Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Pronouns’ Category

Whoever’s Team We Like

Posted by Neal on December 1, 2017

In a post from exactly one year ago, I began with a sentence that I’d heard on the “Criminal” podcast. Here’s the original sentence, followed by the way that I would express the intended thought:

  1. I’d be whoever’s girlfriend had the dope.
  2. I’d be whoever had the dope’s girlfriend.

In the original sentence, instead of the possessive ‘s attaching to the entire fused relative whoever had the dope, it attaches just to the word whoever, and takes the word girlfriend along with it. It was so unusual that I went looking for similar examples in COCA, although I ended up noticing something even more interesting that ended up taking over the rest of the post. Now, though, I want to get back to whoever’s girlfriend had the dope. As it happens, I did find an analogous example when I searched COCA. Here it is, with my paraphrase underneath it.

  1. I mean we want to have whoever’s team we like to win so that we can get lucky later.
  2. I mean we want to have whoever we like’s team to win so that we can get lucky later.

Looking at these two examples, one explanation that comes to mind is that it’s just easier to go ahead and put the possessive marker on whoever right away, and postpone saying the rest of the clause until it’s not breaking up a determiner-noun cluster. Unfortunately, it isn’t easy to check for counterexamples on COCA, because searching for whoever’s is not going to bring you any examples of whoever+[some clause]+‘s.

So instead, I did some ordinary Google searches for a few whoever clauses I made from scratch. I started with whoever as a subject, and found these examples:

  1. The picture itself wasn’t scary but it would strike fear in whoever saw it’s hearts.
  2. When we did have the odd beer thrown up on stage I just wish I could go to whoever did it’s place of work, if he actually had a job, and tip it over his head and think, ‘what do you reckon? Is it funny?’
  3. Dirt Clod, just lay off if you dont like it dont buy it, its whoever buys it’s deal
  4. Well sure, but then it’s still your (or whoever bought it’s) land, so you just turf them off.

Then I created a few with whoever as an object, and found more examples:

  1. You just closed your eyes and guessed the amount of cash you put into whoever you bought it from’s hand?
  2. Yeah like /u/cmedrano said you’d just need to add your vehicle to whoever you bought it from’s account.
  3. They’ll be signed on to the alliance in a day, and then we can track down whoever you saw’s planet.
  4. Whoever you saw’s gembox spawned in the 2 hours they were able to spawn.
  5. There is an upper management level above customer service, whoever you talked to’s boss would be in that level, but they don’t generally speak directly to customers.

Evidently, some speakers are not put off by the inconvenience of putting the possessive ‘s at the end of a clause instead of directly on the whoever. How about you?

Posted in Ambiguity, Fused relatives, Pronouns | 1 Comment »


Posted by Neal on December 1, 2016

This post began as an exploration of a head-scratcher of a sentence I heard on an episode of Radiotopia’s Criminal podcast. In it, a woman described being an inmate in a prison that housed both men and women. (She described it as a “co-ed prison,” which is worthy of comment in itself, but not the main thing I was interested in.) The men greatly outnumbered the women, which was good for her, because she was addicted to drugs, and could do favors of the sexual kind for male prisoners who had them. Or as she put it:

I’d be whoever’s girlfriend had the dope.

Sheer context allowed me to twist this sentence into a shape that matched (for me) the meaning she was getting at:

I’d be the girlfriend of whoever had the dope.

or perhaps

I’d be whoever had the dope‘s girlfriend.

Context notwithstanding, the only meaning I can get from the actual utterance is that:

  1. Some person X has girlfriend Y.
  2. Y has the dope.
  3. The speaker will somehow become Y.

Was this simply an error, or is it something licensed by the mental grammars of other English speakers? I’ll table that question for now, because in the course of trying to answer it, I’ve discovered there’s another oddity involving the possessive form of whoever that I’d never even noticed–and as far as I’ve been able to tell so far, others haven’t, either.

Take a look at this handful of COCA examples I found that contain a fused relative involving whoever’s:

  1. Ronnie is whoever’s agent he needs to be.
  2. Now take the dead battery and put it in whoever’s car you got the good one out of.
  3. It happened on the second month of his presidency. He went on for 94 more months with whoever’s blood was in him.
  4. …playing strip poker in whoever’s house had no parents in it on rainy days
  5. whoever’s brain is highest in coherence dominates. do you believe this? whosoever’s brain is highest in chaos will dominate if brains are like crowds, or greed,

In these sentences, the fused relative performs a grammatical function in the larger sentence. For example, in (1), whoever’s agent he needs to be is the complement of is. In (2), whoever’s car you got the good one out of is the object of the preposition in. And so on.

