Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Pronouns’ Category

All of Which

Posted by Neal on November 8, 2013

Picture from

Picture from

Last week was the last football game of the season for Doug’s high school. As such, it was “senior night,” when the seniors on the football team received a pre-game recognition. As I looked on, I heard the announcer say

…our senior players, all of which are donning their uniform for the final time tonight.

All of which?

I know that which hasn’t always been reserved for inanimate things. Just look at the Lord’s Prayer in the King James version of the Bible: “Our Father, which art in heaven….” But I’m not used to hearing it in present-day English. I suspect that the preposition is responsible, because speakers are trying to avoid saying whom but aren’t quite comfortable with saying of who, either. Actually, I was surprised at how much confusion there was on the issue in the answers to this question on One commenter even stated that friends, most of which was “technically correct,” but that he would say friends, most of whom only because he hated the sound of friends, most of which.

In COCA, I looked for sequences of a determiner (like all, some, none) or a number followed by of which, and found about 15,000 hits. Inspecting a few pages of hits, I found which with mostly inanimate antecedents, but I did turn up a few animate whiches:

  • Now you have got a field of candidates, some of which are perceived to be to his right.
  • …the increase has pushed illegal immigrants to the streets, “some of which go on to commit further crimes.”
  • This is what he said in confidence to his friends, one of which went to gossip to Don Honorato…
  • The task recorded by the helicopter’s night view camera was to try find and rescue survivors. Two of which were who were found bobbing in a life raft.
  • Well, but do you think that congressmen, the two of which I just cited, are they capable of moving beyond that calculation?
  • Between 1946 and 1966 more than 2,500,000 immigrants were admitted to Canada, 900,000 of which were sponsored.
  • According to British estimates in February 1949 the total number of former “Palestinians” — those who remained behind and those who fled — was around 900,000 of which 320,000 … now lived in the Jordanian territory in the West Bank or across the Jordan

Four of these are from spoken English, so it’s possible they were speech errors, or whom avoidance. But the other three are from fiction and academic prose, and in the academic stuff I don’t imagine whom avoidance would play a role. So it’s just possible that animate which lives on, at least after prepositions.

That wasn’t the only linguistic surprise last Friday night. One by one, the senior players marched to the middle of the field, as the announcer introduced them, and added “escorted by” and the name of their parents, or a parent. I did a double-take when one player walked out cradling a baby in his right arm.

I mean, really, doesn’t that seem to stretch the definition of escort?

Posted in Lexical semantics, Pronouns | 8 Comments »

We and They

Posted by Neal on October 7, 2013

I was asking Doug about his classes a couple of weeks ago, and a little tingle of anticipation went up my spine when he told me that in English class that day, his teacher had been talking about grammar. Yes! It was about time for some grammar, after all that business with their summer reading project, and this “narrative” thing they were starting to write. What kind of grammar?

“We were learning to say things that sound wrong.”

Things that sound wrong? Like “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously”? This might be shaping up to be the best high-school English class ever.

“Like ‘we and they,’” Doug said. “She said, ‘I know people don’t actually talk like this, but you gotta learn it.’”

So much for best high-school English class ever. But, Doug — we’ve talked about this before! Don’t you remember? You were in fourth grade! I can remember it as clearly as if I’d written a blog post about it…

For those of you who didn’t follow the link, Doug lost a few points on a grammar worksheet when he was given the sentence “him and her take ice skating lessons on wednesday” to correct. He sidestepped the issue of the coordinated pronouns and corrected it like this: “They take ice skating lessons on Wednesday.” As I wrote at the time, “She had wanted them to change him and her to he and she, Doug said, but that sounded weird.”

But this time around, I noticed, the pronouns were plural. It wasn’t the typical he and I instead of him and me, or she and he instead of him and her. This time it was we and they. It occurred to me that I didn’t really know if some speakers tended to say us and them where Standard English would call for we and they. If they do, it certainly isn’t enough to land injunctions against us and them are in the grammar manuals, much less enough to give us hypercorrections like between we and they. I decided to take a look at COCA to see how often coordinations like we and they actually did come up.

