(Note: Sentences in small print are incidental remarks. I meant them to be in small print. The other variations in size of print is due entirely to CKEditor and I didn't mean it to happen.)
"Improve your language" probably makes you think of commands from certain uppity friends like:
- Don't say, "I have to work just like everybody has to work" — say "just as".
- Don't say, "Who are you talking to?", say "To whom are you talking?"
These are statements made by people who believe in "correct English" (conforming to a standard imposed by some educated white people).
1. Flammable and Inflammable
Both these words mean the same thing. This is a bug that can do real damage. In fact companies that make flammable products have policies requiring the use of "flammable" and "fireproof" to avoid what could be serious damage. Webster's New World Dictionary warns against using "inflammable", but under "flammable", which seems pointless. (I was a contributing editor to the fourth edition but they didn't ask me about "inflammable".) Wiktionary also warns against using "inflammable", but not the Oxford English Dictionary.
By the way, I recently learned that some government agency has instituted a standard that "Exit" signs should be in green lighting. Many older ones are red, which usually means "Stop". As usual, the European Union agitated for this long before the USA did. I wonder if red exit signs ever fooled anyone.
2. Unisex 3rd person singular pronoun needed
This bug does not cause explosions, except metaphorically, but it is a real problem. Until the last few years, the only way to achieve neutrality was through clumsy rewording. In my three books (two written with Michael Barr), we alternated using "he" and "she". In academic prose, it is common to write things such as "If the reader factors the polynomial, he will discover…". We would sometimes write "…she will discover…". No one complained. Lots of other recent academic writers do this trick, too.
In these posts and in abstractmath I have Reached A Higher Level (or Lower, according to some people) and use "you" a lot, both in the usual meaning and in the colloquial use replacing "one" (meaning 8 in the OED). Examples:
- "If you factor the polynomial, you'll discover…" (Notice the "you'll" –contractions are happening a lot in academic writing these days, too, and in research papers, not just science popularizations. See The revolution in technical exposition II.)
- "When someone refers to imaginary numbers it makes you think they are fictitious."
Brits to the rescue
However, many writers, especially in Britain, have been deliberately using "they" as a 3rd person singular pronoun. This is the OED meaning 2, and it dates back a long way. OED meaning 3 is also relevant. This is discussed extensively in Wikipedia. I have given several other references below. Note that they are mostly British.
My favorite OED quote is from Fielding: "Every Body fell a laughing, as how could they help it" . I sometimes say things like, "I'm a-running around doing errands" because I think of myself as a southerner (of the American variety), but that is purely posturing — I never heard anyone say a-anything when I was growing up in (the USA version of) Georgia
The next two entries were in a previous post.
Q: "Should I turn left at the next corner?" A: "Right". Probably most Americans who drive now know this bug. The answer could mean "yes" or "turn right". So we have to stop and think how to answer this question. That makes it a bug. When Jane and I drive together we have learned to answer that question "yes" or "correct".
4. Too, two
Comment: " We will take Route 30". Answer: "We will take Route 30 too". (Say it out loud) This bug may be responsible for the survival of the word "also".
Note that unlike the case of "right", this is a bug only of spoken English.
Examples 1 and 2 exhibit cases where English bugs cause genuine problems that need repair. In both cases, deliberate efforts are being made in an organized bottom-up effort to solve the problems. And both efforts seem to be working. In the other examples, people come up with workarounds, but not in an organized fashion.
- The Spanish Royal Academy has tried for years to enforce certain rules for the use of third person pronouns but they have apparently (correct me if I am wrong) failed to have any effect.
- There was a German spelling reform in the 1990's that the main German speaking countries agreed to and tried to enforce, but they failed miserably.
- Three branches of the French goverment, along with the French Academy, had long furious discussions about how to translate "cloud computing" into French. Many people in the literary and government power structure do not want French people to use English words while speaking French. But the stuffier types would not allow "informatique en nuage", so the "problem" was left unsolved. Meanwhile the French go on calling it "cloud computing", as on this website.
"Informatique en nuage" would be a calque on English, like "Adam's apple" is a calque in English on French "pomme d'Adam". Meanwhile, English, which thankfully has no Academy, has made hundreds of calques on other languages, mostly to our benefit, not to mention borrowing an enormous number of words directly from French.
People also change the way they talk without a good reason: consider "between you and I", which is an unneeded change, but it appears to be on its way to standard. (I say that because, unlike usages such as "I don't want no cabbage", "between you and I" is very common among educated young people.) Older people often can't stand any change in the way we talk, but as I said in another context, Old Fogies don't like "between you and I", but they die and then the younger people do what they like.
I think it is safe to say that needed reform in a language often comes from the ingenuity of the people, sometimes in severe cases with leadership from nongovernmental groups of people, but most often simply by people changing how they talk.
All purpose pronoun, New York Times blog post on singular they.
Bugs in English and in math, previous post
Category theory for computing science, by Michael Barr and Charles Wells
Handbook of mathematical discourse, by Charles Wells
If someone tells you singular 'they' is wrong, please do tell them to get stuffed (Telegraph blog post)
Singular they (Economist blog post)
Singular they (Wikipedia)
The French Get Lost in the Clouds Over a New Term in the Internet Age (Wall Street Journal)
The revolution in technical exposition II, previous post
Toposes, triples and theories, by Michael Barr and Charles Wells