Category Archives: pronoun reference

Plus ça change—not necessarily for the better

I am sympathetic to the deep feeling of inadequacy as far as our binary-choice pronouns are concerned. I recall, still vividly, moving through life perpetually reminded of my marital status, back when females were either “Miss” or “Mrs.” (A bright light on that path was a student from Korea who insisted on calling me “Sir.”) Never mind that when “Ms.” was introduced it meant “Manuscript” to me and my literary-scholar colleagues—it was still a blessed refuge into the freedom of being myself independent of the existence (or nonexistence) of a spouse. I count a number of gender-fluid, questioning, and transgender people among my friends, and I sympathize with their dissatisfaction over yet another binary identity choice, and my own panic over pronoun choice particularly when referring to people I don’t personally know. It’s exciting to be present in a moment of language examination and creativity, even though it brings back memories of definition-by-single-factor associated with the “Miss/Mrs” dilemma.
But as a teacher of writing I have to keep my students focused on clarity; and the expedient, or experiment, of “the singular they” isn’t helping me. Here’s a little paragraph that will show you why: “In the article it discusses how the child does feel the impact and is upset when they first hear the news about their parents getting divorced, but it overall can bring themselves closer together in the end. The child still has two parents who care for them and are still able to reach the same milestones in life that they were going to reach and still able to have a good life even if it means that their parents aren’t living under the same roof.… It was also interesting to see is [sic] how sometimes the child will blame themselves for their parents divorce when they didn’t do anything at all but the parents just need to reassure them that it was nothing to do with them.”
Did you notice when grandparents seemed to sneak into the family picture?
One of the fundamental sources of confusion is that “they,” while doing service as an undefined third-person SINGULAR pronoun, also continues to be our standard PLURAL pronoun. In a context where the term could mean (to someone other than the writer, presumably) EITHER of those choices, the reader is left to clutch at other sentence clues in an effort to get the comprehensible mental picture that every sentence hopes to create.
The singular “they” can also mask the “they” that has always crept, grandparent-like, into sentences to save students from having to cope with a “he or she” situation or choose “he” for a gender-undefined filler individual, as in “When a student arrives at college he is full of hope.” (My own English teachers in high school and, yes, college [pre-Lib] explained it this way: “In English the masculine embraces the feminine.” Hot grammar!) Students produced paragraphs not unlike the child-of-divorce paragraph above BY MISTAKE in those days (and perhaps in the divorce example as well?). Maybe I should just relax and let “they” solve that grammar issue as well as the more-important identity issue.
For now, though, even the New York Times occasionally wanders into “they” chaos, particularly in the Weddings write-ups I so much enjoy reading on a Sunday morning. I would encourage the Times, as I encourage my students, to avoid the pronoun-choice issue entirely. The divorce paragraph above might then be rewritten thus: “The decision to divorce can confuse a child, who won’t know whom to blame, perhaps; but a divorce can bring family members closer together even when the structure of the relationship has changed. Parental care and attention are necessary, though, so that the child does not assume guilt for the change.” Well, I’m doing this on the fly, but you see it can be done. And the ideas get sorted out along the way, so that the central issue—the stress of divorce on the child—takes a more clearly central place in the paragraph.
Sonnets and haiku are pleasurably challenging to compose partly because of the demands the forms make on linguistic control. Maybe the same pleasure can be found in prose. Meanwhile, I hope our present quest for pronouns more appropriate to our very real identity needs will result in the discovery of devices that, like “Ms.,” allow each of us room without displacing the rest of our grammatical furniture.

“I saw screaming children crying to their parents as they begged for donuts.”

March 4th! As my friend Michael Neill Stanton used to say, The only day of the year that is a command. (“May One?” is the only day that is a question, per MNS also.)

March 4 is also, Wikipedia tells us, National Grammar Day.

In celebration of both, I invite you today to march forth and offer some responses to this wonderful grammar error, Faulty Pronoun Reference. You know what my student meant, but obviously that’s not quite what he said. Please join me in savoring this noisy sentence by leaving a Comment!

