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 chompchomp.com). 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.

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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.

I, me and Oxford Dictionaries

I’m sure I’ve tweeted about this already, but the Oxford Dictionaries’ advice on the usage of pronouns just came across my interwebs again (they sent out this quiz in their email newsletter). It’s hard to imagine how a dictionary’s website gets this so wrong, but let’s go through it to see what’s up.

In their advice article “‘I’ or ‘me’?”, Oxford Dictionaries claims that in coordinated constructions where a pronoun and a proper name form the subject of a sentence, the pronoun used must be the subjective form of the pronoun (also called the nominative form). What this means is that in a sentence like “John and I went to the GWAR concert”, it is incorrect to use me instead of I. Let’s leave aside the fact that everyone everywhere naturally uses me in sentences like this. Let’s instead think about the advice that Oxford Dictionaries is giving. We’ll use the sentence that they use: Clare and I are going for a coffee. According to Oxford, it’s not just the subjective pronoun I that must be used in this sentence, only subjective pronouns must be used when the pronoun helps form the subject of a sentence. But how does this work? See if any of the sentences below sound odd to you.

  1. Clare and I are going for a coffee
  2. Clare and me are going for a coffee
  3. Clare and you are going for a coffee
  4. Clare and you are going for a coffee
  5. Clare and she are going for a coffee OR Clare and he are going for a coffee
  6. Clare and her are going for a coffee OR Clare and him are going for a coffee
  7. Clare and they are going for a coffee
  8. Clare and them are going for a coffee

If you’re like me, the first four sound fine (obviously, there’s no difference between the subjective and objective form of the 2nd person pronoun, they’re both you). The fifth one, however, sounds a bit stuffy compared to the sixth one (stuffy is a totally legit linguistics term). And the seventh is bordering on unacceptable. Does Oxford really think that Clare and they are going for a coffee is correct, while Clare and them are going for a coffee is not? Maybe? They didn’t use that sentence as an example. They focused instead on the 1st person pronoun – where there is more variation.

This topic boils down to a few things. First, English tends to favor me as the default pronoun in all cases except for when the pronoun stands alone as the subject. There is such a strong tendency to use me in all cases that this form is sometimes referred to as the oblique form, meaning that in addition to being the object, it fulfills other roles in sentences. And so English quite naturally uses the me form in coordinated structures, or phrases where there’s a pronoun and something else joined together with the word and:

John and me went to the GWAR concert.

Me and the bouncer got into an arm wrestling match.

Me and this other guy partied with GWAR after the show.

Second, using the subjective pronoun I in coordinated constructions isn’t wrong. English allows for both constructions and the choice of which one to use usually breaks along formality of the occasion – John and I seems more formal, while John and me seems more informal. But there is evidence of both structures throughout history in many different styles of writing. The John and I form is dictated by prescriptivist grammarians (and apparently some dictionaries), while the John and me form is proscribed, despite being used by everyone. In constructions with the first person singular pronoun, you can’t go grammatically wrong choosing I or me. But notice, however, that me is more versatile in where it can be placed:

Clare and me are going for a coffee

Me and Clare are going for a coffee

Clare and I are going for a coffee

*I and Clare are going for a coffee

As we have seen, in constructions with the 3rd person pronouns, things are potentially more cut and dry. With the 3rd person singular, it seems we should use the objective forms (him, her) for all but the most formal registers. With the 3rd person plural, however, it seems we should always use the objective form them.

Finally, there is a piece of advice out there that I’ve seen in a lot of places. It goes like this:

In coordinated constructions (noun + pronoun), take out the noun and leave the pronoun. This will show you which case you want.

This advice is dumb. Why would I take something out of a sentence to decide how I should say the rest of the sentence after I put that thing back in the sentence?! This makes no sense at all. This advice is only given with coordinated subjects because it makes it seem like the subjective pronoun is always correct. Here’s Oxford using it at the end of their article:

An easy way of making sure you’ve chosen the right pronoun is to see whether the sentence reads properly if you remove the additional pronoun:

I am going for a coffee. ✗ Me am going for a coffee.

And here’s the Purdue Online Writing Lab:

In compound structures, where there are two pronouns or a noun and a pronoun, drop the other noun for a moment. Then you can see which case you want.

Not: Bob and me travel a good deal.
(Would you say, “me travel”?)

But what happens when I take the pronoun out of the sentence? I’m left with Bob travel a good deal. 😐

Y U NO give better advice, grammer peeple?

Ok, I’m being awful hard on Oxford Dictionaries. The thing is, their advice column could have been cleared up with a line that explained they were talking about Standard English only. Or that outside of standard written and spoken English, people are more likely to come across the form X and me. The X and me construction is so common in informal written and spoken English that using X and I may be out of place. Non-standard and informal English are the default forms of the language, whether they are written or spoken, so users of English will hear/read these forms most often in day to day circumstances. The split in choosing I or me along formal/informal or standard/non-standard lines isn’t a lot of linguistic knowledge for people to understand. They shouldn’t be forced into thinking there is only One True Way to use pronouns in English.

I might post more on this later and include the advice given by other style guides, grammars and dictionaries. If you want to see some of them backing up my claims right now, check out:

  • Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, page 778
  • Fowler’s Modern English Usage 4th edition (edited by Butterfield), page 509
  • A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar by Huddleston and Pullum, page 107

Not a Him or a Her, Not a Madam or Sir

This is a post which elaborates on a comment I left on the Macmillan Dictionary blog. The post (by Stan Carey) discussed the nature of gendered pronouns in English and the ways people have tried to invent a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun. It’s worth a read (as are the comments in this post, where Stan was kind enough to indulge my ramblings). I tried to be very concise in my comment, but I feel like the point I tried to make deserves more attention (and page space) than is usually permitted in comments. So I’m making a post out of it.

