac to announce such a policy. The question is, what is the most charitable reading here? That Bonevac is denying that it is legitimate to use ‘they’ in conjunction with ‘anyone’, ‘someone’, or ‘everyone’? Or that Bonevac is doing what you deny he is doing, and claiming that it is ungrammatical to use ‘they’ with singular determinate antecedent?

Bonevac makes clear from the first sentence here that his policy deals with cases in which a student demands to be referred to as ‘they’. In any such case, Bonevac’s student (singular, as he makes clear) will be known to Bonevac, so the student’s demand will indeed be for Bonevac to use ‘they’ with a singular determinate antecedent.

Again, this says nothing about whether Bonevac’s policy is acceptable. But it does seem to show that I am not the one who has mischaracterized it.

Jamie Dreier
Jamie Dreier
Reply to  Justin Kalef
11 days ago

I don’t see where the ‘Neoplatonist’ move you mock me for is made there. 

That’s because in your numbered list you haven’t yet reached the conclusion that singular ‘they’ is ungrammatical. Maybe we should insist on Nigel Short’s new stalemate rule; if we should, that doesn’t make it a rule of chess.
It’s the transition from “this should be a rule” to “this is a rule” that’s NeoPlatonist.

I agree, by the way, that the way you would like to interpret Bonevac is more charitable! Because that way he wouldn’t have said something so easily refuted by the well-known historical examples! I was just pointing out what he did, in fact, say, which is what a lot of people were responding to. But as I’ve repeated a couple of times now, I think “A Grad Student” made a good point about. historical usage.

grymes
grymes
Reply to  Justin Kalef
11 days ago

Just to reiterate my claim from above: the fact that “there is already long-standing agreement (from significant and respected works on the proper speaking and writing of English, from textbooks on the subject used to teach children for centuries, from standard practice for many centuries, etc.) that ‘they’ is a plural pronoun” does not imply that there is long-standing agreement that it can’t also grammaticality operate as a singular pronoun. Compare: the long-standing agreement that “you” is a singular pronoun is consistent with (a) countenancing the plural “you” as grammatical, (b) rejecting the plural “you” as ungrammatical, or (c) agnosticism about the grammaticality of the plural “you”.

So you need a stronger premise 1 (or else your claim in premise 2 about the violation of long-standing agreement is false). And I’m very curious there’s evidence for the suitably stronger premise. (I have no idea!)

grymes
grymes
Reply to  grymes
11 days ago

I should also mention, more plausible than explicit agnosticism in the case of the relevant singular “they”: “ain’t thought about it”

Justin Kalef
Reply to  grymes
11 days ago

All good points, grymes. I do think I have a good argument that handles the distinction with ‘you’, but I’ll save that for the article. I appreciate your constructive critical replies.

Jamie Dreier
Jamie Dreier
Reply to  Justin Kalef
11 days ago

Hm, I submitted a response but seems to have been lost or delayed.
Well, my main point was:

I don’t see where the ‘Neoplatonist’ move you mock me for is made there. 

That’s because in your numbered list you haven’t yet reached the conclusion that singular ‘they’ is ungrammatical. Maybe we should insist on Nigel Short’s new stalemate rule; if we should, that doesn’t make it a rule of chess.
It’s the transition from “this should be a rule” to “this is a rule” that’s NeoPlatonist.

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Jamie Dreier
11 days ago

“It’s the transition from ‘this should be a rule’ to ‘this is a rule that’s Neoplatonist.”

Well, that’s not an inference I made. It is already a rule. It should remain a rule. Those are two statements I endorse, but I’m not inferring the first from the second.

Jamie Dreier
Jamie Dreier
Reply to  Justin Kalef
11 days ago

Huh.
I thought you were saying something about what makes it a rule, and I thought that was supposed to have to do with whether we are better off with it.

So what were you saying, then — since you think this rule is a rule of grammar already, independent of whether it’s less confusing, independent of whether we have any reason at all to resist using ‘they’ as singular, independent of all the normative and evaluative considerations… what does make it a rule?

(Obviously you know my answer. I thought your answer was supposed to include all those normative and evaluative considerations.)

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Jamie Dreier
10 days ago

Again: what makes something a normative rule, as I see it, is a combination of several factors. The general acceptance of the practice as a rule is one factor, but it does not follow from this that every common practice is a normative rule.

In addition to this, there are what we might call meta-normative facts about rules: that is, evaluative facts about what makes certain rules better or worse than others.

I hold it to be a normative rule about English that singular ‘they’ is the wrong word to use to refer back to a singular, determinate antecedent. I also hold it to be a meta-normative fact that that rule is a good rule. I am therefore against changing that rule. Many people are now teaching that singular ‘they’ in that sort of context is correct, and are doing other things — sophistically and incorrectly, in my view — to promote the use of singular ‘they’ as the preferred all-purpose pronoun for those cases. As I mentioned above, I oppose this. It spreads confusion within and about the language. It is possible that, if the campaign to teach people to use singular ‘they’ keeps going on as it is at present, the conditions necessary for its continuing to be counter to the linguistic norms will no longer clearly hold. That’s why I hope that the campaign will not be successful.

I hope that finally makes it clear, Jamie: I’ve answered this point several times now.

Again, I’m satisfied that this conversation has run its course, if there’s nothing else.

Jamie Dreier
Jamie Dreier
Reply to  Justin Kalef
10 days ago

Well, you think you’ve answered it many times! I can’t tell what the answer is.
(I just want to note also that rules of grammar are constitutive rules – I’m not sure whether what you mean by ‘normative rules’ is supposed to be consistent with that.)

Again: what makes something a normative rule, as I see it, is a combination of several factors. The general acceptance of the practice as a rule is one factor, but it does not follow from this that every common practice is a normative rule. 

In addition to this, there are what we might call meta-normative facts about rules: that is, evaluative facts about what makes certain rules better or worse than others. 

In the second paragraph, are you stating one of the other factors, another necessary condition, that makes something a normative rule? Or are you saying that besides there being facts that make the rules, there are also evaluative facts about the rules?
Sometimes you seem to be saying that all those evaluative facts are part of what make certain rules the rules of English grammar. But then sometimes you seem to be denying this, and saying instead that besides whatever makes them the rules of grammar, they also have these good and bad features.
I’m pretty sure everybody agrees with the second thing. For example, I think it’s sad that English has lost the subjunctive. I wish we had it back.
But my view is that the descriptive facts alone determine what the grammar of English is. It sure seemed like you were disagreeing with this earlier, but maybe not.

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Jamie Dreier
10 days ago
  1. Jamie: “(I just want to note also that rules of grammar are constitutive rules – I’m not sure whether what you mean by ‘normative rules’ is supposed to be consistent with that.)

Until very recently, grammar was understood as something entailing normative rules — not as the narrow, purely descriptive enterprise that academics over the last few decades have taken it to be. Books called ‘grammars’, and the ‘grammar schools’ where they were taught, were intended to show people how to speak and write correctly. I’m using the term ‘grammar’ in that sense, not the narrow sense intended by recent academics.

If this parenthetical note of yours is just meant to indicate how you are using the term ‘grammar’, then point taken — I use the term in the more conventional sense. But if it is meant to do substantive work by implying that grammar, on either definition, is non-normative, then this is question-begging as it stands.

