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The Tension between Grammar and Praxis

The grammar of many languages occasionally presents a seeming contradiction between the meaning of its categories and the real-life entities to which the categories are applied. For example, in languages that have gender distinctions, like German, the grammatical gender may not match the biological sex of the referent, as is the case of G das Weib ‘woman, wife’, which is neuter (as indicated by the definite article).

In contemporary English (as has been instanced in earlier posts), there is a tendency to refer to collective nouns that comprise human beings by the relative pronoun who instead of the grammatically correct which. This is increasingly the case in media speech when the word referred to (inter alia) is country, as in “the countries who . . . .”

The underlying cause of this sort of change can be traced to the kinds of verbs that are typically associated with human beings, like love, hate, speak, etc. The use of such verbs with collective nouns whose individual members are human creates a tension between the grammatical category of inanimacy (or non-humanness), on the one hand, and the occurrence of verbs denoting actions that are typical of human beings, on the other. The tension is resolved by reconstruing the inanimate collective as animate via its human members.

From a traditionally normative point of view, of course, this tendency in English represents a latter-day mistake, where grammar has been sacrificed at the altar of linguistic implicature.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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