Meanwhile, you can follow this link to a blog I follow; there you will find the history of donuts/doughnuts, the original of this yummy picture, and a recipe. They may make you beg!


Tori Avey’s blog on history and food provides this pile of donuts for you to beg for!


“An estimated 1.7 million to 3.4 million American women once were or are now married…”

In celebration of today’s dumping of DOMA by the Supremes (5-4), this garbled statement. It begins so authoritatively, with its statistics and alternatives (“once were or are now married”…); then it loses its grip entirely and falls into chaos:

“An estimated 1.7 million to 3.4 million American women once were or are now married to men who have found that their husbands have homosexual tendencies.”

According to this student, then, gay marriage has been going on for quite some time, and has been quite widespread, and some of the men in those marriages have also had bigamous marriages (not sure “bigamous” is quite the word, but I don’t know what would be better) to American women. Evidently those men were not originally aware that the men they had married had “homosexual tendencies,” either; they’ve just found that out. I’ve never met anyone in this complex situation, but I should be reassured by those statistics that such ménages à trois exist somewhere.

The problem is, of course, the relative pronoun “who.” If she had gone directly from “who” to “have,” she would have been fine. Or if she had written “and” instead of “who,” she’d be okay, although not very graceful. But in her sentence the “who” must modify its direct antecedent, which is “men,” and “their” should refer to the nearest appropriate noun, which again has to be “men.” The husbands of the men married to the women.

I’ve written before about sentences that invite the reader to imagine the writer deeply engrossed in a thought and then unexpectedly interrupted—perhaps by suppertime, perhaps by an alien invasion, perhaps by a fit of despair, perhaps by a bothersome roommate—to resume the sentence upon returning without rereading it. This is that kind of sentence.

I can’t recall where my student took the essay from this amazing statement; I’m not even sure what the assigned topic was.

I’ll just be grateful that, going forward in our nation, men “with homosexual tendencies” will not have to enter into complicated relationships, including heterosexual marriages, for the sake of social acceptance or insurance benefits. No matter what strange sentences my students write on various subjects hereafter, this is one sentence that will not appear again.

“There are many laws that are trying to be passed…”

Another post on agency.

In the world of the student writer, people have curiously little power. Frequently, in fact, they seem to be standing in the way of abstractions that are struggling to achieve something.

Considering the current Congress, I’m tempted to agree with this student: there are laws the passage of which is being actively impeded by people who have decided to block them. Many of these hopeful laws have the support of a substantial majority of the American people, so in this sense they are trying to be passed. But grammatically and logically, no, laws can make no effort of their own.

My student has more than this in mind, too:

There are many laws that are trying to be passed that go on behind the scenes that people are not aware of.”

Do the laws go on behind the scenes, busily looking, perhaps, for a chink in the Congressional defensive line through which they can be passed? The first “that” seems to be referring to the laws.

The second “that” evidently refers to “scenes”: people are not aware of these scenes. Scenes where? The scenes of the defensive line? People are not aware of these scenes, but the struggling laws going on are?

I think my student meant that in committees and in congressional offices, unnoticed by CNN’s eye on the congressional floor and by other reporters, legislators are drafting laws; and that is true.

It’s not nearly as entertaining, though, as the picture of those laws—a whole multitude of them—busily but fruitlessly looking for a chink in the stonewall (sorry for the new metaphor!) between themselves and victorious passage out there in the light of day.

I hope they keep trying. Well, at least I hope the ones that have broad public support keep trying. If at first you don’t succeed….

“Many Hispanics are stereotyped to be ‘Latin lovers’ because…”

My student is looking at stereotypes fairly critically, as is made plain by her verb and also by her use of quotation marks. This awareness gives her a good start. And if she were only as attentive to the grammatical concept of number, she might make it through to the end of her observation. But that is not to be:

“Many Hispanics are stereotyped as ‘Latin lovers’ because they are able to dance and sweep a woman off their feet.”

Actually she seems to be buying into the stereotype somewhat herself, implying that Hispanics, or at least many Hispanics, can dance. I’d rather have seen “if” than “because,” maybe—or “and so people expect them to be able to dance….” Perhaps she had that latter idea in mind. But be that as it may.

