Pronoun nonsense on Grammar Bytes

Hi! Greetings from Crazy Grammar Town! We’re still here… We’re still… here. This time we’re going to (again) look at a website called Grammar Bytes (the website is This “grammar” site wants to tell you about pronouns. They say that a “possessive noun should not be the antecedent for a pronoun.” What the heck does that mean? We’ll take it piece by juicy piece. Grammar Bytes says:

Possessive nouns function as adjectives. You can drive a fast car, a red car, a dirty car, or Mom’s car. Fast, red, and dirty are all adjectives telling us which car. The possessive noun Mom’s is adjectival too.

Yeah, ok, I guess. Tell me more.

You ruin the clarity of a sentence when the antecedent for a subject or object pronoun like he or him is a possessive noun.

Read this example:

Kevin’s fingers were strumming the guitar when he winked at Donna.

When we read this sentence, we assume that Kevin is the he winking at Donna. But remember that Kevin’s is adjectival, not a noun. If we replaced Kevin’s with agile, quick, or long, we wouldn’t consider any of those adjectives the antecedent for he, so we shouldn’t consider Kevin’s either. And the fingers certainly aren’t doing the winking as they have no eyes!

Hold up! Who the hell would say “Agile fingers were strumming the guitar when he winked at Donna”? Answer: absolutely no one. I mean, did you really misunderstand Grammar Bytes’ example sentence? You knew Kevin was winking at Donna while he strummed the guitar. No problem. You would even understand it if someone said, “Kevin’s fingers were strumming the guitar. Then he winked at Donna.” BECAUSE THAT’S HOW PRONOUNS WORK! You know who is referred to by context. And there is no rule of grammar that says pronouns can’t refer to things across sentence boundaries. Think about how often you use pronouns and how often you misunderstand who the pronoun refers to. The ratio is 1 gajillion to zero.

But wait! Grammar Bytes goes on:

Furthermore, a reader might wonder if the whole Kevin is strumming the guitar or if just his disembodied fingers are making the music. The sentence in its current version is unclear.

Dafuck? Who strums a guitar with their whole body?

There’s more:

To fix the problem, you can replace the pronoun with a specific noun. You can’t have a pronoun reference error if you have no pronoun!

Kevin’s fingers were strumming the guitar when this young man winked at Donna.

See, now here’s where things get more confusing. Because to me “this young man” might not refer to Kevin. Because guess what? “This young man” is not specific! It’s arguably less specific than the pronoun. So if you write this, you will be more clear to Grammar Bytes and less clear to everyone else.


#Themself all the way

Oxford Dictionaries has a great blog post called “Is ‘themself’ a real word?” After showing that themself is indeed a really real word, they note that it’s still not quite acceptable in Standard English. I really wish it was though. It’s so perfect. Check out the post to see more!


Call them what they want

There was an op-ed by Abigail Shrier in the Wall Street Journal (it’s paywalled, but no need to click, I’ve copied the relevant bits below) on August 29, 2018. It’s about what a terrible thing it is to make public employees use the preferred pronouns of the public individuals that they are serving. Basically, it’s about how people should be able to call others “he” or “she” even if the person that they are talking to prefers a different pronoun, such as “they”.

I only want to point out two problems with this person’s argument. First, the writer says:

Typically, in America, when groups disagree, we leave them to employ the vocabularies that reflect their values. My “affirmative action” is your “racial preferences.” One person’s “fetus” is another’s “baby boy.” This is as it should be; an entire worldview is packed into the word “fetus.” Another is contained in the reference to one person as “them” or “they.” For those with a religious conviction that sex is both biological and binary, God’s purposeful creation, denial of this involves sacrilege no less than bowing to idols in the town square. When the state compels such denial among religious people, it clobbers the Constitution’s guarantee of free exercise of religion, lending government power to a contemporary variant on forced conversion.

But that’s not how it works. If you work for the government and you want to use slurs to refer to people, too bad. You can’t do that. I’m sure Richard Spencer (the head racist du jour) or David Duke (your parents’ racist du jour) would argue that it is part of their “worldview” to call black and brown and gay people all the horrible things that they call them. But fuck that nonsense. We don’t let them use the words that they want. We shun them for it. And if they work for the government, we penalize them for it (yeah, I know, things are pretty bad right now, but if you’re arguing that the racists currently in the US government should be allowed to keep on being racist, then you’re wrong).

Second, the writer backs up a linguistic argument* by referencing Locke. Philip Locke, you ask? The linguist who wrote University Grammar: A University Course? Haha. No. John Locke, the [checks notes] philosopher from the [checks notes again] 17th century. I wonder if anything has changed in linguistics since then. Guess not!

Here’s what it boils down to: you don’t get to call anyone anything you want without any repercussions. Sorry! (not sorry) Can’t bring yourself to use a person’s preferred pronoun because of your bigoted worldview? Change your worldview. Or just call them by their name FFS. This isn’t that difficult and you don’t need to write an op-ed about it, Abigail.