I searched for all coordinations involving clearly plural animate personal pronouns (we/us, they/them) coordinated with pronouns that were clearly singular (I/me, he/him, she/her) or clearly plural. (In other words, no you.) I searched for coordinations of nominative with nominative (e.g. we and they), and accusative with accusative (e.g. us and them). I also looked for both mixed cases (for example, we and them and us and they), but didn’t get any hits there. Here are the results:

Coordinated pronouns
All nominative COCA hits All accusative COCA hits
I and we 1 me and us 3/0
we and I 0 us and me 0/0
I and they 0 me and them 32/1
they and I 15 them and me 22/0
he and we 13 him and us 19/0
we and he 3 us and him 7/0
he and they 35 him and them 18/0
they and he 4 them and him 8/0
she and we 9 her and us 5/0
we and she 2 us and her 2/0
she and they 8 her and them 10/0
they and she 3 them and her 2/0
we and they 9 us and them ~115/0
they and we 19 them and us 61/0

The first thing to notice is that people do use coordinated nominative personal pronouns, at levels comparable to the use of coordinated accusative personal pronouns. This is especially true when you consider that there are more occasions to use accusatives than nominatives. You use the accusative forms for direct objects, indirect objects, objects of prepositions, and (for all but the most insistently archaic rules) complements of be — not to mention pronouns in isolation. The only thing the nominatives are used for is subjects.

The second thing to notice is the slashes between the numbers in the accusative hits column. The first number represents attestations for which Standard English rules would prescribe accusative (for example, between us and them). The numbers after the slashes represent the examples for which the rules would prescribe nominative (for example, us and them are… instead of we and they are). (I counted complements of be as a context where we would expect the accusative case.) The numbers show that not only do speakers use nominative forms like we and they where they’re called for; they generally don’t use accusative forms like us and them in those places. In all the coordinations I tested, I found only one nonstandard example: “Yeah, me and them are buds,” I said.

By comparison, if you do a COCA search for the coordination of singular pronouns me and him, in the first page of results, you’ll find example after example of it being used as nonstandardly as a subject, and hardly any examples of it being used standardly as an object.

Here is a list of examples of each kind of coordinated nominative personal pronoun I found:

  1. I was assured that as long as I created scenes, behavior and dialogue consistent with the way they were depicted in the book — which resulted in a lawsuit — that I and we would be safe.
  2. In the middle of apologizing to them, I decided they and I needed to accept the reality
  3. disease

  4. He needed killing, and he and we needed it to be accomplished at the hands of Americans.
  5. He proceeds back to the doorway, where we and he see Fell,
  6. Was Hitler not fully Hitler, the Nazis the Nazis, until he and they annexed Poland?
  7. the passion and release that they and he crave so much.
  8. As you know, George, both she and we agreed to party rules
  9. the many meetings and public hearings on this issue in which we and she have participated
  10. Perhaps she and they somehow missed the last 50 years of Eastern European history.
  11. As she followed the frustrated felines she noticed that they and she had left footprints in the dust on the steps.
  12. We and they thank you for your cooperation in this time of national crisis,
  13. They and we have a right to expect better excuses for wrong-doing from our government

Why such a marked difference between coordinations of two singular pronouns and those involving a plural? Thomas Grano‘s 2006 honors thesis has a hell of a lot of other research about all kinds of coordinations of English pronouns with other pronouns and full NPs, but doesn’t seem to address this situations. Grano does develop a principle of frequency-based prescriptive conformity, which says that the more frequently some nonstandard form shows up, the more likely it is to be exposed to “prescriptive pressure” and changed to the standardized form. However, nonstandard us and them and the other coordinated accusative pronouns don’t seem to be very frequent at all, so the principle is silent here.

Meanwhile, I need to try to elicit some coordinations involving plural pronouns from Doug and Adam. If we and they sounds wrong to them, but us and them as a subject is so rare in the language input they’ve been hearing, what will they actually say?

Posted in Coordination, Pronouns | 2 Comments »

Between Me and the Pawn Shop, Not My Daughter and I

Posted by Neal on October 5, 2011

Doug has gotten into watching the reality TV show Pawn Stars in the past year. Yes, he and Adam are well aware of the word play in the title, which reminds me of a tweet from Bill Walsh that I retweeted a few months ago, to the effect that porn is more egalitarian than the rest of the movie industry, because every actor is a star. Anyway, I’ve gotten so I know by hear the opening monologue: “I’m Rick Harrison, and this is my pawn shop. I work here with my old man, and my son, Big Hoss. Everything in here has a story … and a price. One thing I’ve learned in twenty years: You never know what is gonna come through that door.”

