Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

What’s Mine and Yours

Posted by Neal on June 21, 2005

I was cleaning off the desktop today and came across a piece of paper that had gotten buried a few weeks ago. On it I’d written something I heard Morgan Spurlock (of Supersize Me fame) say during an interview on the Today show on May 23:

These people don’t have mine and yours best interest in mind.

His comment reminded me of the last linguistics class I taught. It was an introductory class, and when we got to syntax, I had decided to have the students do some actual syntax research instead of just learning about categories, constituents, and tree diagrams. I would put them in pairs, and give them a research question that they could generate their own data for by talking with each other. Then they could look at their data, see what kind of patterns they found, and summarize them in a descriptive rule. Yeah, that was the ticket, man! Learning by doing! They’d get a taste of the mysteries that lay just around corners of the language they’d never looked at closely. They’d experience the thrill of discovery when they detected rules they’d never heard form an English teacher but that they’d been following all their lives. Yep, that’s how the best teachers do it.

One of the research questions was what happened when you tried to coordinate various possessive determiners: his, her, my, your, our, their, its. Were all combinations OK? Just some? None? If they were ungrammatical, could they be fixed? I figured the data generation should be pretty easy: Just pick two from the list, put an and between them, and see how it sounds when you put a noun after the coordinated possessives.

I was explaining the procedure to the pair of students who had this question. “So what if you have, like, a car, and it also belongs to your husband. Can you say, ‘my and your car’?”

“I wouldn’t say that,” one of them told me. “I’d say ‘our car.'”

D’oh! She was right, of course. How could I give a context that wouldn’t allow her to take this easy way out? A context that would force her to tackle the my and your question head on?

“OK, suppose you’re having an argument with your husband, and you want to remind him that it’s not just his car, it’s yours, too. Could you say, ‘It’s not your car; it’s my and your car’?”

“I’d still say ‘our car.'”

This wasn’t working out the way I wanted. Meanwhile, the students with the question about coordinated wh words were calling me. So were the students who were working with too big a vs. too big of a.

“OK,” I said, “But suppose you want to emphasize that our includes you. Could you say, ‘It’s our car. That means it’s my and your car, not just your car’?” After that, the students were able to generate some data, and did pretty well if I recall. Don’t know if any thrill-of-discovery experiencing occurred, though.

Anyway, the reason that research question was even on the list was that one day I’d tried to coordinate my and your (yes, in a naturally occurring conversation) and realized that even though it seemed like it should be OK, it wasn’t. For me, the pattern was like this:

  • *my and your car
  • *your and my car
  • ?mine and your car
  • yours and my car

Why should I have to use the possessive pronouns (mine, yours) for the first coordinate instead of the determiners (my, your)? I didn’t know, but it was true.

And now we come back to Morgan Spurlock. Apparently my and your is no good for him, either. His alternative was to use pronouns for both coordinates, not just the for the first one like I do. Was mine and yours an example of the coordinated-possessives rule in his grammar? If so, I haven’t (knowingly) come across other speakers who have the same rule. Or was it an error, not generated by his grammar at all, but just produced in the split second when he realized my and your wasn’t going to work and couldn’t quite access the Plan B for this kind of situation in time?

3 Responses to “What’s Mine and Yours”

  1. ACW said

    Perhaps you can force yours and mine instead of ours by setting up a situation in which ours is ambiguous between the inclusive and exclusive reading, but the inclusive reading is intended.

  2. cleek said

    i nearly always stumble on that bit of construction. the only way i can make it work is if i consciously work through the phrase with only a single indirect object (?) at a time: “These people don’t have my best interests…” and “These people don’t have your best interests…”, then i combine them into a single sentence:

    “These people don’t have my and your best interests…”

    so, i really have to work to generate a sentence like that in real time. and i’m not even sure if that’s generates correct results; but it’s what i remember some teacher telling me, way back when, and i’m sticking with it.

  3. […] you liked this post on coordinated possessive pronouns, then be sure to check out Arnold Zwicky’s breakdown of […]

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