My comment was this:

I’m going to try my best not to be too vague or overarching, but I wonder if the use of gender-neutral pronouns to point out chauvinism in language is anything like restructuring the history class curriculum to not be just one war after the other. The idea is that making war a priority in the history classroom perpetuates its priority in students minds year after year and so shapes the world they live in. Changing the curriculum would be interesting, but at the same time, war has been a major part of history and humans will always the capacity to be violent on a large scale.
What I’m trying to get at is the ways in which we are able to recognize and assess our own biases and the point at which we start fighting against our nature. Pronouns are learned first and then sexist meanings are attached to them (in varying degrees, I assume). But there’s no doubt that people distinguish between genders. I wonder how long it would take – or if it’s possible at all – to break down all the sexist meanings attached to our gendered pronouns. Just like how many years would it take to strip war of its priority in students minds?
Certainly experiments like the Egalia school’s will lead us to better understand how our brains relate natural necessities (like pronouns) with nurtured meanings (like equality or sexism), right? It should help us see whether finding a gender-neutral pronoun is a step in the process of breaking down inequality or if it’s a necessity, depending on how deep in our minds sexism lies and the ways in which it is learned.

That wasn’t too confusing, was it? Am I grasping at straws here or applying too much meaning to aspects of language?

The idea of using language in a different way in order to eliminate inequality in society is very interesting, especially when it involves pronouns because of their necessity in language. Racist words, for example, could arguably be removed from the language, but pronouns can not. If we removed one, it would need to be replaced. And that’s where things get tricky.

In the comment, I mentioned a post about how teaching history as being one war after another may be perpetuating the importance of war in young students’ minds. So, while war was a major part of life and possibly even a necessity in the past, it doesn’t need to be anymore (and shouldn’t). But if we keep teaching history in the way we have been, we may be creating a future where war is a constant. Changing the curriculum may be able to stop this, but there is no denying that humans have (and probably always will have) the ability to be violent.

In a similar way, racist words have been a part of languages, but no longer need to be (and should have never been). Removing them may sound fine to some, but racism and its motivations run deeper than the language we use. Remove one racial epithet and you’re liable to end up with another one just as quick (assuming you could even remove a word from the language, which you can’t). And yet, teaching people to not use racist words goes a long way in teaching them to not be racist, simply by bringing the effects of such words to the forefront. We can’t remove the violent nature of humans or the importance of war in the past, but we can possibly change how war is viewed today, just like we can change how people of other races are viewed. And we can do it (at least partly) by changing the ways we use language.

But pronouns and their entanglement with sexism is a whole different beast. We can’t do without pronouns – gendered or not. We can, however, do without the sexist meanings attached to them. From experience, I have noticed that children have no trouble learning to use gendered or neutral pronouns. My son is a bilingual speaker of English (gendered third-person pronoun) and Finnish (gender neutral third-person). To the best of my knowledge, he is not a chauvinist. Then again, he’s only two. Later on, as his vocabulary grows, the third-person English pronouns that he uses will acquire more meaning as he differentiates between men and women more and is influenced by other speakers. This is where sexist or chauvinistic meaning may come into play. And this is why people have tried to use gender-neutral pronouns in English – in order to raise people that do not place so much weight on the differences (real or imaginary) between genders. A similar motivation inspires changing the teaching of history. And yet, adults are the ones who recognize the sexist meanings that our pronouns carry. Our vocabulary includes those meanings, the vocabulary of children does not. And using gender-neutral pronouns is not guaranteed to make people less sexist. As I said before, Finnish has a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun and Finns can be just as sexist and chauvinistic as English speakers (no offense, mun Finnish veljet). What I’m saying is that gender bias and sexist meanings are at play in Finnish society. So is it even worth using only gender-neutral pronouns around our children?

I think there are two ways in which it’s worth it. First, English speakers may be at an advantage when compared to Finnish speakers. If we were to use gender-neutral pronouns, we would be bringing the sexist nature of gendered pronouns to the forefront, much like not using racist words brings the ugly nature of them into people’s minds. In English, we can compare pronouns to lessen sexism in society. Presumably, Finnish speakers can not do this. How ridiculous would it be for them to invent gendered pronouns to compare to their non-gendered ones? But this learning by comparison requires speakers to have the knowledge of sexist meanings, which is something that children do not have. So in order to teach them why the words he or she are sexist, we must first teach them sexist notions of gender. And we’re right back to square one.

Or are we? Because the second reason I think such a debate is important is that experiments such as the teaching of gender-neutral pronouns to children may lead to a better understanding of how much of our biases come from nature and how much come from nurture – just like the changing of the history lesson might give insight into how violent humans really are or how much they need war. Of course, it may be that we can never know how ingrained our biases or desires are, but impossibility has never stopped science from trying before.

Sorry for the serious post. I’ll return to the mindless drivel that normally makes up this blog soon. Just had to get these thoughts out on paper and decided to share them. I’m interested in hearing what you, dear readers, have to say on this matter, especially if you can point me to certain studies or books that relate to it. I don’t know of any off the top of my head or have the time to look any up, but I’ll try to update this post as I come across them.