Why did Snoop Dogg carry an umbrella?

Doug was watching an episode a few nights ago, and in one segment a man wanted to sell a doll-likeness of Snoop Dogg, still in the box, which his daughter had given to him. He and Chumlee settled on a price of $100. Out in the parking lot afterwards, the seller told the camera crew about what his daughter might think of selling her gift to him. He said:

That’s gonna be between me and the pawn shop, not my daughter and I.

This is an interesting new piece in the developing between you and me/I picture. There’s of course the standard rule, such that as part of the object of the preposition between, the first person singular pronoun should be in its accusative me form. Then there’s the politeness-based rule, which is by now just about standard for a big chunk of English speakers: It’s politer to use the nominative form I when it’s in a coordination. (And myself when it’s not.)

Then there’s whatever rule this guy is using. In the first coordination, he has me and the pawn shop; in the second, my daughter and I. Is his rule that in a coordination, the first person singular pronoun is me when it comes first, and I when it comes last? Me when it’s emphasized, I when it’s not? Me when it’s first and emphasized, I otherwise? Me when it’s about business, I when it’s about family? Or is it possible that he just uses me and I in free variation?

Posted in Prescriptive grammar, Pronouns, TV | 8 Comments »

Just You and Me. And Maybe Them.

Posted by Neal on July 23, 2011

All right, time to finish making good on my Grammar Girl book giveaway contest. Today I’m writing on the topic suggested by the third of the winners, named Anne. Anne wrote:

Last year I enrolled in an Ancient Greek language course. The cases, tenses, verb agreements etc. came as a shock to me and for that reason I began searching out how to use English correctly. My impassioned instructor told us of the trade culture of Papua New Guinea that necessitated words that specified relationships between parties. He said there was a word for “you and me”, a word for “you and me but not them”, a word for “you and me and them” etc. It got me thinking about how extremely specified English is, yet rarely … are the definitions of words heeded when used.

To tell you the truth, I’m not quite sure what Anne had in mind with that last sentence. Maybe she meant was thinking about people who say in lieu of when they mean in view of, or hysterical instead of hilarious. But I didn’t choose this topic because of that last part, which would probably be too broad for a single blog post anyway. I chose it because the first part brought back memories, and the second part happens to be something I was just reading about.

Anne’s story of learning Ancient Greek took me back to a late summer day in El Paso, Texas, just before I started my freshman year in high school. I walked to the Eastwood High gym that afternoon to pick up my textbooks for the coming year, including volume 1 of Living Latin. After two years of junior high school Spanish, I was eager to begin learning Latin, and as I walked back home, I opened the book to see what was in store for me.

Some pictures with Latin labels: “FEMINA”, “FLVMEN”, “CANIS”. A few sample sentences, the only one of which I remember is Manus manum lavat: “One hand washes the other.” Then there was some stuff about noun declensions. Declensions? What’s a declension? That worried me a little. I flipped to the back and found the appendix, and my slight worry grew into moderate anxiety as I saw phrases like fifth declension, accusative case, and fourth conjugation. When I came across pluperfect tense, I knew I’d better do something before school began. Even if I didn’t know what declensions, cases, or conjugations were, I had thought I at least knew what a verb tense was. I knew about past, present, and future tense in English, and the present and preterite tense in Spanish. (That’s right: two years of Spanish; two verb tenses learned. At least for regular verbs.) But with this “pluperfect” tense staring back at me, I realized I needed an English grammar refresher (or more accurately, a fresher) before I started anything in Latin.

When I got home, I found a section on English grammar in the back pages of our dictionary, and finally learned what the present perfect, past perfect, and future perfect tenses were. And the subjunctive mood. Before, those had just been vague terms that were good only for conversations when you wanted to talk about grammar jokingly, kind of like when people talk about a nonexistent distant relation as “my father’s ninth cousin, twice removed”. (You know they don’t know what they’re talking about when they say that, because if they did, they’d say “my tenth cousin, once removed”, or “my ninth cousin, three times removed”.) I still didn’t know what declensions were, or the pluperfect tense, but now I didn’t have the uneasy feeling that they were things I should know at the outset. So that’s how learning a classical language helped Anne and me with our English: By scaring us into learning English grammar on our own!

