Re: How Long Before Common Usage Becomes the Rule? (was: RE: New TECHWR-L Poll Question

Subject: Re: How Long Before Common Usage Becomes the Rule? (was: RE: New TECHWR-L Poll Question
From: Bruce Byfield <bbyfield -at- axionet -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 09 Oct 2001 10:29:36 -0700

Lin Sims wrote:


English-speaking (and writing) people have been happily using "they" as the indefinite singular pronoun since at least the time of Shakespeare (400+ years now!). How long does a "common usage" have to be used before it becomes grammatically correct?


The answer partly depends on your standard. Prescriptivists have been arguing against the example you gave for about 250 years. Descriptivists would say that, at least in some circumstances, your example is correct and always has been, because a large number of people have always used it. Take your pick.

But, of course, prescriptivists do change their minds. However, there's no single answer. Some changes, especially of vocabulary, take place in a matter of years. For example, the idea that "evolve" implies the concept of progress seems to have become accepted in less than a decade, probably due to Thomas Huxley's high profile defence of Darwin's ideas in the 1960s. More recently, "uptight" became widely accepted in a few years, probably because it is so descriptive. Others, like your example, still haven't become generally accepted. Mass communication may have an influence on the acceptence of changes, but I suspect that usefulness is probably a more important criterion.

--
Bruce Byfield 604.421.7177 bbyfield -at- axionet -dot- com

"None of all the magic hosts,
None remain but a few ghosts
Of timorous heart, to linger on
Weeping for lost Babylon."
-Robert Graves, "Babylon"



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References:
How Long Before Common Usage Becomes the Rule? (was: RE: New TECHWR-L Poll Question: From: Lin Sims

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