Monday, May 1, 2017

The “Jane Austen” fallacy

In 2013 a medical editor who calls himself mededitor coined the term “the ‘Jane Austen’ fallacy” to describe a strategy that informs some discussions of grammar and usage:

In many discussions of usage, you’ll find language experts pointing to past authors’ works as evidence that a particular point of grammar is OK because so-and-so used it. For example: singular they.

Yes, you can find instances of singular they used by Shakespeare, Austen, and many others. Likewise you’ll find idiosyncratic spellings and constructions that today would be disallowed in edited prose.

The point here is that past usage does not justify modern practice.
Exactly. As I wrote in a review of a new book about lexicography:
Yes, Shakespeare used double negatives and Austen used ain’t and the possessive it’s. But so what? Try using them in a letter of application to Merriam-Webster and see how far you get.
I wish I’d known the term “the ‘Jane Austen fallacy’” when I was writing that review.

And why is it the “Jane Austen” fallacy? I think that mededitor’s quotation marks are meant to suggest a speaker or writer invoking a name — which, now that I think of it, is a favorite strategy of childhood argument: “But Jane Austen’s going. And Bill Shakespeare’s going too!” And the parental reply: “If Jane Austen and Bill Shakespeare jumped off a bridge, would you follow?”

Related posts
Orient and orientate (Invoking W.H. Auden and others)
Pullum on Strunk and White (Invoking “classic texts”)

[I’ve italicized the two instances of they in mededitor’s prose.]

comments: 6

Geo-B said...

'It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a plural pronoun used as a possessive for a singular antecedent, must be in want of an a good editor.'

Michael Leddy said...

Very nice! For me, singular they works well only rarely. I prefer to write around it (and around “he or she” and so on).

Chris said...

The other side of it, though, is that if writers have been using a non-standard form for centuries, it may be evidence that the language needs such a form, and that the grammarians are being obstinate in their refusal to permit it.

Michael Leddy said...

There’s a genuine need for singular they, and Geoffrey Pullum and other grammarians are strong advocates for it. But I don’t think the “Jane Austen” argument is a good way to make the case. I doubt there’d be many people persuaded to use the generic he because Eudora Welty and other women used it.

Also: the “Jane Austen” argument is often used to dismiss bits of sound advice about writing, such as the advice to place contrastive however within a sentence, not at the start. (It’s not wrong to place the word at the start, just clunky.) Pullum’s response is to point out that Henry James and others begin sentences with contrastive however. No matter: it’s still good advice to place the word later in a sentence.

Frex said...

Anyway, if Jane Austen used the singular "they", it's for an entirely different reasons than we do---nothing, I expect, to do with sexual politics or the conception of non-binary gender identities, etc. (Ha! Probably someone has written fanfiction of that--Austen with non-binary characters and so forth.)

Michael Leddy said...

Right. And the argument for singular they and their long preceded questions of gender identity — as a word to go with pronouns such as everyone, grammatically singular but notionally plural.