2. Jamie: “In the second paragraph, are you stating one of the other factors, another necessary condition, that makes something a normative rule? Or are you saying that besides there being facts that make the rules, there are also evaluative facts about the rules?”

The latter — that’s why I explicitly called them meta-normative facts about the rules. Rules can be good or bad. That’s what I’m talking about. I’m making the very simple claim that we should try to maintain a good set of rules, and not limit ourselves to merely endorsing whatever rules the majority of people happen to follow (or whatever rules certain intellectuals falsely and sophistically claim that the majority of people are following).

I have not provided, or attempted to provide, or claimed to provide, at any point in this discussion, a comprehensive explanation of what makes grammatical rules legitimate. I have merely said that what makes something a legitimate normative grammatical rule is not reducible, on my view, to a mere survey of current practice at the time, which was what you were implying.

I really don’t know how you came to think that my view entails that something becomes a rule merely because it is better than alternative rules. I hope you now understand that that is a straw man that has not helped the conversation at all, and that I think no such thing.

3. Jamie: “Sometimes you seem to be saying that all those evaluative facts are part of what make certain rules the rules of English grammar. But then sometimes you seem to be denying this, and saying instead that besides whatever makes them the rules of grammar, they also have these good and bad features.

Very crudely and somewhat tentatively, I would say that a (normative, legitimate) rule of English grammar should meet the following two conditions:

1. It is accepted as a rule by a sufficient number of capable English speakers, and

2. Agreement on the rule must promote clear communication.

The need for the second of those two things can be illustrated by the following reductio ad absurdum: if space aliens fried our brains so that we could only say ‘blurg blurg blurg’, it would not be false to say that all English grammar can be reduced to the rule that one should say ‘blurg’ at random times. The believer in radical descriptivism seems compelled to say otherwise, or to make intuitive claims about what constitutes a capable English-speaker that seem question-begging on the radical descriptivist account.

As you can see, on my view it does not follow from the mere fact that a way of speaking has become common that it is now a proper, normative rule of English grammar.

What happens if, say, people become careless in thinking and communication and decide to use ‘it’ for every pronoun of any kind? If enough people started doing that, communication would be significantly more difficult than it is now. Hence, Condition 2 would not be met. But if the use of ‘it’ for every pronoun became so widespread that, say, 99.99% of the population often spoke that way, and the ‘it for everything’ rule were taught in the schools everywhere, the clearer way we speak now would no longer meet Condition 1. The result, on the view I’m inclined to accept, is that at that point there would be no general grammatical rule on how to speak: one would have to choose between clear communication or conformity, and even those who tried to communicate clearly following the older rules would not be able to do so unless they could withdraw to a community of people who still follow the old rules (in which case the grammatical norms of today would still apply to their limited linguistic community, in a localized way). But for everyone else, there would no longer be a legitimate normative grammatical rule in place for such things.

It would be a bad thing if that were to happen. Hence, because such a change would be for the worse, those who care about language should fight to limit the spread of ‘it’ for every possible pronoun. What I just made there is a meta-normative cim about English: it’s a claim about what set of linguistic norms is good compared with some alternative.

But this Neoplatonic view you keep trying to saddle me with doesn’t follow at all from my view. For instance, let’s say that I devise some set S of possible linguistic norms that would be better in all ways than our existing norms. However, those norms are not accepted as a rule by enough competent English speakers, so Condition 1 is not met.

We might have good (meta-normative) reason to try to adjust the language so that it takes on those improvements, but the mere fact that they would be improvements does not make them the proper rules, nor does it follow that they will ever become proper rules. Certainly, if I devise those rules on my own and never communicate them to anyone else, so that nobody else has a chance of learning them, they would not be the correct rules.

T.J.
T.J.
Reply to  Justin Kalef
10 days ago

If aliens fried our brains so that we could only say “blurg, blurg, blurg” we wouldn’t be speaking English, so there would be no connection between our non-linguistic alien induced noises and English grammar.

Hardly an effective reductio.

Justin Kalef
Reply to  T.J.
10 days ago

Ah! Thanks — I can create a thought experiment to deal with that. Could be useful. I appreciate the stimulus.

Suppose that the space alien ray changes the brains of English speakers over a long period in the following way: on Day 1, everyone who speaks English begins to say ‘blurg’ instead of ‘the’. On each day after Day 1, the next-most popular word in the English language meets the same fate: those who previously spoke English say ‘blurg’ instead of that word. This continues until ‘blurg’ is substituted in for every word in the English language.

When these words are replaced by ‘blurg’, the former English speakers lose all ability to understand the previous word, whether spoken or written.

The English speakers mean different things each time they say ‘blurg’. But the instances of ‘blurg’ are all emphasized and pronounced the same way, and the spaces between the ‘blurgs’ are equal. Hence, people can only guess at what each other have said.

In this thought experiment, there is a smooth continuum between English as we speak it now and the blurg blurg blurg talk that it ultimately changes into.

Those who insist that correct usage, or the rules of grammar, for a language are purely a matter of whatever the speakers of that language happen to do, with no outside constraints, seem compelled to count every stage of language change in this thought experiment as an unimpeachable change within the English language. If at any point they want to say that the language is no longer correct English, they will have to have in mind some set of criteria, other than the mere popularity of a way of speaking, that is constitutively necessary for something to count as English — and this is just what the radical descriptivist denies, it seems.

Jamie Dreier
Jamie Dreier
Reply to  Justin Kalef
9 days ago

Until very recently, grammar was understood as something entailing normative rules — not as the narrow, purely descriptive enterprise that academics over the last few decades have taken it to be.

Well, in fact, it has been understood both ways, for centuries.
But just to be clear:
Are you denying that rules of grammar are constitutive rules?
Philosophers use ‘normative’ in all sorts of different ways. The contrast with ‘constitutive’ is ‘regulative’. Are you saying that rules of grammar are regulative, not constitutive?

Also, do you believe that native speakers of English learn English grammar from grammar books and teachers?

You certainly seem to be saying these things. I just want to be sure.
(Earlier you seemed to be okay with grammar comprising constitutive rules.)

I really don’t know how you came to think that my view entails that something becomes a rule merely because it is better than alternative rules.

Well, we were discussing what the rules of English grammar are, so I thought those things about which rules are better was supposed to be relevant. But now I see that even according to you, they are not irrelevant. So, we agree about that. What the rules of the grammar of a language are is one thing, and which rules are or might be better or worse is another thing. (I think H. L. A. Hart would be pleased.)

2. Agreement on the rule must promote clear communication.

Compared to what? Compared to some other rule you can imagine, or compared to having no rule, or compared to a rule some other speakers at some other time or place use? 

Your space aliens example seems to show that when a language changes enough, we no longer call it the same language. Your ‘blurg’ language isn’t English even though it emerges from gradual changes from English.
Everybody already knew this. We don’t speak Danish even though modern American English and Danish both emerged by very gradual changes from proto-Germanic. Italians don’t speak Latin. We don’t need space aliens to observe that languages change over time and when they’ve changed enough they no longer count as the same language.

Last edited 9 days ago by Jamie Dreier
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Jamie Dreier
8 days ago

Jamie, I have no doubt that, if you are either determined to see things in an uncharitable light or uninterested in considering a model of things quite different from your own, you can keep going like this forever. But I don’t find it helpful or illuminating, and I don’t imagine that anyone else here does, either. I’ll give this one more shot: there’s no need for you to reply if you have some aim other than trying to understand an alternative model.

Before you respond, if you do, please take a moment and ask yourself: are you capable of coming up with a more charitable reading of what I’ve written than the reading you’re about to choose to reply to? If so, could you please take the time to do a bit of the work yourself? It would save us an immense amount of time.

If your response to that is that you’re already just doing your very best to understand things and that this is the best you’re capable of doing, even after all the explanations I’ve had to give you, I just don’t buy it. You’re a very intelligent person. The charitable interpretations you’re routinely missing here are not hard to come up with. If you don’t feel like making an effort, could we please just drop it?

Here we go: a last opportunity, if you want it, to engage charitably with what I’m saying. I will do my best to make my meaning clear and answer your questions.

1. Justin: “Until very recently, grammar was understood as something entailing normative rules — not as the narrow, purely descriptive enterprise that academics over the last few decades have taken it to be.

Jamie: “Well, in fact, it has been understood both ways, for centuries.”

Good — then you have no grounds for not making room for normativity in grammar. If that’s right, then we agree to that extent.

> Jamie: 2. Are you denying that rules of grammar are constitutive rules?
Philosophers use ‘normative’ in all sorts of different ways. The contrast with ‘constitutive’ is ‘regulative’. Are you saying that rules of grammar are regulative, not constitutive?

I’ve also seen ‘constitutive’ and ‘regulative’ used in different ways. I prefer to stay with ‘normative’, by which I mean what I take to be the standard philosophical definition: having to do with what should be done or should not be done, etc. When I say that grammar entails normative rules, I’m saying that there are correct and incorrect ways of speaking, and that people can make ungrammatical statements. When I say that I am not a radical relativist about these grammatical norms, I mean that I do not thing that one cannot derive the norms of grammar from *nothing more than* the linguistic practices the people of a certain group happen to be following.

I hope that makes it clear. If there’s anything you find important in your questions about the regulative and constitutive that cannot be learned from what I have just said, you are welcome to ask me plainly in simple terms what you mean, and I will tell you.

3. Jamie: “Also, do you believe that native speakers of English learn English grammar from grammar books and teachers?”

Not in the extreme, straw man sense you seem to be intending. But I do believe that, through being taught grammar in schools and by their parents, many native speakers of English learn to speak, write, listen and read more precisely than they otherwise could have. I also believe that many people refer, and have referred, to books on grammar to help them determine the correct way to say or write things. I believe also that things native (and non-native) speakers learn through these means help to shape and preserve the language, indirectly making communication easier among people who may not have received that instruction or read those books directly.

4. Jamie: “Well, we were discussing what the rules of English grammar are, so I thought those things about which rules are better was supposed to be relevant. But now I see that even according to you, they are not irrelevant.

My position is that they are relevant.

I will say this once more: please do take the time to get my position right if you think this is a conversation worth continuing. I will put it as plainly as I can.

My view is that some actual or possible changes to the English language could make the grammar better or worse.

Since (as I have explained many times now) I hold that the widespread acceptance of a general rule among competent speakers of a language is necessary but not sufficient for that rule to be grammatically correct, I hold that not every possible change in the actual grammatic practices of the language would change the legitimate grammatical norms.

Whether a proposed or increasingly popular change in linguistic practice constitutes a change in whether something is grammatically correct depends in part, therefore, on whether it meets other criteria (like the criterion of making or keeping things clear). Hence, whether a new grammatical practice is better or worse in this respect is relevant to whether the new practice is correctly grammatical.

However, since the widespread acceptance of the rule is a necessary (but again, not sufficient) condition, it is clearly not the case, on my view, that the mere fact that a practice would be improvement makes it the correct grammatical rule.

5. Justin: “Agreement on the rule must promote clear communication.”

Jamie: “Compared to what? Compared to some other rule you can imagine, or compared to having no rule, or compared to a rule some other speakers at some other time or place use?”

Compared to having no rule on the matter.

6. Jamie: “Your space aliens example seems to show that when a language changes enough, we no longer call it the same language. Your ‘blurg’ language isn’t English even though it emerges from gradual changes from English.
Everybody already knew this. We don’t speak Danish even though modern American English and Danish both emerged by very gradual changes from proto-Germanic. Italians don’t speak Latin. We don’t need space aliens to observe that languages change over time and when they’ve changed enough they no longer count as the same language.”

Excellent. Then you agree, it seems, that there are constraints on what can count as speaking English correctly, and that those constraints would be violated if all the people who currently were to speak English were instead to start speaking what we now call Danish or proto-Germanic, even if the English-speakers saw the change as merely a way in which English was evolving. If you disagree, please clarify.

Assuming that you agree with this, as it seems you do: it follows that you also agree with me, now at least, that one cannot derive the norms of a language’s grammar merely by observing actual practice and calling all of it correct automatically. For if one could do that, then, contrary to what you seem to be saying now, we would still be speaking English if we gradually shifted into Danish or blurg blurg.

In other words, it seems now that it is possible to rightly say, in some cases, “A large number of English speakers take this to be a correct way of speaking English, but they are mistaken.” Conjugating verbs according to a Danish paradigm, or using French word-ordering practices, for instance, would seem to qualify. If you don’t like those examples, I presume you have some others in mind.

Now, here’s the big question: what exactly do you think it is that makes those constraints on proper English — whatever you think those constraints are — binding and decisive, while ‘they’ in a phrase like “My professor tried their best” is not in violation of one of those constraints?

If your answer is that the only constraint is the contingent fact that Danish conjugations and blurg-talk does not yet happen to have been used extensively by people who were once English speakers and see themselves as continuing to speak English, then that would imply that, if these were to become common practices, they would be correct English after all. Is that what you want to say?

If not, then what are you relying on to determine whether some method of speaking uses correct English grammar, please?

Jamie Dreier
Jamie Dreier
Reply to  Justin Kalef
6 days ago

I see.
Well, right, it’s possible that the problem is that I am very uncharitable. And possible that, as you said, others who disagree with you about the evidence are being ‘dishonest’. There might also be a different explanation. Probably the best thing is just to leave readers to decide for themselves.

I will continue to use the constitutive/regulative distinction. If you’re interested, you could look at Rawls, Searle, Hart, or Raz, for some of the classic employments. I’m not aware of other philosophers using it differently.
‘Normative’, by contrast, has no consistent definition in philosophy.

When I say that grammar entails normative rules, I’m saying that there are correct and incorrect ways of speaking, and that people can make ungrammatical statements.

Okay. In that case, every descriptivist about grammar agrees that grammar entails normative rules. So that appears to be a particularly useless notion in this context. Whenever there are constitutive rules for doing A, there are correct and incorrect ways of doing A. Taking a penalty kick. Registering your car. Dancing the waltz. Absent these rules, it’s not that there would be lots of people doing those things wrong. It’s rather that there would be no such thing as doing them at all. The same is true of the grammar of English.

So, besides what descriptivists think, you said there is the following necessary condition on grammar rules:

Agreement on the rule must promote clear communication.

I asked: compared to what? And you say,

Compared to having no rule on the matter.