The “they” could refer to the “Many Hispanics,” “Hispanics,” or “Latin lovers.” Any of them could dance, presumably, although the sweeping would seem to belong to the lovers more than to a general population. But whomever she’s referring to, those guys (we presume) must be nimble indeed, able to keep dancing even though some woman seems to be lying on their feet. Never mind: in the midst of the dance a sweep (of the hand? of a broom?) and the woman is off their feet. Let the samba go on!

I know she meant “sweep off their feet” as it is traditionally meant, what Webster’s dully and generally defines as “gain immediate and unquestioning support, approval, or acceptance by a person” and those of us still living define as “transport in instant adoration.” At least every time I’ve been swept off my feet that’s what happened.

If there had been more than one woman on the dance floor along with those Hispanics—or lovers—then the sweeping would be clear: each man takes a woman in his arms and sweeps her off her feet, perhaps both figuratively and literally, depending on the nature of the dance. But since “woman” is singular and the pronoun my student chose is plural, the reader will, at least at first, assume the feet belong to the plural noun, the Hispanics (or lovers). Hence: a woman lying (or sitting or standing, makes no difference to me) on the feet of the dancers, having to be swept off. Perhaps once swept off one pair of feet, she moves on to the next pair….  We must just hope, for her sake, that the dance isn’t a flamenco, which would put her at risk of being stomped to death if she doesn’t get out of the way quickly.

She too would have to be nimble!

“All the women protested the prices since they were outlandishly high.”

Only the most perverse of readers would misread this writer’s intention.

Fortunately, I am one of those perverse readers.

To me, the plural pronoun “they” could refer to “the women” OR “the prices.” Since “the prices” is physically closer to “they” than “the women,” I should assume “they” refers to “the prices.” And that’s what my student meant.

But just for a moment, I have to entertain the possibility that it’s the women who are outlandishly high.

Can’t you see them? Stoned to the gills, and protesting prices elaborately, loudly, and perhaps not very coherently. (At least that’s my memory of self=expression-while-outlandishly-high.)

If they weren’t high, they would just fork over the cash. But no: they’re in the mood to protest.

Pronoun reference can be confusing, particularly in situations like this sentence, where two antecedents are possible. My student could have written a simple sentence rather than a complex one: “All the women protested the outlandishly-high prices.” A writer intent on clarity would have done that.

I tell my students that it’s the job of a copy editor to get confused if the sentence will permit it. Today, and the day I wrote down this relatively innocent little sentence, that’s what I did.

“His father committed suicide six months before he was born…”

All I have to offer today is a little problem of pronoun reference.

I knew what my student meant, and so did my student; but the pronoun ambiguity made the sentence memorable nevertheless.

Someone who commits suicide six months before he is born must be a self-aborting fetus, an embryo with a death wish, an humunculus who knows it’s a jungle out there and wants no part of it. That this same someone can already be a father is quite a feat; maybe he feels there’s nothing more to do with his life?

The sentence is a bit longer, and a bit funnier:

“His father committed suicide six months before he was born, which had a large influence on his writing.”

So, this paternal zygote is already a writer? Or perhaps he would have been a writer had he actually been born and then, um, learned to write. Death would put quite a crimp in an authorial career, to be sure: all his future writing would be, of necessity, non-writing.

Of course this cold-hearted and irreverent fantasy is all in the mind of the reader. My student was writing about the poet Stanley Kunitz, whose life was haunted by the suicide, in a public park, of his father some six months before Stanley’s birth and his mother’s subsequent implacable grief. His life, some months more than a century long, wasn’t easy, but he rose to importance and fame, and made a significant impact on American poetry both with his writing and with his nurturing attention to other writers. His poem “The Portrait” speaks of the suicide:

My mother never forgave my father
for killing himself,
especially at such an awkward time
and in a public park,
that spring
when I was waiting to be born.
She locked his name
in her deepest cabinet
and would not let him out,
though I could hear him thumping.
When I came down from the attic
with the pastel portrait in my hand
of a long-lipped stranger
with a brave moustache
and deep brown level eyes,
she ripped it into shreds
without a single word
and slapped me hard.
In my sixty-fourth year
I can feel my cheek 
still burning.