Now, as for the second part of Anne’s suggestion, I read a paper called “‘We rules: The impact of an inclusive/exclusive opposition on the paradigmatic structure of person marking,” by Michael Cysouw (in Pronouns — Grammar and Representation, 2002, ed. by Horst J. Simon and Heike Wiese). He had investigated a sampling of languages from around the world to find out what patterns there were to homophony among pronouns (and among its person markers for its verbs). For example, Standard English uses just one pronoun, you, for second person singular and second person plural. German uses Sie for both third person singular feminine (“she”) and second person plural (or polite singular). And in what should be Standard English, they functions as both third person plural and third person singular common gender. Cysouw found that there was a correlation between the kinds of pronoun homophony in a language and how it handled the concepts of inclusive and exclusive “we”.

First, some background. Cysouw excluded from his study languages that had number distinctions like dual (just two participants) or paucal (a few), and focused only on those that distinguished singular from plural. For these languages, there are eight possible categories for person, three of them singular and five of them plural. The singulars are the familiar first person (speaker), second person (single addressee), and third person (anyone else). For the plurals, there is second person (multiple addressees) and third person (multiple others), which makes five total. The remaining three are all versions of first person plural. There’s the “exclusive ‘we’”, i.e. speaker plus other(s) but not including the addressee(s), which makes six. I would have thought the “inclusive ‘we’” would bring the total to seven, but I was surprised to find that there are two kinds of inclusive “we”, as Anne mentioned. Speaker plus addressee(s) and no one else, i.e. “you and me but not them”, is known as the minimal inclusive first person plural. Speaker plus addressee(s) plus others, i.e. “you and me and them”, is the augmented inclusive first person plural.

Theoretically, among these eight possibilities, any pair of person categories could be homophonous, but in fact, only a few kinds of homophony tend to occur. By my calculations, there are 618 possible ways for homophony to exist in these eight categories, if you sum up the possibilities for zero homophony, only two homophones, only three, four, five, six, and finally complete homophony. But out of 265 languages, Cysouw found only 62 arrangements of homophony. Nine of those arrangements accounted for about 70% of the languages. I’ve illustrated eight of them below, with matching colors (other than white) indicating homophony. The ninth case is the case of zero homophony, which I didn’t include because eight diagrams make a tidier picture, and because you can picture this schematic without any color in it yourselves.

Patterns of pronoun homophony

Latin would be the pattern on the top right. As far as its present tense suffixes go, English isn’t among these nine. As far as pronouns go, English comes closest to the top middle diagram: We make no distinction between any of the three kinds of “we”, and our second person singular and plural are homophonous. If we take singular they into account, the fit is closer because of the homophony on the bottom row, but not perfect because of the distinct he, she, and it. The patterns on the bottom row are languages that distinguish between inclusive and exclusive “we”, but not between minimal and augmented inclusive “we”.

One thing that you can notice immediately about the most common pronoun setups is that any homophony is between (or among) contiguous cells in the table, though homophony among noncontiguous cells is certainly attested in languages of the world. For example, first and third person singular are sometimes homophonous; in Spanish, these two forms are identical in the imperfect, present subjunctive, imperfect subjunctive, and conditional.

One thing that Cysouw noticed is that when a language has a distinction between inclusive and exclusive “we”, none of its singular forms are homophonous. None of the four common patterns on the bottom row have singular homophony (or in the top row, either, though that’s not relevant here), nor did any of the rest of Cysouw’s sampled languages that had this distinction. Furthermore, languages with the inclusive/exclusive “we” distinction usually don’t show plural homophony, either (beyond minimal and augmented inclusive “we”). Only 12% of Cysouw’s languages with the inclusive/exclusive distinction had some kind of plural homophony, compared to 28% for those that didn’t have the distinction.

Cysouw further observed that the level of pronoun homophony for the singular or plural columns in these most common patterns follows a kind of hierarchy. If there’s going to be any person homophony at all, it will be between minimal and augmented inclusive “we”. If there’s more person homophony, it will be to erase the distinction between inclusive and exclusive “we”. Beyond that, you’ll find that second person plural is thrown in. If there’s even more person homophony than that, it will be for first and second person in the singular to be homophonous as well. However, this hierarchy is only true of personIndependent of this hierarchy, there can be various kinds of number homophony (or as Cysouw calls it, “horizontal homophony”) going on, too.