So then either the rule that says that ‘they’ is sometimes singular is actually worse than having no rules at all governing (the number of?) ‘they’, or else singular ‘they’ satisfies your condition. It seems very obvious that the first disjunct is false, but maybe you think it’s true.

Now to your thought experiment.

Then you agree, it seems, that there are constraints on what can count as speaking English correctly, and that those constraints would be violated if all the people who currently were to speak English were instead to start speaking what we now call Danish or proto-Germanic, even if the English-speakers saw the change as merely a way in which English was evolving. If you disagree, please clarify.

Well, that is a very odd way of putting it, but I suppose it is true. If everyone who speaks English were to speak Danish instead, we would not be speaking English, a fortiori we would not be speaking English correctly. You’d have to fill in the thing about those speakers thinking the change was a way in which English was evolving. I gather you mean the change to happen very gradually, over maybe a thousand years?

Assuming that you agree with this, as it seems you do: it follows that you also agree with me, now at least, that one cannot derive the norms of a language’s grammar merely by observing actual practice and calling all of it correct automatically. For if one could do that, then, contrary to what you seem to be saying now, we would still be speaking English if we gradually shifted into Danish or blurg blurg.

It obviously does not follow.

I think you have it backwards. It follows from descriptivism that when we all use and accept new rules of grammar, we speak a new language. The rules of grammar are constitutive rules, and the rules that describe the competence and practice of the speakers are their grammar. In your example people follow new rules of grammar, so far from it following that they still speak English, it follows that they do not.

We don’t need a fictitious example, of course: a thousand years ago the inhabitants of the British Isles spoke Old English, but over time their descendants modified their language and they no longer speak Old English, as you have perhaps noticed. Were you thinking that descriptivism somehow implies that Tim Williamson speaks Old English?

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Jamie Dreier
5 days ago

Thanks for your reply, Jamie.

No, I don’t think that descriptivism about grammar somehow implies that Tim Williamson speaks Old English. I wasn’t speaking there of what follows from descriptivism in general, but rather of what seems to follow from a number of other things you said in response to my questions.

Radical descriptivism about English grammar seems to be consistent with any number of views about language change. A radical descriptivist might hold that there are certain rules of grammar, spelling, usage, and punctuation that are fixed for all time as constitutive of English, such that any changes in the rules turn the language into something that is not English. Or, a radical descriptivist might take a view at the other, relativistic extreme, and say that after any single change in word order, morphology, vocabulary, etc., the language is still the same one it was before the change: it’s just that there has been a change within the language.

On the former view, where all the rules of the language are constitutive ones and cannot be altered without changing English to non-English, it follows that changing the norms so that the sentence “My professor tried their best” is grammatically legitimate is a way of changing English into something else. In that case, it would be fair for anyone to say that that sentence is not correct English. That is, if I’m not mistaken, exactly what you deny, so you don’t seem to be that kind of descriptivist.

On the latter view, where any individual change in English grammar or vocabulary must be seen as a mere change within English, it follows that the gradual change from proto-English to English did not give rise to a new language, and that the same is true of a gradual change from the way we speak today to the blurg blurg talk in the thought experiment, with one word being changed at a time. But you also denied that that is the case.

Therefore, since you say that you are a descriptivist, it seems that your position must lie somewhere between the two extremes: you must hold an account that is liberal enough to allow for a change that would come to permit a sentence like “My professor tried their best” as perfectly grammatical, but would not allow the incremental shifts down the road to blurg blurg.

My question is how you differentiate between aspects of the language that you feel can legitimately be changed (like ‘he’ or ‘he or she’ to ‘they’) from the aspects of the language that you feel cannot legitimately be changed (like ‘blurg’ for a certain word, and then for another word the next day), without turning English into non-English.

Your answer so far seems to be, “Any change may be made to the English language without changing it to another language, so long as the change does not affect any of the constitutive rules of the English language.”

But that only gives a name to the problem without solving it. What exactly is it, on your view, that makes a change from ‘the’ to ‘blurg’, or a collapsing of every single pronoun into ‘they’, a violation of a constitutive rule, while permitting the use of ‘they’ in ‘My professor tried their best’ only violates a non-constitutive rule?

Jamie Dreier
Jamie Dreier
Reply to  Justin Kalef
5 days ago

You are asking me for the identity conditions for English, or maybe for languages generally. I have no view about this (although, dyed in the wool metaethicist that I am, I have a metaview.)
We all call Danish a different language from English. Nobody calls Elizabethan English a different language from ours. But everyone thinks proto-Germanic is distinct from contemporary English. I suppose most people would say West Saxon is a different language from ours. (It is a dialect of Old English, and it had three genders, and we all know for certain that the most important feature of languages is pronoun genders!) But where in that continuum you first had ‘the same language’ as we speak today… isn’t that just an arbitrary line to draw? (A tempting criterion for ‘same language’ would be mutual intelligibility. But philosophers know better: mutual intelligibility is not transitive; therefore it is not an equivalence relation; therefore it cannot be the criterion for ‘same language’.)
As far as I can tell, this has nothing whatsoever to do with descriptivism or prescriptivism, so it smells like a red herring. It’s the problem of giving identity conditions for a language in terms of its grammar rules and lexicon. Whatever the true view is about that, if there is a true view, it’s completely neutral between views about what makes certain rules the grammar rules for speakers in some given population.

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Jamie Dreier
5 days ago

But this is exactly at the core of the issue I’m raising, Jamie. I really wish it were easier for me to get across to you what the whole trouble is. I’ll keep trying to clarify.

As I understand you, Jamie, you hold the following claims:

Jamie1: A change in English grammar that would make a phrase like “My professor tried their best” accepted usage, where it would previously have been rejected as incorrect by more or less all English speakers, would not be incorrect English, on the grounds that language change can accommodate those sorts of changes.

Jamie2: If people gradually started to use the word ‘they’ in place of more and more pronouns, with the end result that ‘they’ is used for every single pronoun after enough changes, the speakers would no longer be speaking in something that could be called (at that point) correct English grammar.

At least, I think you accept Jamie 2. If you disagree and would still count that as correct English grammar for that time, then I don’t understand how you could hold that the blurg blurg language would no longer be correct English.

I understand that you hold that there are certain essential rules that constitute correct English grammar, usage, etc., and that for you it’s all a question of which rules are the constitutive ones. But you seem to hold that the rule that forbids the use of ‘their’ in “My professor tried their best” is not one of those rules. And my question is: why isn’t it? What is your criterion, exactly?

Or perhaps you simply deny that there is now, or has ever been, any rule forbidding the use of ‘their’ in “My professor tried their best.” In that case, again, I’d like to understand why you deny it. It seemed before that you agreed that most English speakers over the past few centuries or decades, and I think most English speakers even today, would consider that wrong. So if you deny that there is a rule against it, then it’s hard to see why your view is the descriptive one you say it is.

Please note that I am not trying to get in some sort of cheap shot against you. I am not saying that your view is incoherent or laughable or anything like that. I am simply asking you to explain what that view is — I am asking what set of criteria you are using to distinguish changes within English at different times from changes that stop the language from being English because it violates what you take to be the constitutive rules of the language.

If your response is just to throw up your hands and say that you don’t have a theory of what makes a rule of English grammar a constitutive rule, then I’d like to understand how you can be so sure that a change that would permit “My professor tried their best” does not violate such a constitutive rule, which I take it that you’ve been stressing.