Now I want to focus specifically on the heads of the free relatives: the whoever’s followed by the noun: agent, car, blood,…. Notice that this noun is the part that delivers the primary meaning to the verb in the larger sentence (or as linguists call it, the matrix clause). In (1), Ronnie is an agent. In (2), the command is to put something in a car. In (3), Ronald Reagan has someone’s transfused blood in him. In (4), we’re talking about playing strip poker in a house. And in (5), the thing that dominates is a brain. I’ll call this the “noun head” parse.

So far, so good. Now let’s consider these other sentences, also from COCA:

  1. it feels like they are living the life of whoever’s brain was recorded.
  2. Whoever’s pitch is chosen will earn a major promotion.
  3. Or we’ll each pick a [Jeopardy!] contestant at the beginning and whoever’s contestant wins doesn’t have to do dishes.
  4. But they knew that whoever’s DNA this was would be the killer.
  5. Whoever’s shack this is, is a Tupac Shakur freak.

In these examples, it’s not the nouns (brain, pitch, contestant, DNA, shack) that provide the meaning that completes the meaning of the verb in the matrix clause. So in (6), it feels like we’re living the life of the person whose brain was recorded–not the life of the brain of that person. In (7), it’s a person, not a pitch, that will earn a major promotion. In (8), the person who doesn’t have to do the dishes is not the Jeopardy! contestant, but the TV watcher who chose that contestant. In (9), the killer is a person, not that person’s DNA. In (10), the Tupac Shakur freak is a person, not that person’s shack. In short, in these examples, it’s the whoever’s that’s providing the main meaning to the matrix clause. I’ll call this the “pronoun head” parse.

All of these sentences are grammatical for me, but possessive fused relatives are so rare that I’ve only ever had to deal with one such sentence at a time. This COCA search was the first time that I came face-to-face with the two ways of parsing them, because it was the first time I had so many all in one place. Furthermore, the even split you see in the lists above is what I found in the data: After I discarded irrelevant examples, and examples that were ambiguous between the noun-head and pronoun-head parses, the ones I’ve listed here were all the ones that remained.

For completeness, I also did the search with the much rarer whosever, and what do you know, of the two relevant examples I found, there’s one of each:

  1. then match up the plaster casts with whosever shoes they are, and that way you could catch him
  2. Whosever pole lands the straightest and farthest wins.

In (11), we have a noun-head parse: You match up plaster casts with shoes, not with people. In (12), we have a pronoun-head parse: The winner is a person, not a pole.

I looked in CGEL, expecting to find that the interesting discovery I’d just made was listed as a matter of course on page 1302 or somewhere. That’s what usually happens. But CGEL didn’t even touch on whoever’s/whosever at all, much less the details like the kind I’m discussing. I haven’t found it in some classic works on fused relatives (e.g. Bresnan & Grimshaw 1978, for those who are into this subject). If you know of anything that’s been published on this, please mention it in the comments!

Posted in Ambiguity, Fused relatives, Pronouns | 7 Comments »

She’ll Tell Them All!

Posted by Neal on January 20, 2016

It’s 2016, and summer will be here in a few short months. Time to start planning your vacations! At least, it was time to start for one Reynoldsburg resident, who went to the school district website to find out when school started for the 2017 school year. She was taken by surprise when she found that the first day of school would be August 10. Had she read right? Was it really August 20? No! August 10 it was. Who decided that?

She put the question on Facebook, and the comments came streaming in. I followed them, not only because the start date affects my family’s summer plans, too, but also because I was elected to the school board last November, just took office a couple of weeks ago, and have been appointed to the board’s calendar committee. I’ll be one of the people making decisions about starting and ending dates for future school years. At one point, someone suggested that the school board’s calendar committee would be the appropriate people to complain to, and then the comment thread took a turn for the funny:


Louis and Lisa’s repartee hinged on a nice syntactic ambiguity made possible by the oddity of the English word all. All is funny. What part of speech is it? The easiest classification to make is to call it a determiner (D), when it appears before plural or non-count nouns to make a noun phrase, as in all cows eat grass. But the kind you’re more likely to encounter is in sentences like They all laughed at me when I said I wanted to be a comedian! or Gimme all your lovin’. It’s still a determiner, but it’s not functioning in the same way. It’s appearing in places where you can’t use other determiners: Notice the badness of *They none laughed at me and *Gimme some your lovin’.

Louis’s original comment has all modifying the pronoun them: Don’t just email some members of the committee your complaints; email all of them! (I’ve changed email for the more common verb tell, but the analysis is the same.)
The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language analyzes them all (or us all or you all) in sentences like this as a compound pronoun.

