How Language Solves Its Problems

Perhaps you were puzzled by the title of today’s post. Language doesn’t solve its own problems…does it?

Yes, it does. (Regular readers of this blog know that I’m talking about postmodernism – the idea that language is much more than an inert tool we can completely control.)

The world is always changing, and language has to keep up. It is – after all – the engine that keeps the world moving. (I really like that engine idea because it reminds us that language has its own momentum and drive.)

No matter how hard we try, we can’t control what language will decide to do. It’s stubbornly going to march along, taking us with it where it wants to go.

One example is the way English handled the loss of its gender-neutral pronoun a thousand years ago (the “singular they” issue). If someone from UPS is knocking on your door, and you don’t know if they’re male or female, you’re supposed to say, “He or she is here with your delivery.”

You’re not supposed to say, “They’re here with your delivery.” That popular usage is an example of the deterioration of English.

But if you do some research, you discover that the “singular they” has been around since the 14th century. Language solved the problem of the missing pronoun all by itself, even though English teachers don’t like the solution it came up with!

You would have a hard time finding a famous writer – from Caxton to Shakespeare to Shaw – who hasn’t used the “singular they.” I did it myself earlier in this post: “If someone is knocking on your door, and you don’t know if they’re male or female….”

When you start to look for ways that language solves its own problems without input from the experts, examples are everywhere.

I started thinking about this process during a discussion of quotation marks on Quora. Mike Gower told me about a British practice that’s totally new to me:

What seems to happen in everyday use in the UK is that double quotes are used for quoted speech, and single quotes for quoted text. That’s probably less of a formal rule than a habit that drifted in from the need to differentiate between quoted speech in fiction and quoted text.

Will that practice catch on in the US? It might – and maybe it already has. In the past year or so, I’ve noticed that Americans are starting to mix British ‘inverted commas’ and American “quotation marks,” and it’s been driving me crazy.

It never occurred to me that English was feeling the need to differentiate between a formal quotation and a conversation – and found a solution. (I may have to stop griping!) In twenty-five years, English textbooks may even be telling students to use quotation marks the way Mark described.

Here’s another example of how language adapted to meet a need. My English professors taught me to use quotation marks for titles of short works, like “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Italics were for full-length works, like The Da Vinci Code.

But you can also use italics to show what a fictional character is thinking. In a short story you might read about a young soldier who’s just seen an attractive woman and thinks: She’s the one. I’ve got to find an excuse to talk to her. I’ll ask if she knows where Curzon Street is.

Who knew you could use italics this way? Nobody told me in college.

I can’t resist giving you one more. We often decry texting because it allows abbreviations and phonetic spellings. But texting is developing its own subtleties.

We all know that punctuation is often omitted in texts, which tend to be casual and conversational. But beware. Picture this scenario: you text your girlfriend tat you’re cancelling tonight’s date because an old friend is in town, and he wants the two of you to go bowling. Here’s your girlfriend’s text response: 


That period would be standard English if you were writing a school essay or a business letter. But in this conversation it’s the equivalent of a hiss through gritted teeth. You’d better set up another time for that trip to the bowling alley – or start looking for another girlfriend! The period – that innocent punctuation mark we were introduced to in first grade – is becoming a weapon in the war of the sexes.

And so it goes. The world changes. Language sees a need and fills it, without so much as a by-your-leave. Who says that language doesn’t have power?

bowling pins


4 thoughts on “How Language Solves Its Problems

  1. Darrell Turner

    I especially liked the fine example about problems with texting. One example I often use is the question, “What do you mean by that?” It could mean that the questioner does not understand a comment or that the questioner is insulted by a comment. We can tell the meaning if we see body language or hear tone of voice, but it is very difficult to tell the meaning if the question is asked in a text or even an email.

  2. ballroomdancer Post author

    Hi, Darrell – nice to hear from you again! I’m glad you liked the texting example. I was surprised when I first read it. What a great way to convey a message with just one punctuation mark!

  3. Jim

    Wow … think of the potential for expression of emotion …..
    Fine. (I am angry) or…. Fine ? ( are you nuts?) ….or ….Fine! ( and don’t bother to call)

  4. ballroomdancer Post author

    Yes! I hadn’t thought of using a question mark or exclamation mark to express emotion in a text – they both work perfectly. I especially like your “don’t bother to call.”

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