And all this, as I hope you can see, is crucial for assessing the claim that Bonevac’s invoked rule against singular ‘they’, in the sorts of contexts he specifies, is not a genuine rule now or at any point in the history of English. That was, as I understand it, what you asserted earlier, and what started this whole exchange between you and me. I’m trying to understand your grounds for making that accusation.

So, if you please: do you have any criteria for asserting that promoting the acceptance of ‘their’ in “My professor tried their best” would be perfectly legitimate within English grammar, while also maintaining that other changes would not be permitted? And could you please say what those criteria are or, if you can’t really spell them out, could you please explain how you feel so confident (if you still do) that Bonevac’s claim invokes a rule that is now, and always has been, nonexistent (as opposed to all the rules you think are constitutive of English grammar)?

Thank you.

Jamie Dreier
Jamie Dreier
Reply to  Justin Kalef
5 days ago

I have no view about what you called “Jamie2”.

I don’t understand how you could hold that the blurg blurg language would no longer be correct English.

I thought I’d made this clear. A vast number of innovations changing some enormous proportion of the structure of a grammar clearly make for a different language. One very small minor change, like changing the number of a pronoun, or whether ‘anymore’ has to be negative polarity, clearly doesn’t. (I wonder whether you think agree about both of these. They seem patently obvious as remarks about how we ordinarily individuate languages. But they also seem beside the point, since exactly the same question arises for prescriptivism as for descriptivism.) Precisely where to draw the line in between those extremes, I have no idea – it strikes me as one of those questions about vague boundaries that have no determinate answer.

Or perhaps you simply deny that there is now, or has ever been, any rule forbidding the use of ‘their’ in “My professor tried their best.”

I think it’s misleading to say that grammar rules ‘forbid’ things. (Probably I learned this from Hart – he points out that the Statute of Wills doesn’t forbid making a will without witnesses; it rather enables us to make wills, but only when its conditions are met.) In English grammar of, say, 1800, I agree that was probably ungrammatical – at least I would be very surprised to see it in formal published writing. But the grammar has changed, and in today’s English it’s grammatical. If someone wanted to insist that we thereby speak a different language today, I’d think that sounded odd but nothing interesting or substantial turns on it.

But you seem to hold that the rule that forbids the use of ‘their’ in “My professor tried their best” is not one of those rules. And my question is: why isn’t it? What is your criterion, exactly?

It’s in the competence of English speakers. (I assume this is what you suspected I would say.)

But what does this have to do with the question of when a great heap of changes in a grammar makes the language officially a new language? As far as I can tell, nothing. [Heap. Get it?]
Can you tell me at what point between 900 AD and today the people of the British Isles first spoke English? If you think West Saxon is English, then go back further: when did people stop speaking West Germanic and start speaking English? If there is an answer to this question, how could it possibly have anything to do with whether prescriptivism or descriptivism is true?
I also wonder whether you think any rules are determined descriptively and constitute some practice. What about chess pre-FIDE? Chaturanga is widely acknowledged to be the ancestor of contemporary chess. It had different winning conditions, and the queens and bishops (elephants!) moved differently, for instance. It spread to Persia, the Arab world, east Asia. Since chaturanga is not chess, I guess there must have been some point at which it became chess. Isn’t it arbitrary to insist on some specific point at which the game became chess? Surely the right thing to say is: it changed very gradually from chaturanga to chess, and it doesn’t matter which versions we call ‘chess’. 

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Jamie Dreier
5 days ago

Thanks very much, Jamie. This really moves the discussion forward, I think.

You seem to suspect that I was asking you these questions to set up a kind of ‘Gotcha!’. But I wasn’t: I just wanted to you to clarify some things you were saying before.

From what you’ve said now, it’s clear (correct me if I’m wrong) that you hold these two things:

(1) You hold that English grammar changes through history (you say in this last comment, “the grammar has changed.”)

(2) You hold that the criterion that makes something count as English grammar is simple: if a certain percentage(?) of English speakers counts something as grammatically acceptable in English, and uses it in speaking English, then it’s grammatically correct English at that time. Otherwise, it’s incorrect English grammar at that time (or perhaps you’d like to say that it’s not English at all, since you hold that the grammatical rules at a given time constitutively define what it is to be a sentence in the English language at all).

Now that that’s been clarified, I can set out my two challenges to what you said about Bonevac.

It would be one thing to say that Bonevac has a duty of morality, etiquette, or professionalism to put aside questions of grammar and just use the pronoun ‘they’ if a student requests it. But you said something else: you said, as I recall, that Bonevac is relying on a rule that is not a true rule of English grammar now and was not one at any point in the past.

If (2) is correct, then the question of whether Bonevac’s alleged grammatical rule against ‘they’ in reference to a determinate person is a true rule depends entirely on whether ‘they’, ‘their’ and ‘them’ were regularly used to refer to singular determinate people at various points in the past, or today, by the majority (or whatever) of English speakers. So the normative question (or, if you prefer, the constitutive question) then depends on that empirical question. But it seems that that empirical question is false: most fluent English speakers would, I hold, hold that that way of speaking is incorrect today, and (I hold) they certainly would have held it to be wrong twenty-five years ago, fifty years ago, a hundred years ago, two hundred years ago, and three hundred years ago.

Do you disagree with these empirical claims, which your claim against Bonevac now seems to depend on?

Separately, if (1) is correct and English grammar changes over time, we just need an extra premise that I think you might be inclined to accept — the premise that changes in grammar can make the language better or worse qua language — to support the conclusion that some changes are for the good and some are for the bad. And from that, it seems that we might sometimes have very good reason to resist some changes in grammar while promoting others, since we are all invested in the virtues of our language. Do you disagree?

Jamie Dreier
Jamie Dreier
Reply to  Justin Kalef
4 days ago

(2) You hold that the criterion that makes something count as English grammar is simple: if a certain percentage(?) of English speakers counts something as grammatically acceptable in English, and uses it in speaking English, then it’s grammatically correct English at that time. Otherwise, it’s incorrect English grammar at that time (or perhaps you’d like to say that it’s not English at all, since you hold that the grammatical rules at a given time constitutively define what it is to be a sentence in the English language at all).

Pretty much. 
I think it’s a bit messier than that – there are dialects of English, at any given time, and they will have different grammar rules. This is obvious and probably you meant to include it but didn’t want to be long-winded, but I’m just tacking it on to be more precise. (There are also chess variants extant at the same time, and it seems okay to call them all ‘chess’, although probably some people say ‘oh that’s not chess’.)

you said, as I recall, that Bonevac is relying on a rule that is not a true rule of English grammar now and was not one at any point in the past.

I said that his claim that ‘they’ is only plural has not been true for centuries. As you well know, I agree with A Grad Student (and, I think, with you) that it was probably not grammatical to use singular ‘they’ with known and definite antecedent, in 1800. We’ve been over this several times.
Since it has become quite difficult to search this page, I’ll recount a few of the times I’ve said it.

  1. I said in reply to A Grad Student:
  • I think you’re right about the history, and also I think the possessive ‘their’ in your example is significant — that’s much more common in the nineteenth century than singular ‘them’ or ‘they’.