This kind of quiet pain is what my student was trying to talk about. A case of poor pronoun reference was the instrument of her undoing.

“the Protestant family situation…”

I didn’t really know how to shorten this Horror so that it would make a good title.

One of my students is making a literary anthology about the death of children. She chose the topic not because she was trying to work out any kind of personal grief or memory, but because she thought that of all the poems she had read about children, the ones about losing a child were the most moving. Not a bad reason for pursuing a subject.

The sentence I am about to pillory came from an assignment in which the student was to read a research or literary source and then write an essay that applied its information and ideas to a piece of literature destined for the student’s anthology. (The resulting essay was to figure as a subtopic treatment in the longer Introduction essay to the anthology.) Attached to the assignment as submitted was to be the first draft of the essay, which as I teach it consists of the student’s notes, taken verbatim from the sources, arranged as they were to be used as the “skeleton” of the essay. This enables me to evaluate the student’s use of source material—how accurately it is incorporated, how fully the student develops its points and integrates them into his or her own argument, how much of the presentation is source-dependent and how much is the student’s own thinking, etc. The exercise generally works well, in that it is a way for the student to discover the difference between sticking source material in and actually using it as a foundation for thought.

This student found a book that linked religious background and “ethnicity” to the parent-child relationship. She wanted to relate its ideas to a memorial poem by John Milton. I read the notes first, and was taken aback by the kind of generalizing going on in the source. So actually my student’s essay—its contents and its level of confusion— didn’t surprise me.

And now:

“‘On the Death of a Fair Infant Dying of a Cough’ is a poem written by the Protestant poet John Milton, which validates the Protestant family situation discussed in Ethnicity and Family Therapy.”

The source’s description of “Protestant” family values seems derived from a stereotypical picture of 1950s Back Bay Boston families whose forebears came over on the Mayflower, who have sent their children to Harvard since there was a Harvard, and who cling to the old Puritan notion of not getting too attached to family members lest one thereby set them above God.

True, Milton was a Puritan (closer to the early days of Puritanism than to Back Bay Boston), but he wouldn’t have fit into the model established by this source either.

I don’t know what made my student choose a book on Therapy, or on Ethnicity, to study a 17th-century British memorial poem. She probably typed “family,” “child,” and “grief” into the search page of one of our library’s academic databases and this source popped up. Our discussion of the essay she wrote has, blessedly, prompted her to seek inspiration elsewhere.

Her sentence makes it into the blog because of that lovely relative pronoun “which.” To what could it possibly refer in this sentence? Grammatically, because of the comma, she seems to be saying that the fact that John Milton wrote a poem validates some “situation.” But how could the fact of having written “validate” an unrelated circumstance?

Without the comma the “which” would refer to the poem itself, and the sentence would say the poem “validates” said situation. Well, okay: maybe the poem describes some circumstance that is a key and identifying factor in the “situation.” In that way it could make the situation, or some theory about the situation, more credible, could validate it.

Of course “which” could also be referring to everything in the sentence that precedes it: that a particular poem is the work of a particular Protestant poet. That fact gives credibility to some Protestant situation, or the discussion of some Protestant situation in a particular book that is not about the poem. Milton (not somebody else) wrote this poem; therefore, Protestant families deny their children warmth.

Here’s what the sentence actually says to me: “I found a poem that turned out to be by a Protestant poet and a book about stereotypical Protestants in family therapy, and those are the sources I have, and somehow I have to make them fit one another, and this is the best I can do!”

And that’s the scariest thing I can say about this Horror.

“When you have good and evil it always leads to life and death.”

I don’t know what could be added to this profundity.

The unreferenced “it” adds just that bit of unsettling to an otherwise pretty pat statement.