Cysouw made several other generalizations about person marking, both in stand-alone pronouns, clitics (unstressed pronouns that can’t stand alone), and marking of the verbs, but the above are the most salient. What I wonder now is whether there are any languages that distinguish between all of these kinds of “we” plus the “speaker + speaker” version of “we” — in other words, the “we” that refers to two or more speakers saying something in unison, like “We wish you a merry Christmas.” And although I’m sure they have a way to do it, I wonder how languages with first and second person plural homophony express the thought, “Just between you and me.”

Anne, thanks for the suggestion; good luck with Ancient Greek; and get good use out of Grammar Girl’s Ultimate Writing Guide!

Posted in Pronouns | 13 Comments »

We Don’t Speak the Same Language

Posted by Neal on March 23, 2011

Parents often complain that they and their teenage kids don’t speak the same language. They mean it jokingly, figuratively, but from a linguistic point of view it’s true in a literal way. Every generation of speakers has to create their native language anew from the little of it they hear. The language they end up with is like a starfish whose body has been regenerated from just one or two cut-off legs. (The analogy breaks down when you try to compare the language of the previous generation to the original starfish that has to regenerate its lost legs, but still.) When you think of it that way, it’s no surprise that language changes from generation to generation. The amazing thing is how close to the earlier generation’s language the regenerated language manages to come.

I’ve known this intellectually from the first class in historical linguistics I took, but it’s still disconcerting to find myself realizing that Doug and I speak different languages. Sure, I’ve enjoyed observing his acquisition of English and how it differs from what I speak, like when I heard him say, “That’s what he was like” to mean, “That’s what he was thinking”, or when he shared the reasoning he went through that led him to prefer on accident to by accident, or various other things you can read about in the Darndest Things tab. (One of these days, I’ll break it into separate tabs for Doug and for Adam.) But the differences have been building up, and when he talks on the phone with his friends, and laughs at dirty jokes I thought would go past him (all in his cracking voice that I hope will settle into its final form soon), I continually have to acknowledge how much of his language he’s getting from sources other than his family.

A couple of tweets I sent out last month:

Defiance! When I told my 10yo son singular of “biceps” is still “biceps”, my 12yo son dared to say he’d continue to call it “bicep” ANYWAY! (link)

More filial defiance! Son unapologetically says he will continue to call “(” a parenthesee. “Parenthesis, parenthesee, whatever.” (link)

Of course, these overgeneralizations are well-established in prior generations of English speakers, too, but the point is that while they’re not in my English, they’re entrenched in Doug’s.

Other differences between Doug’s language and mine reflect more recent developments in English. No matter how many times he says that something is “jacked up“, whether it’s a glitch in a video game or an unfair grade his friend got, I keep thinking of changing a car tire, and want to tell him, “Say ‘messed up’!”, or even the tabooed synonym that I’m almost certain must be the source of jacked up.

Need I even mention that he doesn’t use random the way I do?

But what really brought home the differences between Neal-language and Doug-language was a discussion I had with him about my most recent Visual Thesaurus column, on the possessive relative pronoun whose. Near the end, I mention the innovative form that’s, as in:

the only one that’s title has been released

That was from Doug in 2009, talking about upcoming volumes in a series of novels he was reading. I made note of Doug’s use of that’s at the time, and noticed it again a couple more times recently. And when I mentioned it to him in our conversation, did he suddenly see why that’s was so unusual? No way! He was a little surprised to learn that that’s as a possessive relative hadn’t been around for very long, but it didn’t bother him at all. He even said he’d most likely use it instead of whose in the examples I was talking about.

Doug and I are speaking different languages.

Posted in Diachronic, Doug, Pronouns, Variation | 15 Comments »

Books That I Want to Come Out or Get

Posted by Neal on June 15, 2010

I was ripping sheets out of a memo pad this morning, trying to find a blank one for a grocery list, when I came across one with two quotations from Doug, dated October 18, 2008. I guess I meant to write about them at some point, so why not now? Here’s the first one, with Doug talking about a lot of books in series he was reading whose next volume was to be published soon, or was already available:

There’s quite a few books that I want to come out or get.

Let’s expand that out into two sentences. First, there’s

There’s quite a few books that I want __ to come out.