2.     Later, I said,

  • As A Grad Student pointed out, the determinate singular antecedents (as opposed to the ones that are more like quantifiers) basically never had ‘they’ as their anaphor (I’m not sure I’m putting that right, but you see what I mean). This is a completely fair point

3.     Then later again I said:

  • But as I’ve repeated a couple of times now, I think “A Grad Student” made a good point about historical usage.

You say:

But it seems that that empirical question is false: most fluent English speakers would, I hold, hold that that way of speaking is incorrect today, and (I hold) they certainly would have held it to be wrong twenty-five years ago, fifty years ago, a hundred years ago, two hundred years ago, and three hundred years ago.

Well, it is an empirical question, at least we agree about that! I doubt that most fluent English speakers take the determinate singular ‘they’ to be ungrammatical. As I said earlier, I believe most self-styled sticklers disapprove of it in formal writing, but it’s pretty close – lots find it acceptable. (There is not a lot of empirical evidence about this available, but there is some!)

Separately, if (1) is correct and English grammar changes over time, we just need an extra premise that I think you might be inclined to accept — the premise that changes in grammar can make the language better or worse qua language — to support the conclusion that some changes are for the good and some are for the bad. And from that, it seems that we might sometimes have very good reason to resist some changes in grammar while promoting others, since we are all invested in the virtues of our language. Do you disagree?

I agree with the first thing. As I said above:
 

  • Some changes are, of course, for the worse. It’s entirely possible that our language was better when ‘you’ was only plural

And then later:

  • I think we’d speak and write a lot worse if we actually followed the rules laid out in Strunk and White. We’d write a lot better if we wrote the way E. B. White actually wrote. 

 
 
And I mentioned also that I find it sad that English has basically lost the subjunctive…  but ‘correcting’ people for failing to use it when it’s called for (e.g., if you said “It is crucial that Julian is available for this meeting,” and I told you, “No, it is crucial that Julian be available for this meeting”) seems pointless. So I am skeptical about your second claim; I suspect that resistance is futile. We are doomed to speak without the expressive power of the subjunctive. 

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Jamie Dreier
3 days ago

Excellent, Jamie. We seem to have moved beyond talking past one another and onto the source of our disagreement as relates to the grammatical question in the Bonevac case. I very much appreciate your taking the time to consider what I wrote and write this thoughtful reply.

One of the things this comes down to now is the empirical question of how fluent, literate speakers of English would have thought about ‘they’ in a context like “My professor tried their best”, both now and at various times in the past. My own view is that the vast majority — not just sticklers — between (say) 1700 and 1995, say, would have seen that as clearly ungrammatical. If you or others disagree, I still offer my bet from earlier: let’s somehow select random sentences from that extended period until we get a hundred with a determinate singular subject, and count how many of those sentences use they/them/their to refer to that subject. If it’s 2 or more out of 100, I lose; otherwise, I win. Even at those odds, I feel that I’d make a killing on that bet. Do you disagree?

Over the last two or three decades, there has been increasing pressure from linguists and dictionary editors, among others to promote the use of singular ‘they’, including in style sheets and textbooks. Because of that pressure, I agree that the younger generation is more likely to think that singular ‘they’ is perfectly fine in those contexts. However, I suspect that even there, a majority of English speakers today would find it wrong, just because so many English speakers alive today are older or did not come under that influence for some other reason.

So much for the empirical, linguistic part of our disagreement. If I am right on those empirical points, then even on your descriptivist view of grammar, Bonevac does not seem wrong today, and certainly not histrically wrong, to say that there is a taboo against using ‘they’ in that sort of context. Again, that is not meant to say anything about whether there are more powerful non-grammatical reasons that outweigh the grammatical ones.

There’s also something non-empirical going on here, though: it’s a kind of defeatism I’ve seen in many places about resisting changes in linguistic practices. For instance, you close by saying, “We are doomed to speak without the expressive power of the subjunctive.

The trouble is that these pronouncements of doom are apt to be self-fulfilling prophecies, especially in an intellectual environment in which faith in radical linguistic descriptivism is worn as a badge of elite status, and any attempt to resist change risks labeling one as hide-bound, un-hip, ignorant, etc.

I feel that the lovers of change and the enemies of change both have an important role to play in keeping the language strong. The trouble is that one-sided political pressures have overrun the intelligentsia, so that more or less everyone remaining is applying pressure on one side, and is inclined to do that even before considering the details of the case. The instant anyone laments any kind of change and proposes resisting it in any way, the knee-jerk reaction is to call those people sticklers and laugh at them for thinking that they can hold back the tides of history, etc. But there’s often much more to think about.

Take your example of the loss of the subjunctive, for instance. I agree that it would be good to preserve it: it’s a distinction that adds clarity to our conversations and makes precise thinking easier. Is it a lost cause? Well, if everyone notices that people aren’t using the subjunctive as much any longer, one reaction is to make more of an effort to teach and promote the subjunctive. The trouble is that people are uninclined to do so if speaking in favor of preserving anything gets you stigmatized as uncool, etc. So the attitude itself creates a problem. At the same time, proud and radical descriptivists make everyone wary of putting such things in textbooks, or requiring students to learn them for exams, given how ubiquitous the view has become among social elites.

I don’t at all think that the subjunctive view is dead and gone. I think it would make perfect sense to me for someone who cares about it, like you, to keep using it, even if it might be inappropriate for you to correct others for not using it consistently. Those of us who want to read the work of careful philosophers and other thinkers from the past who used the subjunctive mood would do well to pay attention to it. It would also strike me as reasonable if you insisted on it with students in your advanced philosophy courses, say, to prepare them to read and contribute thoughtfully to conversations where modal considerations can be hard to follow but require our most careful attention. It also seems to me that preserving the distinction grammatically in a serious philosophical or academic context is worth the effort.

So even if there are signs that the grammatical practices of a linguistic community are moving in a given direction, I think there is plenty of room for people to attempt widespread preventative action, or to continue to do in their own speech what is becoming generally less popular, or to make an effort to bring back distinctions that are nearly gone or even extinct. Also, the remarkably one-sided pressure nowadays makes me take predictions of unavoidable change with a grain of salt.

On top of all that, I think it matters how people go about trying to preserve the linguistic features they care about. For instance, perhaps most people would, as you say, react unfavorably if you corrected them for saying, “It is imperative that Sam is free on Monday” rather than “… that Sam be free.” But I don’t think it follows from that that there would be anything wrong if you made a point, in your own speech and writing, of using the subjunctive mood and marking it with the standard verb forms. Also, correcting people in certain contexts — in your capacity as philosophy teacher, say, or as an editor or proofreader — seems fine to me. Why should those who see the benefits of the subjunctive mood needlessly tie their hands with needless taboos and gloomy prognostications?

I think these same considerations may apply in the Bonevac case, again leaving aside the possibility that he may have overwhelming non-grammatical reasons for using the pronouns some of his students request. To discreetly follow a linguistic practice one cares to preserve is milder than doing so with an announcement, which in turn is milder than correcting students who use singular ‘they’ in the contexts we’re talking about, which in turn is milder than condemning peers for doing so.