Ok, one final point. The writer says:

In most contexts, I would have no problem addressing others in any manner they chose.

That sounds an awful lot like “I’m not a racist, but…”


*Sure, the argument is about culture and worldviews and society – but wrapped up in all of that is language. And the article is specifically about words.

A great linguistics show on NPR’s Code Switch

Earlier this year, I wrote about an episode of NPR’s Code Switch and I was highly critical. The problems with that show weren’t the fault of the hosts, but rather a theater professor who was out of his league talking about American accents (much like I would be out of my league talking about theater in a radio interview). But Code Switch is back with another episode on linguistics and… Wow, is it good! I mean really, really good. They talked to linguists and language scholars about the origin of Broadcaster English and how there is no single variety of Standard American English. They also got into the stigmatization of accents in society and the media and what that means for people (with the help of Prof. Okim Kang, who has been studying this topic).

And like a good news article, they put a human perspective on it by talking to someone who has been dealing with the problems that come from the insistence that newscasters speak Standard American English.

I’m not going to spoil any more of it for you. I recommend that you go listen to this episode yourself. You can find the transcript or download the episode here. Listen online  here.

And if that’s not enough for you, then you’re in luck. These are some big topics in linguistics. There’s much more out there for you to learn about them.

A tired English “rule”

Here’s a good example of why we split infinitives in English:

You may have heard that it’s bad grammar to split an infinitive. This is a made up rule that was taken directly from Latin. Thankfully, it seems to have been buried for good as people are starting to realize it’s a ridiculous rule. The infinitive is already split in English – there’s always a space between to and the verb. And you can see here that following the rule would produce some really weird sentences:

I wonder what it feels like to be not tired.

I wonder what it feels like not to be tired.

Both of those sound unnatural and unindiomatic.

Who cares about Latin plurals?

Apparently a lot of people do. You know this. You’ve probably heard something along the lines of what is said in the following tweet:

Mike Pope had a nice response:

But this got me thinking: It’s a bit of slippery slope to say that we have to follow the pluralization rules for Latin with (some) Latin words. Why stop with Latin? English has taken words from other languages as well. And why stop at pluralization? Latin has endings for when a word was used as a subject or object (if my rudimentary Latin is correct). So why not bring those along too? I wrote a joking response to point this out:

As fate would have it, James Harbeck published an article on this very topic on the very same day that these tweets appeared. And Mike Pope published a similar blog post a while ago. I’m not going to restate what they say – you should go read their posts. Instead, I’d like to second what Dr Sarah Shulist responded with and add to it:

The reason that we are told to follow the Latin’s pluralization methods for words from Latin is because Latin has long been held in high prestige by educators and others who wield power in society and language learning. That’s it. If Finnish was held in as high regard as Latin, then we would have people saying it’s incorrect to use saunas because the plural form in Finnish is saunat. But Finnish is not held in the same regard as Latin. Same goes for almost every other language.

But when you think about it, requiring people to use Latin plurals is actually pretty… lazy. We’re talking about noun morphology and in English there are really only a few things we can do to words that are nouns. I know I’m oversimplifying things here, but stay with me. We can:

  • make nouns plural (hero >> heroes)
  • add a genitive marker (hero >> hero’s)
  • add prefixes and suffixes (superhero, heroism, etc.)

Is anyone arguing for applying the Latin genitive to words from Latin? Of course not. Because the prescription that you must use Latin plurals with words from Latin isn’t about grammar at all. It’s about language policing and linguistic discrimination. It’s about putting other people down for following English grammar instead of Latin grammar WHEN THEY’RE SPEAKING ENGLISH. And like most forms of discrimination, it’s lazy thinking. It is only one aspect of noun morphology applied to only some words from pretty much only one language.

To be clear: I’m not saying that it’s discriminatory to use a word from another language and not follow the morphology of that language. It’s kind of the opposite of that. To say that people must follow the pluralization morphology of Latin when they use a word from Latin is classist. When people are speaking English, there is nothing wrong with them using plain old English morphology to pluralize nouns. And, yes, that holds for words from Latin too. It’s possible that people don’t realize that they’re practicing linguistic discrimination when they play the pedant card with words from Latin, but that’s not an excuse. Maybe next time point out that the hill they are dying on isn’t so much a mighty mountain as it is a puny pismire hill.

Anyway, by far the most pragmatic reply was from Marie Georghiou:

Marie wins.

Delete your grammar advice, YUNiversity

There’s a website called YUNiversity. They claim to be “Grammar bosses for Gen TL;DR” and their posts are full of lots of memes and emoji. That’s not a bad thing. I use memes (probably old ones, but whatevs) in my grammar classes and linguists are all about them emoji. No, problem with the YUNiversity isn’t their dank memes. It’s their dumb grammar. Let’s take a look. Continue reading “Delete your grammar advice, YUNiversity”