Slight detour: I was surprised to learn that CGEL did not go with a similar analysis for a sentence like They all laughed at me. In a sentence like that, they classify all as a quantificational adjunct–in other words, it’s acting like an adverb. Here are some differences they point out between they all with a quantificational adjunct and compound pronoun them all:

  1. Quantificational adjunct all can go with pronouns or nouns. All as part of a compound pronoun does not allow non-pronouns.
    • Quantificational adjunct: They all laughed. / The guys all laughed.
    • Compound pronoun: She saw them all. / *She saw the guys all.
  2. You can insert an adverb between a pronoun and quantificational-adjunct all. However, you can’t break up a compound pronoun with an adverb.
    • Quantificational adjunct: They all definitely laughed. / They definitely all laughed.
    • Compound pronoun: She definitely saw them all. / *She saw them definitely all.

Returning to Louis and Lisa’s exchange, Lisa chose an alternative parse for Louis’s comment. She took all to modify my opinions.
CGEL‘s name for something that comes right before a noun phrase that’s already complete (such as my opinions) is predeterminer.

This ambiguity between whether all associates to the left with them all, or to the right with all my opinions reminds me of squinting ambiguities such as Quitting smoking now greatly reduces risks to your health. It also reminds me of the time a cashier asked me, “Is that all for you?” and I was like, “That’s none of your business!”

Anyway, I’m sure that we members of the calendar committee will all hear all of Lisa’s opinions on the school calendar–and other people’s opinions, too. I’m looking forward to it!

Posted in Attachment ambiguity, Ohioana, Pronouns | 1 Comment »

He Conquers Who Endures

Posted by Neal on November 29, 2014

I saw this on the back of a T-shirt when I was at the grocery store:

He conquers who endures.

Too bad for those people who endure. Even after all their endurance, they get conquered in the end. He, whoever “he” is, is a patient conquerer.

However, I suspect the wearer of the T-shirt probably didn’t realize that this was the meaning it was conveying. He probably thought it meant something like “The person who endures conquers,” or “He who endures conquers.” (Or to put it more gender-neutrally, “They who endure conquer.”) But that would mean that two unusual things were going on in this sentence. Neither of them is unprecedented, but both of them happening in one short sentence is noteworthy.

First, the clause who endures would have to be a relative clause modifying he. This doesn’t happen so much in present-day English. The best-known example in recent years is probably the epithet He Who Must Not Be Named for Voldemort in the Harry Potter novels. And even here, speakers didn’t realize they could change the He to Him when the name was a direct object, as observed by Q. Pheevr here.

Second, this relative clause who endures is separated from he. Now sometimes relative clauses do get separated from their head nouns: a book was published that would be read for centuries by countless generations; a woman appeared who was also carrying her head in her hands; What type of workers were there who participated in building the Pyramids. However, this usually happens when the subject of a clause would be ridiculously long if you refused to break it up. He who endures is just three words.

With my interpretation, though, there’s only one unusual thing going on: who endures isn’t modifying a noun at all, but is acting like a noun phrase all by itself. This is somewhat unusual, but not terribly so. It’s unusual because this kind of clause (known as a fused relative), more typically refers to things than to people. In other words, although sentences like That’s what I want and What you did was inexcusable are common enough, fused relatives like this one and the one in Who told me was my dad are somewhat rare. Exceptions include Can I help who’s next? and To whom it may concern.

Overall, then, my parse is the better choice syntactically. After a bit of internet-searching, though, I found that this is a translation of a Latin quotation from an ancient Roman satirist named Persius, although the opinion seems to be that he wasn’t being satirical when he wrote this:

Vincit qui patitur.

People who explain this quotation talk about the need for persistence in order to achieve victory, which definitely sounds more like the “They who endure conquer” interpretation. OK, so maybe it’s possible that I chose the incorrect interpretation for that guy’s T-shirt. But now I can write about how Latin is more precise than English, and you pick up this ambiguity in translation! Except that the same ambiguity exists in the Latin phrasing. Here’s how…

Vincit means “conquers”. Like its English translation, it can be transitive (as in Omnia vincit amor, “Love conquers all”) or intransitive (as in In hoc signo vinces, “By this sign you will conquer”), so you have to use the context to tell whether a nearby noun phrase is a subject or direct object. Usually in Latin, case endings do this, as illustrated below:

Vincit rex. “The king conquers.”
Vincit regem. “He/she conquers the king.”

Qui patitur means “who suffers (or endures)”, and it’s acting as a fused relative, just like its translation in English. Even in Latin, though, we can’t tell if that fused relative is a subject or an object. It’s the same problem that confuses English speakers about whoever and whomever. So actually, what we have here is a translation that is faithful even in preserving the ambiguity of the original!

Posted in Ambiguity, Fused relatives, Pronouns, Relative clauses | 11 Comments »

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 | 9 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 | 3 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 »