Instead of thinking of you correcting your peers, or random lay people, for failing to use the subjunctive, what would you think about a case in which you continue to use it, and someone else ‘corrects’ you for using ‘be’ in “It is imperative that Sam be free”? That would strike me as going too far. The subjunctive may be on the way out, but that doesn’t justify someone calling you out for using it. And insofar as we are talking about the grammar of the thing and nothing else, I feel the same thing might go for Bonevac’s insistence on using singular ‘they’: calling him out as grammatically wrong for his stated rule feels to me somewhat similar to calling someone out for using ‘be’ in the subjunctive.

Jamie Dreier
Jamie Dreier
Reply to  Justin Kalef
3 days ago

Even at those odds, I feel that I’d make a killing on that bet. Do you disagree?

In the comment you’re responding to, I pointed out that I had repeated several times that singular ‘they’ with determinate antecedent was probably not grammatical hundreds of years ago. So why is it that you want to bet with me?

Over the last two or three decades, there has been increasing pressure from linguists and dictionary editors, among othersto promote the use of singular ‘they’, including in style sheets and textbooks. 

You’ve got something backwards. Linguists and dictionary editors record actual usage. Only prescriptivists pressure people to accept rules of grammar.

At the same time, proud and radical descriptivists make everyone wary of putting such things in textbooks, or requiring students to learn them for exams, given how ubiquitous the view has become among social elites.

Descriptivist books tell you how the subjunctive works, so that’s where someone has to go if they want to learn how it works. These books also note that it is dying out in English. They don’t tell anybody what to do; that’s why they’re called ‘descriptivists’.

Maybe I don’t know what ‘textbooks’ you mean. Are there prescriptivists writing useful textbooks, e.g. explaining the use of the subjunctive in English? I think you’ll have to consult the Cambridge Grammar, or maybe a book that teaches ESL

The subjunctive may be on the way out, but that doesn’t justify someone calling you out for using it. And insofar as we are talking about the grammar of the thing and nothing else, I feel the same thing might go for Bonevac’s insistence on using singular ‘they’: calling him out as grammatically wrong for his stated rule feels to me somewhat similar to calling someone out for using ‘be’ in the subjunctive.

Oh, right. It’s a bit awkward and it can sound anachronistic a lot of the time, but even then subjunctive in English is quaint rather than bizarre or ungrammatical. It’s also often hard to understand – when Ray Charles sings his very famous rendition of ‘America the Beautiful’, he sings all the lyrics exactly as written, except he changes the one subjunctive verb, the ‘shed’ in “God shed his grace on thee,” to his own vernacular, even while leaving in the ‘thee’. Ray didn’t recognize the grammar. I bet most people don’t.

Anyway, what Bonavac said was that he won’t use singular ‘they’ because it’s ungrammatical. He didn’t say he won’t use it because it’s inelegant, ungraceful, etc. And it doesn’t make a lot of sense for anyone to tell him that his own usage is ungrammatical. His mistake is in asserting that other people’s usage is ungrammatical. (Although like you I am refraining from comment on whether he has also made other mistakes than grammatical ones!)

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Jamie Dreier
3 days ago

Justin: “Even at those odds, I feel that I’d make a killing on that bet. Do you disagree?

Jamie: “In the comment you’re responding to, I pointed out that I had repeated several times that singular ‘they’ with determinate antecedent was probably not grammatical hundreds of years ago. So why is it that you want to bet with me?

I recognize that you have admitted on many occasions in this exchange of ours that using ‘they’ in the singular in the “My professor tried their best” sort of context would have been seen as incorrect by most competent English speakers for hundreds of years. And I’m glad! But haven’t you also been saying that Bonevac is wrong not only today but historically to claim that there is a rule against using singular ‘they’ in such cases? I don’t understand how you could maintain such a thing, given your account of what makes something correct English grammar (or even English grammar at all).

Jamie: “You’ve got something backwards. Linguists and dictionary editors record actual usage. Only prescriptivists pressure people to accept rules of grammar…Descriptivist books tell you how the subjunctive works, so that’s where someone has to go if they want to learn how it works. These books also note that it is dying out in English. They don’t tell anybody what to do; that’s why they’re called ‘descriptivists’.”

Thank you for calling attention to this. I see what you’re saying, and I think it’s a quite standard account now, but I find it slippery and misleading (not to say that you intend it that way).

Yes, certainly, the writers of dictionaries and academic grammar books today overwhelmingly tend to insist that the projects they are engaged in are purely descriptive. They may even believe that that constitutes the whole project they are involved in.

However, as they know (or should know), most people who look things up in a dictionary or a grammar book do so in order to make sure that they are doing so correctly. The writers of the books can say, in the style of the National Rifle Association, ‘Grammar books and dictionaries don’t set norms — only people who (mis)use grammar books and dictionaries set norms.’ Nonetheless, these books are taken as reference guides to prescriptive standards, and I doubt that any attempt to abolish prescriptive standards altogether among the population at large would be successful — if the descriptivists were even trying hard to do that.

Instead, what is going on here is that a sort of stealth prescriptivism, or perhaps at best an inadvertent prescriptivism, is the de facto result of all this.

It’s just that the prescriptions that come out of the whole project turn out to be whatever the dictionary editors, descriptive grammarians, etc. put in the books, which reinforces and standardizes whatever set of changes are written down in those books. That’s why, in effect, the descriptivists are in effect promoting a kind of radical relativism. There are still oughts, but the oughts are derived immediately from the descriptive facts of what people happen to be doing.

As an ethicist yourself, you will of course know that normativity includes what is permitted as well as what is required or what is forbidden. And you yourself seem to insist that singular ‘they’, and much else, is not incorrect. (Why else object to Bonevac’s claim that it is incorrect to use ‘they’ to refer to single people in this way?). So even you seem — typically for self-described descriptivists, as I see it — to use a description of current practices as a basis for norms of permissibility, etc. I therefore think that ‘radical relativist’ might be a more apt name.

Jamie: “[Bonevac’s] mistake is in asserting that other people’s usage is ungrammatical. (Although like you I am refraining from comment on whether he has also made other mistakes than grammatical ones!)

Hang on their, Jamie. Let’s look again at what Bonevac said on this point: “I will not honor any student’s demands to be addressed by the singular pronoun “they”—regardless of whether those demands come from a biological man or a biological woman, and regardless of whether the person making those demands identifies with a gender that matches or departs from his biologically assigned sex. “They” is a plural pronoun, and it is ungrammatical to use a plural pronoun to refer to a single person. I will not violate the rules of grammar or make a fool of myself to accommodate a student’s delusional beliefs.

He clearly says here that he will not use ‘they’ to refer to a single student, even if the student demands that he do so. He also makes a general claim that it is ungrammatical to use ‘they’ in this way, but the following sentence makes it clear that he is using that to support his resolution not to speak that way himself, and not to support some pressure he is putting on his students, or his colleagues, to refrain from using ‘they’ in that way. He does not mention any such pressure.

So who is being prescriptive here? The students and others who are insisting that Bonevac use singular ‘they’ in these contexts? Or Bonevac, who says that he will not give in to the pressure to use singular ‘they’? Isn’t it clearly the students and colleagues, and not Bonevac?

If Bonevac announced a futher policy of forbidding any other student to use ‘they’ in the singular, on pain of being marked as ungrammatical, I would say that he, also, is engaging in some prescriptive pressure about grammar. But as it stands, he seems to be the one resisting the pressure to conform to certain prescriptions of speaking, not the one directly issuing prescriptions on how others ought to speak or write.

