Friday, May 21, 2010

blazing belly fur

Girl: Aaron! Hi!
Guy: Hey! Are you going to the thing?
Girl: Yeah, the thing!
(guy starts walking away)
Girl: Wait, Aaron! Hold up!
Guy: What?
Girl: Did you see that puppy?
Guy: Yeah, I pointed at it and laughed at it a few times.
--Cooper Square (Overheard in New York)

As the Fowlers point out, it's easy for writers to entangle themselves in pronominal puzzles:
Mr. Sidney Lee's study of the Elizabethan Sonnets, the late Mr. Charles Elton's book on Shakespeare's Family and Friends, and Professor Bradley's on Shakespearean Tragedy — a work which may be instructively read with Professor Campbell's ' Tragic Drama in Aeschylus, Sophocles and Shakespeare' — remind us that the dramatist still holds his own with the publishers. The last two or three weeks have seen two new editions of him. — T.
The writer has thoroughly puzzled himself. He cannot call Shakespeare Shakespeare, because there is a Shakespeare just before: he cannot call him he, because six other persons in the sentence have claims upon he: and he ought not to call him the dramatist, because Aeschylus and Sophocles were dramatists too. We know, of course, which dramatist is meant, just as we should have known which he was meant; but the appropriation is awkward in either case. The dramatist is no doubt the best thing under the circumstances; but when matters are brought to such a pass that we can neither call a man by his own name, nor use a pronoun, nor identify him by means of his profession, it is time to remodel the sentence.

-- The king's English abridged for school use by Henry Watson Fowler and Francis George Fowler (The Clarendon press, 1918)
A grad student named Jessica Love has written an entertaining article on the study of pronouns: They Get to Me; A young psycholinguist confesses her strong attraction to pronouns by Jessica Love, in The American Scholar. She tells us linguists have a technical term for pronouns that show up without context (the way thing appears abruptly above); they call them "unheralded," a word which yields up nice associative rings. These pronouns are royal beings who arrive at the portcullis without fanfare, having neglected their majestic obligation to send forth couriers warning of their approach. They surprise, as does death by violence on field of battle. They perplex, showing up unpredicted and causing us to wonder at their antecedents. Poetic, even in the negative, as in the quote with which OED favors us:
1845 NEALE Euphratean Angels iv. in Seatonian Poems (1864) 7 "Yet not unheralded by fear, The End of all things shall draw near."
She says,
I used to be a normal psycholinguistics graduate student. I wanted to study how the mind parses improbable metaphors, unintelligible accents, and quirky syntax. Sexy things. Things that would play out well at parties.

I imagined myself dropping newspaper headlines like “Iraqi Head Seeks Arms” into conversations with beautiful people. I would defend Internet chatroom slang on local radio. I would exchange holiday cards with Steven Pinker.

But something has happened. I am in my third year of graduate school, and I have fallen in love. I have fallen for pronouns. It’s hard to shut me up about them.
And she tells a little story:
The next day, the postdoc I share an office with listens to my story about buying a catnip candle so that I could watch my cat roll endearingly on the carpet while the scent wafted across the room, and how it didn’t quite turn out that way, how instead my cat pounced on top of the candle and the fur on his belly instantly broke into flame. When I say all this and four hours later the postdoc sees me and shakes his head and says, “They should be illegal,” I know that by they he means catnip candles. Unheralded, see? The source of that blazing belly has seared itself so prominently on both our minds that it doesn’t even need to be mentioned to be there.
And she concludes:
Lucky for me, there are plenty of pronouns in need of more study — the diectics (here, there), the reflexives (himself, themselves), the interrogatives (who, what), the possessives (his, mine), the indefinites (somebody, anything) — each with its own relatively unexamined life. Or, for the freshest pronoun around, I could always coin one myself.

In Baltimore, some teenagers already have: their candidate, yo, is a new gender-neutral third-person personal pronoun. As in Yo was tuckin’ in his shirt or Yo sucks at magic tricks. If yo sticks around — and if it spreads — maybe we can put the ever-awkward he or she to rest forever. And what would that mean? What consequences could that have for how we think about our world? Empirical question. Send in the psycholinguists.
On this topic, I'll let them have the final words, but note that their advice of 1918 is hardly better than the grammatical tangles they wish to solve:
They, them, their, theirs, are often used in referring back to singular pronominals (as each, one, anybody, everybody), or to singular nouns or phrases (as a parent, neither Jack nor Jill), of which the doubtful or double gender causes awkwardness. It is a real deficiency in English that we have no pronoun, like the French soi, son, to stand for him-or-her, his-or-her (for he-or-she French is no better off than English). Our view, though we admit it to be disputable, is clear — that they, their, &c, should never be resorted to, as in the examples presently to be given they are. With a view to avoiding them, it should be observed that (a) the possessive of one (indefinite pronoun) is one's, and that of one (numeral pronoun) is either his, or her, or its (One does not forget one's own name: I saw one of them drop his cigar, her muff, or its leaves) ; (b) he, his, him, may generally be allowed to stand for the common gender, (c) Sentences may however easily be constructed (Neither John nor Mary knew his own mind) in which his is undeniably awkward. The solution is then what we so often recommend, to do a little exercise in paraphrase (John and Mary were alike irresolute, for instance). (d) Where legal precision is really necessary, he or she may be written in full. Corrections according to these rules will be appended in brackets to the examples.
Anybody else who have only themselves in view. — RICHARDSON, (has ... himself)

Ce n'est que le premier pas qui coûte, in novel-writing as in carrying one's head in their hand. — S. Ferrier. (one's ... one's)

The feelings of the parent upon committing the cherished object of their cares and affections to the stormy sea of life. — S. Ferrier. (his)

But he never allowed one to feel their own deficiencies. — S. Ferrier. (one's)

Which leaves each free to act according to their own feelings. — S. Ferrier. (his)

Suppose each of us try our hands at it. — S. FERRIER. (tries his hand ; or, if all of us are women, tries her hand)

Everybody is discontented with their lot in life.—BEACONSFIELD. (his)
Or, maybe not quite the last, since you've been dying to tell me the entertaining quote at top does not illustrate problems with pronouns. To which I reply, "that's the thing" and walk away.

No comments: