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Commentary By John H. McWhorter

Actions, Not Words

Culture, Culture Culture & Society, Race

The box office of the Broadway musical, "Grey Gardens," sat me in a pitilessly horrid seat the other day. So I asked the usher what I could do. He said to see the house manager, and I asked, "And what will they say?"

I said "they" in order to cover the possibility that the manager might be a woman, which, in fact, it turned out to be.

I didn't want to say "And what will he say?" because all house managers are not men, and we all know deep down that "he" really does not cover both men and women. The word "he" brings a man to mind. I sure wasn't going to say, "And what will he or she say?" And I presume no one would expect me to spin out, "And what answer shall I expect?"

Yet, even as a linguist, it is hard to convince someone that I did not commit a "grammatical error." "They" is plural, you say, but allowed authors like Chaucer and William Thackeray were using "they" in the singular, centuries ago. I was also using "they" in the singular sense at the theater, but more so because I thought I was being culturally sensitive toward women.

We linguists have learned that there is nothing we can do to convince the public that what we were taught about "proper" language has no logical foundation. Forget books, blogs, the radio — in real life, Americans will continue insisting that they just don't "like" the use of "impact" as a verb — even though Shakespeare did this to many nouns. I suppose he was allowed because, well, it was a long time ago and things were different.

Just as linguists' version of language policing serves no function, it is high time America's chattering classes stopped going nuts every time someone utters a slur of some kind, or something that could be taken as a slur such as macaca, like when Senator Allen called a dark-skinned cameraman that name in July. This ritual serves no purpose; it wastes ink, reading time, and airspace.

Since last summer, barely a week seems to go by without someone being hung out to dry for letting some word slip. The proliferation of such episodes is due to the rise of YouTube, to the fact that one presidential hopeful is black, and because what is now being called the F-word, the one with six letters that ends with t, has been tabulated lately as equally offensive as the N-word.

But human beings are no more likely never to let taboo words fly than you are to stop flinching when someone says, "Tell each rep that Jason and me want to impact their sales." No, "me" is "not" always an object pronoun — are you convinced yet? There's nowhere on earth where human beings never break rules.

We can trim the excesses rule-breaking, of course. These days most people are fine with ending a sentence with a preposition and we are largely past open use of abusive epithets for women and minorities except in a certain type of music, and we seem to be on our way to the same point with the F-word. The question is, how realistic is it to expect more than this?

You will continue to revile sentences like "Billy and me went to the store." Similarly, some people will continue to use slurs in jest, when angry and desperate, or to get attention; others will unwittingly say things that sound like slurs. No matter how many people get tarred in the press for this, no matter how many of them go into rehab, there will be a steady stream of new ones. None of the episodes of late have had the slightest prophylactic effect, nor is there any indication that future ones will.

Last I heard, people had dug up an old film of Paris Hilton dwelling in slurdom. I can imagine that next week there will be a new slur scandal somewhere.

As I recently observed, a black adolescent watches another one stumble a bit on the ice and say "Whoa!," and quickly remarks on it to his friends: "You see that? N—-a went ‘Boomp,' ‘Whoa'!"

That, like Paris Hilton, cannot be fixed, nor can we avoid it. Most likely, somewhere between now and next year, someone will say something that can be taken as applying the B-word to Senator Clinton. Unless we're ready to allow that "they" is both singular and plural, it's time for us to stop flailing over things people say and pay more attention to what they do.