I have an affection for standardising forces. I have an aversion to normalising dogmas.
It's a fine distinction -- in fact the two overlap so substantially that it is in some ways a false distinction. But if they can be separated, it is in this: the one is a positive process -- it enables -- and the other is a negative process -- it disallows. Many things are both though. Microsoft, for instance. God that's a dangerous example. Well, Microsoft is a monopoly and it pursues monopolistic business practices. It attempts to negate choice, to rule out all other possibilities by logical attrition. That it won the browser wars was necessary for the evolution of the web however. Well, not that it did (that was bad), but that someone did. It was necessary because we've built the Tower of Babel once and I think the experience should have impressed upon us the need to move on.
(Five years later, incidentally, what is needed is for the browser wars to begin again. Internet Explorer has begun to atrophy, and other technologies -- specifically Gecko, and also KHTML -- are generating new and far more enjoyable web-use experiences. The reason for this, incidentally, has a lot to do with standards.)
Now here's a decades-old problem that begs standardisation: "He/she signed the treaty with his/her feathered quill". Ugh. And here's what I have become convinced is the standard, too:
The entries from the Oxford English Dictionary forcibly demonstrate that the use of they to refer to a singular noun is not an innovation of recent decades or even of this century. The first citation in the Dictionary's files is from the 14th century so that we know that the practice had been adopted in writing at least by then. There may have been much earlier examples which have been lost and the practice may well have been established in speech before it found its way into writing. In adopting they with singular reference we are simply following a long established convention of the English language.
Yay! Just as convincing, but more interesting:
In earlier centuries English had a regular system of pronouns which distinguished between singular and plural:
Person Singular Plural First I we Second thou ye (you) Third he, she, it they
Gradually through the late Middle Ages you came to supplant thou and by the end of the 17th century held virtual sway as the pronoun for the second person. It has continued now as the sole form for the singular and the plural for 3 centuries.
Okay, so that's settled. More on the singular use of they here.
I warbled through an explanation of the importance of semantically-bounded content on the web a couple of weeks ago. Here's a rather old but fascinating article on how the World Wide Web will eventually evolve into the Semantic Web. It is written by the "inventor" of the Web, Tim Berners-Lee, which might or might not lend it a little credibility. It sounds a little utopic, but is certainly feasible in the long term. Computers are not human-simulacra, they have no intelligence and no significant potential for it -- what they have is the massive capacity to analyse, manipulate, sort, search and retrieve data. This buzzword semantics is really just the project to broaden the compass of the term data. The effects of doing this may be pretty much as Tim Berners-Lee imagines them. They may take a different form -- I'm reluctant to consider him an oracle, though I do regard him something of a genius. But the dream of a Semantic Web is a fascinating one. And extensible open standards hold the key.
Here is the W3C's current vision of the Semantic Web.
Joseph | 28 Sep 2003