Jamie Dreier
Jamie Dreier
Reply to  Justin Kalef
2 days ago

But haven’t you also been saying that Bonevac is wrong not only today but historically to claim that there is a rule against using singular ‘they’ in such cases?

No.

However, as they know (or should know), most people who look things up in a dictionary or a grammar book do so in order to make sure that they are doing so correctly

Quite. Although… who looks things up in grammar books?? I guess ESL students. (And me, but that’s different.)

But it’s hard for me to understand what you’re worried about. Those people surely want to know the current descriptive, constitutive rules of English grammar! So, they are looking in the right place, if they look in Merriam Webster, or the Cambridge Grammar. I wonder where you think they might better look; you’re being very coy about these prescriptivist grammar books.

I think you might be getting distracted by the word ‘correct’. When rules are constitutive, they determine what counts as ‘correct’. That’s what constitutive rules are. But that doesn’t mean they are ‘prescriptive’. (Unless maybe that’s all you mean by ‘prescriptive’.)

So who is being prescriptive here? The students and others who are insisting that Bonevac use singular ‘they’ in these contexts? Or Bonevac, who says that he will not give in to the pressure to use singular ‘they’? Isn’t it clearly the students and colleagues, and not Bonevac?

You quote him as saying that singular ‘they’ is ungrammatical! And you quote me as saying that is his mistake. I think you’re conceding that point now, which is what I was interested in.
I’m not interested in who was “being prescriptive” (I’m not even sure what you mean by it). I just said he was wrong about what is grammatical.

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Jamie Dreier
22 hours ago

Thanks for the reply, Jamie, but it really seems hard to escape the fact that our prior assumptions are so different that further discussion on this point is not apt to get us anywhere. That is especially difficult here because you keep thinking that, when I talk about things being grammatically correct or incorrect, I must just be confused about what I mean, which in your mind apparently can only be something like ‘in accord with a constitutive rule’.

You even say that I “might be getting distracted by the word ‘correct'”, as though I am simply losing track of what I mean, when what I mean is, in fact, grammatical correctness, which is clearly a concept you are not working with. It’s not just that you have a view according to which all talk of normativity in grammar can be reduced to talk of the constitutive facts about grammar (which in turn, on your view, can be derived immediately from purely descriptive facts about the common practices among contemporary speakers of that language). It’s that you apparently can’t even imagine that anyone could coherently disagree with this view, and you seem to think it something like an analytical truth that your view is correct, and that any other view is a mere conceptual confusion. Presumably, that is why you keep claiming, over and over again, that the rules of grammar are merely constitutive facts that can be derived from facts about the frequency of patterns in writing and speaking, even after I tell you, over and over again, that I do not accept that view and at least need some sort of argument for it.

In fact, you have now taken this even further. You now claim that lay people who look things up in dictionaries or books on grammar “want to know the current, constitutive rules of English grammar” or usage. But I’ll wager that that is not in fact what those people aim to do: they would say, if asked, that what they want to know is which word or phrase is correct in the given context. Again, it is that notion of correctness that seems to be missing on the account you and so many others have adopted.

Perhaps — I’m trying to be charitable here — you mean to say that the vast numbers of people who consult dictionaries, guides to English grammar and usage, etc. all happen to share your view that correctness in English is, as a matter of analytic fact, a question of which way of speaking happens to be most common at present. In other words, perhaps you are saying this because you feel that all these lay people, like you and other radical descriptivists (or perhaps radical relativists), simply lack the concept of (non-reductive) grammatical correctness.

That is an empirical matter. I hold that, if we were to survey lay people, most would say that a sentence like “There are some grammatical errors that nearly everyone makes” is intelligible, but I don’t know what it could mean on your account. But it would be idle to speculate too much about that if you disagree about what the outcome would be. Instead, someone should simply perform the survey. Meanwhile I daresay that, if you ask most lay people, they would find nothing incoherent in such a sentence. In other words, most people do not reduce normativity in grammar or spelling to mere popularity.

You say, again, that you have a hard time understanding what I could be worried about, since in your mind books on grammar will have no effect on anyone aside from ESL students, and maybe only when those students are preparing for their exams. But I have already mentioned so many other roles these books play in changing or preserving the rules of the language. They are used by people who want to speak and write correctly, and by the editors to whom the work of writers is submitted. In any competently-run school system, they are (as they once were) used to teach correct grammar to the next generation. They indirectly affect many who never touch them, through shaping the speech and writing everyone else hears and reads. They can provide, and at important points in the history of English have provided, an opportunity for thoughtful people to improve the language through care, since we rely on being able to coordinate the rules with one another.

Intelligent people with the luxury and privilege of being raised by educated parents in environments in which correct English is habitually spoken may pick up on the rules quite easily, without much (or any) need of formal study. For that reason, it is perhaps not too surprising that members of the elite, university-educated social classes feel little concern about whether the dictionaries and grammar books go round and round swallowing their own tails, racing to keep up with what happens to be common usage and in turn influencing that very same common usage (though they pretend that they do not). These same people nearly always use correct English anyway, and quite easily identify those who cannot do so as interlopers from a lower social class. It is only members of those lower classes who can suffer from no longer having reliable reference works they can use to improve their standing or — even worse — from actually believing the lie that no way of speaking is any more or less correct than any other, so that they needn’t worry about it. This also applies to those immigrants and visitors who take ESL courses in an attempt to learn to speak English correctly — hardly a group whose interests should be brushed aside. But the members of those groups who have any chance of entering the elite classes (including the world of academia) in the English-speaking world either speak fluent English on arrival or else struggle behind closed doors to do so, presumably, since otherwise they would risk being mocked for relying on such passe ideas as that a book meant to help ESL students speak and write correctly might actually have something to say that a book that one would not find in a survey that merely details the current trends with no mention of what is correct or incorrect.

I lament the elite failure to consider the effect all this has on the less privileged, but I don’t find it very surprising, given that these are the same social elites who gave us ‘abolish the police’ and so many other slogans that appear socially concerned but in effect work against the interests of the less affluent. But I think that may go some way to explaining why it became uncool to be a prescriptivist. Certainly, I haven’t yet seen any arguments for the central view, and I’ve been asking around for awhile now.

I also don’t mean to be ‘coy’ about the books that distinguish correct from incorrect grammar. Until a few decades ago, when the radical shifts took place in the school system, such books, meant for schoolchildren, were ubiquitous. They are still written for newcomers to English, or those who would like to improve how they speak and write, or their precision in how they read. It has now become trendy to neglect to teach these things to children in schools, so there are fewer textbooks on the subject now; and the discipline of grammar within academia has narrowed considerably to the merely descriptive area of study we now see. As a result, many of the normative texts people consult on grammar and related issues are now consigned to style guides, books on usage, etc. In some cases, notably including the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the entire editorial team insists that prescriptivism in English is not only ignorant but ‘out’, and that they do not intend for their book to be read in a prescriptive spirit. Yet, whatever those editors say or intend, such books continue to have a significant influence on what people consider to be correct English, and play a big part in shaping the language the editors say they are merely recording. This is an easy trick to pull off, I suppose, if you never have to pay attention to what people are actually doing with your books, or what they need