Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Fake prescriptive poppycock

Cosmo (a he-cat) and Phoebe (a she-cat)
- or, being neutered, are they both it-cats? -
are pissed off at my joke at their expense
Via a post by Geoff Pullum at Language Log - Newly invented fake prescriptive poppycock - a nice diversion from the Lingua Franca column in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

In honour of the long history of grammatical discourse being poisoned by bogus rules invited by peevologists, the MacMurray professor Allan Metcalf invites readers to come up with new but venerable-sounding bogus rules. See A New Contest, Centered Around Usage.

It's not great, but I came up with:
"He" and "she" are not appropriate as pronouns for animals; as they are of an entirely non-human class, all animals should be "it".

If it's necessary to specify the sex, use either the precise and long-standing term for the particular animal of that sex ("Where is Kittikins? The tom is on the mat") or expand the definition ("Where is Kittikins? It, the male, is on the mat" - or "The he-cat is on the mat").
I possibly could have woven into the yarn Cordwainer Smith's nice constructions to designate names of animal-derived underpeople in his Instrumentality mythos, where a prefix designates the animal origin: C'Mell is of cat stock, B'Dikkat of bull stock, and the eagle-derived E'telekeli.

Addendum: Ever since I posted this, I've had a horrible nagging feeling that my rule is stupid enough for someone to have actually proposed it in real life. A quick search of Google Book suggests not. But the sexist personification rules for animal gender in Richard Hiley's 1837 English Grammar and Style are almost as silly when you think them through:
c. When speaking of animals, the sex of which is not regarded by us, we frequently assign to them gender suited to their particular characteristic properties. The strong and bold ones being considered the masculine, and the weak and timid of the feminine gender; thus, we say of the horse, that he is a useful animal; of the hare, that she is timorous.
d. Insects, small quadrupeds, birds, and fishes, are frequently spoken of as neuter.

- page 21, Richard Hiley, English Grammar and Style: To which is Added Advice to the Student, on the Allainment and Application of Knowledge, 1837
The mind boggles at the semantic difficulties in deciding if a particular species of animal is macho enough to be a "he".

Hiley was a Leeds schoolmaster, with, like many authors of "me too" grammar books in the 1800s, no particular qualifications for commenting on English grammar other than wanting to correct what he saw as deficiencies in Lindley Murray's English Grammar. Although his aim was nominally descriptive, he nevertheless completely failed to understand fundamental linguistic points such as the inevitability of usage change. This led him to diss the grammatical correctness of earlier highly-educated and well-known writers, rather than recognising them as data points for the mainstream correctness conditions of their time, a century or more before Hiley was writing.
But, if a knowledge of Latin and Greek does induce a habit of correct English diction, how comes it to pass that the writings of many distinguished classical scholars of the last century are lamentably deficient in grammatical accuracy? Dr. Bentley is a well-known instance. Nor will it be difficult to point out numerous violations ot grammar in the pages of Addison and Swift. Who, in these days, would admire, as specimens of graceful composition, the once reputed elegant pages of Locke, Barrow, and Tillotson? Yet these men had, in addition to their classical attainments, frequented the best company, and had attended, as far as the low state of grammatical knowledge would then allow, to correctness of expression.
- preface, page v, English Grammar and Style.
- Ray


  1. Oooh. The Fifty Minute Hour Man. The guy who did "Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons". They were definitely "Its"

  2. On the gendered animal thing, I remember being confused when (learning French at age 11 or thereabouts) I discovered that I had to say le chat, when I always thought of cats of unknown gender as "she". Le chien seemed OK since I called dogs of unknown gender "he".

    I don't know where my assumptions came from but am now interested to note (on reading your Hiley extract) that I was afraid of dogs while I liked cats. It may have had something to do with perceived aggression, or with association of size with threat level.