What was the point in stating it? The context was Paradise Lost, so perhaps my writer was pointing out that the entrance of Satan into Eden necessitated the death sentence God gave out to Adam and Eve. Following that idea up in an articulate manner might have been interesting; what the student wrote, however, did not make clear that she was trying to go in that direction.

Well, as written, a lesson in the inevitable. I wonder, though: is the mixture the thing that creates the “circle of life”? Would having only good always lead to life, and having only evil always lead to death?

Since such purity is generally considered to be reserved to heaven and hell, I suppose we won’t get a chance to test the hypothesis until the lesson is beyond our use.

“Women also contributed to the success of these products that fatten themselves.”

You have to first think that this sentence is announcing some sort of scientific breakthrough: products that fatten themselves. What products need fattening I’m not sure, but now they don’t need us to fatten them. If this is in fact the message of the sentence, then the women must be among the scientists who developed the products, or discovered a chemical that triggers self-fattening in inanimate objects. Well, hurray for our side!

Of course this is not what the writer meant. And of course I knew what he (probably) meant.

My student was writing an essay using a group of articles on fast food, some of which linked fast food directly to the obesity problem in America. The specific mention of women here leads me to surmise that he was addressing an argument in one of them that, at least for some women, obesity may be a conscious choice in defiance of society’s celebration of thin women, or as a way of coping with unwanted pressure to become sexually active. This was an interesting argument that most of my students couldn’t follow; some of them nevertheless wanted to use the article, and proceeded to write rather bizarre discussions. This student seems to have been one of that group.

What he meant to say, I imagine, was that women were buying fattening food products and therefore shouldn’t accuse fast-food manufacturers of “making” them fat. Certainly this was a point a number of students made in response to other articles in the section: that people should blame themselves for eating fattening food, not fast-food restaurants for selling it to them.

He may have chosen “themselves” rather than “them” for fear that “them” might be mistakenly assumed to refer to “products.” Or he may have chosen “themselves” because student writers do seem to like to add “self” to pronouns—and that tendency isn’t limited to student writers: I’ve received many an e-mail and many a marketing letter that ends “please feel free to call the secretary or myself.” The “-self” has ceased to do its reflexive or its emphasizing work if it itself attaches itself to every pronoun in sight. Has “me” come to seem naked or incomplete, that it turns so often into “myself”? Or are writers afraid to choose between “I” and “me” (because they can’t tell the difference between a subject and an object, a doer and a done-to)? For whatever reason, a trend is definitely trending, and so I can’t assume that my student was concerned with clarifying pronoun reference.

If he was trying to keep the reference clear, he made exactly the wrong choice. Had the sentence ended “fatten them,” the reader would not have entertained the possibility of self-fattening products, partly because products generally don’t become fat by any means and partly because “them” would clearly modify the principal and only human noun, “women.” It was the addition of “-selves” to the direct object that reflected the action onto the subject of the verb in its clause; and as the subject of this verb is a pronoun (“that”), the reader goes to the noun modified by the adjective clause and finds “products.” The women disappear as possible referents, and we get the amazing self-fattening products. What those products may be is irrelevant; a self-fattening hamburger is no more imaginable than a self-fattening hairbrush, DVD, snow shovel, or Game-Boy. If we can set aside a few singular products such as the self-“plumping” hot dog, we have an impossible sentence.

It’s pretty impossible in reality, anyway. But in my imagination, and in many a cartoon, I’ve seen things get bigger and bigger and bigger until they burst, and they haven’t all been balloons, dependent on someone to blow them up. From proverbial frogs to people’s heads, they swell dramatically in imaginary landscapes. The only thing I’ve ever seen that has fattened itself, though, is something capable of eating: a puppy, a person—sometimes even a woman.

I suppose I should consider the possibility that slender people might ingest a “product” that fattens itself after being consumed. Wow, what a story: “No, honey, I haven’t been binging on beer and birthday cake; I must have accidentally gotten one of those self-fattening carrots in my salad!”

This is too horrible to contemplate. I’m going to content myself with imagining a store whose owner has to add shelves every day as the products that sit on them get fatter and fatter, all by themselves.