Here, want is a verb that takes an NP and an infinitive as its complements: You want something to happen. The gap I’ve left in the sentence corresponds to that NP complement of want, which has been left out in order to form the relative clause that I want __ to come out, which modifies books.

Now the other sentence:

There’s quite a few books that I want to get __.

In this sentence, want just takes an infinitival complement: You want to do something. The gap here corresponds to the direct object of get, which has been left out in order to form the relative clause I want to get __, which again modifies books.

What I find interesting is that a single token of want is used in two ways, with different syntactic requirements and slightly different semantics. I wrote about this kind of thing in my dissertation, where I had another example a lot like Doug’s, taken from a newspaper article in 2001 or 2002. It was a handwritten list confiscated from a high school girl, which got her in a lot of trouble in the post-Columbine atmosphere. The list was titled:

People I want to kill or die

That is, all persons x such that she wanted to kill x, or wanted x to die. Actually, since then I’ve realized this construction could be parsed a different way. It could also be a relative clause like the one in “things you have to do or suffer the consequences”: She could theoretically meant “persons x such that I want to kill x or die as a consequence of my failure to kill x.” But in context, it was clearly a structure like Doug’s.

The other Doug quotation was:

Here comes him.

Not much to say here except to note it’s another illustration of the colloquial rule for use of nominative pronouns: Use them only as simple subjects that come before their verb (e.g. Here he comes). Use objective in all other cases: coordinated subjects (me and him have the same teacher), standalone pronouns (Him?), predicate nominatives (It was him), and in this example, subjects that come after their verb.

Posted in Doug, Fillers and gaps, Non-ATB coordinations, Pronouns, Syntax | 10 Comments »

Adam Discovers Singular They

Posted by Neal on December 16, 2009

For the past six months, Doug has been keenly interested in birds and other wildlife. He’s had us take him to local (and not-so-local) nature centers, installed with our help an elaborate configuration of bird feeders in the back yard, and been reading his collection of field guides (acquired mostly in one go, for his birthday) more or less cover to cover. He and his mom will have conversations about what they saw at the birdfeeder during the day.

“I saw a hairy!” he’ll say.

“And I saw a downy and a red-bellied,” his mother will tell him.

“And I saw a couple of woodpeckers!” I’ll put in. Other birds than woodpeckers come, too. We’ve had mourning doves, juncos, starlings, purple finches, nuthatches, titmouses, cardinals, and sparrows, which I’m slowly learning to identify. But more often, if I see something interesting at the feeder, I’ll say, “Look at that!”, and Doug will say, “What is it?”, and I’ll say, “A bird!”

Meanwhile, last week we got our annual letter of concern from Adam’s school, notifying us officially that he’d missed more than ten days of class. This happens just about every year, because Adam gets sick so much. As if to celebrate the occasion, Adam announced on Sunday afternoon that he felt bad, and had a fever of 100.5 to back it up. So now he’s spent two more days home sick, and I’ve been prompting him at every turn to get through some more of the makeup work he still has stacked up from his earlier absences, especially now that I’m picturing two more days’ worth piling up on his desktop at school.

As he was completing the questions on his worksheet about the prefix dis-, he suddenly said:

Sometimes they can be singular.

“Oh?” I said, trying not to divulge anything. “Give me an example.”

Adam showed me the question: “What might cause you to distrust someone?” His answer was, “One thing is if they let you down.” Someone was singular, and the they was talking about that someone, so they was singular here.

“You’re right, Adam!” I said. This was amazing to me. It was only a few weeks ago that his teacher gave them all a worksheet on personal pronouns, summarizing facts for case (e.g. I vs. me), person (e.g. I vs. you or he/she/it), and number (e.g. I vs. we). I’d gone over the worksheet with Doug and Adam during supper one night, and I suspect Doug forgot about it as soon as he knew he wasn’t in danger of me asking another question about it during the next five minutes. But Adam had evidently kept the information, and was now realizing that it didn’t completely match what he knew about his language. He made my day!

“You’re thinking like a linguist!” I told him. Doug, meanwhile, was just as amazed that Adam could notice this kind of stuff as he was that I could.

“You know what I think of when I think about me and sentences and pronouns and stuff?” he asked me. “I think of you and birds!”

