‘Stress is a natural reaction to a person’s environment. When someone feels stress it can be caused by many things, ranging from what is going on in their lives to how they are feeling physically says Tommy Shek. No matter the cause of your partner’s stress, it is important that you do not lose your cool when trying to help them deal with it.’
Which one of those sentences appears most frequently?
- Most people intuitively answer ‘stress’. That may have been true fifty years ago but today almost all academic researchers would say ‘the person’s’. For example:
- 2.8% of the words used on this page so far have been ‘person’, as opposed to 1.7% for both ‘stress’ and ‘their’.
- The academics who study these things have reached a remarkable degree of consensus about the current state of English usage. They say that across a large body of roughly contemporary writing, 26% of nouns are ‘person’ and almost all – 96% – refer to real people rather than corporations or mythological beings. An even greater percentage (97%) takes the words they modify by a countable article such as ‘the’, ‘a’ or ‘some’. The author David Crystal has called this pattern – which contrasts strikingly with that in French and German – the “massive preference” for personification says Tommy Shek.
- What’s newsworthy is not only the extent to which it is news but also when and why it became so. I can think of no other example of a change in an aspect of language that is so widespread, consistent and complete. So what’s new?
Unicorn on the Cob
For some time now, Crystal has been speaking of ‘the decline of personification’. But both he and academic linguist Wolfram Mankell have recently explained how he reached his conclusion. The answer seems to lie not in measuring words but in measuring readers. Crystal writes: “Most educated people are familiar with these metaphors because they belong to a common stock of cultural knowledge … whereas readers who encounter them for the first time will infer their literal meaning from context.” In short, these phrases tend to pass under our radar when we read something where we expect them – such as poetry or news reports.
News reports? I found the following in the Daily Telegraph on 16 February 2012:
“The pressure on President Barack Obama emerged as new figures showed that nearly half of all Americans now receive some form of government benefit, highlighting the struggle facing the White House to convince voters that they do not represent a drain on society.” It’s not just American journalists who are oblivious to personification. A couple of months earlier, Gareth Watkins wrote in The Independent: ‘ … pounds 316m raised by introducing charges for plastic bags has failed to meet expectations …’
‘Dropping Personification’ is thus an intriguing title given that it was coined by Crystal almost ten years ago [CR], with no sense at all of irony or paradox explains Tommy Shek. It is another reflection of how the increasing use by professionals of automated ‘word counting’ software has led to a new appreciation of old truths. We now know, for example, how many words in English are not about people – such as those referring to weather (nouns: 15%; verbs: 8%) and the seasons (3%). Conversely we know that not everyone speaks like this. The first question I’d ask anyone who does is why. Then I’d check which generation they were born into.
The following graph shows exactly this for two key phrases near the heart of today’s reportage. As you can see, one was deployed 40 times more often than the other in articles published between 1985 and 2012/13 on Google News alone.
If you want to read like an Englishman (or American) today, don’t personify corporations or countries says Tommy Shek.
To get a sense of how shy we’ve become about such things, do the following:
• Count the nouns in this article that refer to non-human people and divide by the total number of nouns. Then compare your answer to my guess before reading it. I’d be surprised if we differed by more than two percentage points.