Pausing to Remark

A former associate stumbled upon this blog recently and wrote to me. She had read some older posts in which I challenged certain language practice encountered in published articles.

It’s true I experimented for a time with adopting the persona of grammar nerd here, but moved beyond it. The audience for such matters is vanishingly small, which is okay. I have other passions to natter about.

What lingers with me is my colleague’s remark that she almost didn’t reach out to me from fear that I might be pesky or judgmental. She expressed in so many words a marked aversion to rubbing up against anything resembling an inquisitive or meddling grammarian. It’s pertinent that this person is a brilliant professional writer herself, and a teacher of writing. Any remark of mine about her practice would be otiose and impertinent.

I’m afraid that too much online discourse is rebarbative, leading people (and perhaps my colleague, who referred to my “web log”) to assume that what poses as criticism or critique in the cyber commons will have a belittling aspect to it, if not drip with disdain or worse. I emphatically eschew that course in spirit and, I hope, in practice.

What keeps intriguing me is where language that strays from certain norms can become obscure or cause confusion. A lucid, well-developed article in The Guardian quotes the following statement about retributive punishment:

“What seems to happen is that people come across an action they disapprove of; they have a high desire to blame or punish; so they attribute to the perpetrator the degree of control [over their own actions] that would be required to justify blaming them.”

The main clause has a plural subject “people.” The consecutive clause starting “so they attribute” introduces a singular nonspecific object “the perpetrator.” Subsequent references to the object avoid assigning it a gender by making it plural: “over their own actions” and “blaming them.” The reader is put to the extra work of realizing that the antecedent is “perpetrator” and not “people.”

A century ago it would read: “… so they attribute to the perpetrator the degree of control [over his own actions] that would be required to justify blaming him.” Choice of the masculine pronoun, of course, was an arbitrary convention.

I don’t contend that the usage in The Guardian article is somehow deplorable; only that, from a clinical perspective, it shows how extra-lingual pressures can move language in directions that are away from, not towards, clarity.

(Oliver Burkeman, “The clockwork universe: is free will an illusion,”, 4-27-21)

(c) 2021 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

About JMN

I live in Texas and devote much of my time to easel painting on an amateur basis. I stream a lot of music, mostly jazz, throughout the day. I like to read and memorize poetry.
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