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Posted in Adam, Pronouns | 3 Comments »

Stupid Me Again

Posted by Neal on October 10, 2008

In Jeffrey Seglin’s “The Right Thing” ethics column/blog post from a couple of months back, a reader had written in about her poor judgment regarding an ex-boyfriend:

Stupid me made his house payments, paid the bills, supported his drinking habit, bought new tires for his truck.

Stupid me has come up before in this blog, in another newspaper column from another woman berating herself for poor judgment regarding boyfriends. In fact, this seems to be a pattern: I looked for “stupid me” in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, and found only one attestation with me used as the subject:

First you wanted to graduate from college. That was fine. No problem. I thought that was appropriate. Then you thought you should just get through the first two years of medical school. Even that was okay with me since I could get most of my Ph.D. coursework out of the way. But then you thought it best to put things off until you got yourself all the way through medical school. Are you detecting a pattern here or is it just me? Then the issue became getting the first year of residency behind you. Stupid me even accepted that, but now it’s the whole residency business. What about the fellowship deal you talked about last month? And then after that you might even think it best to wait while you set up your practice.
(Robin Cook, Shock, 2001)

There were also some attestations in which Stupid me was used as an appositive to the subject, along the lines of: Stupid me, I thought…. But apparently, to make a very hasty generalization, if someone uses “Stupid me” directly as the subject of a verb, it’ll be a woman berating herself for her naivete regarding men.

However, that wasn’t the main thing I wanted to talk about. Here’s where I was originally going: One of the rules that traditional grammar books are pretty good at teaching is to use the nominative form of a personal pronoun (I, he, she, we, they, and trivially, the nominative forms that look just like the accusatives: you, it) when it’s being used as the subject of a sentence. But rarely do they say what to do when you want to do anything more elaborate to that subject. About the most I’ve seen them do is to talk about coordinated pronouns, such as he and she, and give the rule about using whatever forms you’d use if you were using just one of the pronouns. But what do you do when you want to modify your pronoun with an adjective? The grammars I’ve seen leave their students high and dry on that one. The grammar book from my freshman-year English class in high school never talked about it. The ESL books I taught from never talked about it. Garner doesn’t talk about it. Even the descriptive MWDEU and CGEL don’t address this as far as I’ve been able to see.

What the grammar and usage guides ought to do, of course, is say to use the objective form when a pronoun is modified by an adjective, since phrases like *stupid I are clearly ridiculous. But I bet the first grammar book that notices adjectives modifying pronouns will go for the rule that’s easy to state but impossible to take seriously: Use whatever form you’d use if the adjective weren’t there.

Of course, I haven’t looked at every grammar book, and for all I know, one or more of them has, in fact, covered this topic. If you’ve seen it covered, who did it and what did they say?

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Posted in Prescriptive grammar, Pronouns | 9 Comments »

More on Whomever

Posted by Neal on April 12, 2008

If you found this post on whoever vs. whomever interesting, you can find further discussion of whomever in this post from Arnold Zwicky at the new and improved Language Log site. He identifies the origin of the confusion over whomever as “an unexamined theoretical assumption about syntax” that is still taught in schools (at least, in those that actually teach grammar).

Posted in Prescriptive grammar, Pronouns | 1 Comment »

If He and She Is Right, Why Does It Sound So Weird?

Posted by Neal on February 13, 2008

When Doug’s teacher returns a graded paper to him, he rolls it up into a tight cylinder. He does this so that he can poke it into his almost-but-not-quite zipped up backpack without having to take the backpack off its hook. After lunch he unzips the backpack enough to stuff his lunchbox into it. He leaves the backpack half unzipped after this, which allows him to shove in any later-arriving papers without having to roll them up. I have assembled this picture from regularly emptying his backpack of one or two randomly wrinkled papers, then his lunchbox, and finally, one by one, any rolled-then-flattened papers hiding underneath it. Once I’ve thown the lunchbox back on top of the fridge, it’s time to unfurl the papers and look at them. The last one I looked at yesterday was a language arts paper. Doug had had to identify a few sentences as declarative, interrogative, etc., label nouns as singular or plural, and correct some sentences. One of the sentences to be corrected was:

him and her take ice skating lessons on wednesday

Doug’s answer:

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Coordination, Prescriptive grammar, Pronouns, The darndest things | 9 Comments »


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