Fri 21 October 2016
Grammatical number in English is horrible, and we should just give up on it.
Granted, this is something we can say about basically every aspect of the
English language, and there's a queue from here to Worcestershire to grouse
about our horrendous spelling, but I feel the dreadfulness of our plurals tends
to go unnoticed.
First off, we have our pronouns. The first person is straightforward with "I"
and "we". Well, unless you're royalty, but that's rare enough to ignore. The
second person made sense once upon a time, when we still had "thee" as its
singular, but now it's all just "you". There is also "y'all", but for reasons
that probably boil down to classism, a lot of people have a problem with it.
The third person used to be straightforward. The only confusion was in the
singular, where "she" could refer to either certain inanimate objects or women
(who men wished were inanimate). From the 19th century, when prescription of
"he" as the generic singular really got started, through the turn of the 21st,
things were simple. There was order, there was reason, there was misogyny.
But, fairly recently, we've started getting this bizarre notion that women
matter, and maybe we shouldn't assume a non-specific person is a man. Thus, we
saw the return of the singular "they", and the weird grammatical gymnastics it
requires. On top of that, we've just started to realize there are far more
genders than English is remotely prepared to deal with. This means using "he"
or "she" (or even "he or she") could still be factually and grammatically
incorrect. While there have been attempts at adding new pronouns for enbies to
use, they've all kinda fizzled (I'd say partly because there are
too many). This leaves us with no choice but to accept
the inevitable rise of the singular "they".
This, alone, I would consider sufficient evidence that communicating number in
English is absurdly complex. Clearly, to do so for people is just not a thing
we'll even be able to manage at all. But this barely scratches the surface.
Look at "everything". Despite meaning multiple things, it's singular because
you're referring to each individual thing by itself. Sure, you get used to
that, but if you think it's intuitive you're kidding yourself. And British
English will refer to a company as plural ("Apple are courageously removing
the headphone jack") because it's a group of individuals, but in America a company is
singular ("Apple has outrageously slaughtered the headphone jack"). I guess
this is because in America, corporations are people, my friend.
We also have phrases like "notaries public", where we pluralize the first word
of the phrase rather than the second. It's because the latter is an adjective,
of course, but if we're going to violate the rule that the adjectives should
come first, why can't we violate the rule about which one gets pluralized?
Then we have words from other languages, where the choice about whether to use
that language's own plural seems to be entirely random. You can say "indexes"
or "indices", "emojis" or "emoji", "paninis" or "panini"; it depends only on
how much smarter you want to sound than the person you're talking to. And you
can go right ahead and say campuses, but don't you dare say alumnuses.
Clearly, grammatical number in English is a convoluted disaster of inconsistent
and meaningless rules. A thorough understanding of them must surely come only
from steeping in their senselessness long enough for them to gain an illusion
of logic. I would humbly propose that we simply do away with number entirely.
If everything are plural, nothing are confusing at all. With these one simple
change, the English languages will make much more senses. Besides, we're
already fine with just calling pants, scissors, and glasses by the plurals all
the time, and deer, fish, and aircraft by the singulars, so would we really
even be missing anything? Sure we might sound like
those ones characters from Futuramas,
but we'll save ourselves some lots of hassles.