Learning to Live With Changes to the English Language
Admit it: Everyone’s guilty of digging in their heels from time to time. And for many people, few things are as unsettling as changes to the English language. But are changes to language really a sign of the decline of western civilization? How can people get less upset about words and phrases being used in new ways?
Below, some highlights from our conversation.
On the usage of ‘who’ vs. ‘that’ in reference to animals or things:
“Not much in language usage is black and white. You wouldn’t use ‘who’ with a vase, but you might with a talking bird or a committee or a spirit or a source,” Saller said.
“I notice more use of ‘that’: ‘the person that …’ or ‘the teacher that did this …’ In the past, I would always want ‘that’ to be a ‘who’ if it’s referring to a person. But dictionaries seem to agree that ‘that’ is perfectly acceptable in reference to a person.”
On drawing the line between new usage and incorrect usage: Should we say ‘no problem’ or ‘you’re welcome’?
“Who is in charge of what’s correct? The fact is that these things change and no one is in charge and no one can stop it,” said Saller.
“There is a generational divide. For younger people, the phrase ‘you’re welcome’ has some negative connotations. It’s come to be used in a comic and sarcastic way. It also can be seen as self-congratulatory or gloating. If someone thanks you and you say ‘you’re welcome’ there is a viewpoint that you are agreeing that you deserve to be thanked. That’s not the way we were raised to think of the term. But when you think about it, these phrases aren’t meant to be parsed literally. They’re called ‘phatic phrases’: they’re social gestures and they have the meaning we give to them.”
On dealing with political correctness, such as genderless pronouns, in language:
“At the University of Chicago Press, we are conservative in our editing because we aren’t in the business of cutting-edge grammar. We want our readers to feel comfortable and not be distracted by new coinages or anything that might be controversial,” said Saller.
“That one [the genderless pronoun] is newer and still controversial. If someone prefers to be referred to by the pronoun ‘they’ then there is increasing accommodation for that, although it does remain to be seen whether in general, people speaking out there in the world will be able to incorporate that into natural language. It’s a struggle for most of us who are long used to saying ‘he’ or ‘she’ to change to ‘they.’ The jury is still out on that one.”
More with Carol Fisher Saller
May 17: The "Subversive Copy Editor" discusses tips for navigating the often-tricky process of editing someone else's work.
Oct. 8, 2015: Split infinitives, over versus more than, and passive voice—fewer things have a tendency to launch otherwise reasonable people into a lengthy professorial lecture than real or perceived violations of immutable grammar and style rules.
June 22, 2015: Carol Fisher Saller's principles of copy editing might surprise anyone who's ever tussled with an editor over a piece of writing.. She joins us to discuss her philosophy on the English language.