Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Pronouns’ Category

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 »

Whomever Is Never Actually Right

Posted by Neal on October 21, 2007

My wife and I watched this week’s episode of The Office last night, which featured the following scene (20:55 into the online version, accessible here):

Ryan: What I really want, honestly Michael, is for you to know it, so that you can communicate it to the people here, to your clients, to whomever.
Michael: [chuckle] OK.
Ryan: What?
Michael: It’s whoever, not whomever.
Ryan: No, it’s whomever.
Michael: No, whomever is never actually right. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Diachronic, Fused relatives, Prescriptive grammar, Pronouns | 20 Comments »

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?

Posted in Coordination, Pronouns | 3 Comments »

Stupid Me

Posted by Neal on January 4, 2005

Here’s something from a Carolyn Hax column that appeared in October 2002:

I gave brief explanation of an old bad, evil boyfriend who blindsided my by dumping me after two years and then showed up the next morning… and begged me to take him back and stupid me did, and it still ended badly….

“Stupid me did”? Ewww. But on the other hand, *Stupid I did is even worse. Looks like there was a conflict between (1) having the nominative I for a subject and (2) having accusative me in order to be able to modify it with stupid. In a case like this, I think most speakers would bypass the issue and say something like, “Stupidly, I did,” or “Like a fool, I did.” But this speaker boldly faced the challenge, made her choice, and chose in favor of constraint (2).

If I’d had a blog when this column came out, I’d have written about it, but instead the clipping has been stashed in a folder with other linguistically interesting newspaper clippings for two years. What inspired me to bring it out now? This post by Arnold Zwicky at Language Log. It’s an interesting analysis of the following quotation from author Seth Kanter:

People are used to these stories of Alaska that are romantic and beautiful, and flowing wilderness, and here comes me with, y’know, an assault rifle and a jug of R&R.

Zwicky’s analysis is well written and fun to read, and as an aside, he applies it to other cases of accusative subjects and third-person verb morphology in English:

[O]nce we have accusative subjects, the third-person singular verb form comes in here comes me is just what we’d expect. English verbs in finite clauses agree with nominative subjects, but default to third-person singular otherwise; this sort of defaulting is very well known in other languages, and can be seen elsewhere in English (either it’s Poor me is going to suffer for this or you can’t say it at all; but certainly *Poor me am going to suffer for this is just out, as, for that matter, is *Poor I am going to suffer for this).

The only question left is why *Poor I is no good in the first place. It just isn’t, I guess.

Posted in Pronouns, Syntax | 2 Comments »