Category Archives: pronoun reference

“If editors put themselves in other people’s shoes and thought about how they could be hurting them, then these problems would be minimized.”

I imagine the “problems” my student meant to refer to have to do with manuscript rejections, although that surmise rests solely on the sentence itself: I can’t recall any assignment, in my many many many assignment-assigning days, that had to do with frustrated authors.

At any rate. Aside from its rambling wordiness, the only thing that ails this sentence is faulty pronoun reference. It doesn’t stem from a compulsive substitution of “they” for a singular noun, as so many reference problems do as students dance around the gender risks of the singular pronoun: here, all the nouns are plural. Hence, ironically, the confusion of pronoun reference, of course.

All of us readers just KNOW this sentence expresses a plea for more sympathy in the tight-shoe area. If only editors put themselves in other people’s shoes and thought about how those shoes could be hurting those people… Isn’t that the meaning that forces itself forward here? Or perhaps if editors put themselves in other people’s shoes and thought about how painful the misfitted shoes are on them (the editors), or what damage could be done by wearing shoes of the wrong size perhaps: then the “problems” in the sentence suddenly might be the problems of compulsive shoe-appropriation, nothing to do with manuscripts at all!

I knew what he meant. If editors realized how painful getting a rejection letter can be for a person who has poured his or her life and love into a manuscript, then they would at least write nicer letters, minimizing the depression problem on the recipient’s end. Something like that. But getting to that meaning is possible only on second reading, or maybe even third reading (something the editors probably don’t give those manuscripts, come to think of it, those heartless bastards, unfeeling bureaucrats, robotic market-driven stupid condescending snobs—fill in the blank here according to your own frustration level vis à vis publishers).

I like the first reading best, and would suggest to any aspiring author that sending in a pair of your shoes along with your manuscript might produce some positive result, although I make no guarantees.

“A day-care center is the best possible decision for any working mother…”

So far the sentence is doing its job perfectly nicely. But you knew I wouldn’t stop there, because my student didn’t stop there.

“A day-care center is the best possible decision for any working mother, especially one that is clean and regulated by the state, with rules and goals.”

Suddenly the sentence turns into a nightmare for those who fear the encroachment of government into family life, and also for those who fear the heavy hand of those politicians who don’t believe women can think or act responsibly on their own.

To be “clean,” would a mother have to be drug-free (including Valium or Xanax), or would a recent shower be enough? Would she have to be clean in thought, word, and deed, like a Girl Scout? (Evidently Girl Scouts stopped having to promise this in 1970, but maybe it still would apply to working mothers.) And the regulation is only in terms of “especially,” which implies that occasionally a dirty (on drugs? unbathed? hot-to-trot cussin’ mama?) mother might be permitted to choose a day-care center too. Would the other children shun her kid, though?

Would the state’s regulations stop at cleanliness standards (how tested, by the way?), or would there be other standards of behavior? Would she, for example, be expected to be church-going? have a good credit rating? keep the house clean? serve up balanced meals? dress modestly? have a high school diploma?

My student wants additional “rules and goals,” too. Maybe all the Girl Scout Laws would be implemented. Maybe said mother would have to demonstrate some intention to get a promotion at work, or get a college degree, or become President. Would she have to have goals for her children, or only for herself?

Come to think of it, how would such a busy-body state feel about her working at all?

Oh! I see what my student meant—a day-care center that is clean etc. Well, why didn’t he say so? That pronoun “one” really did seem to be modifying “mother,” and therefore all the adjectives modifying “one” seemed to be describing that mother. Wow! I should have known what he meant!

Of course I did. That’s why I wrote the sentence down.

But that’s the experience of any reader who encounters this sentence: first the misunderstanding occasioned by the grammar; then the forehead-slap; then the articulation of the intended meaning. And then the necessary recursion to the sentence that precedes the one in question in an attempt to pick up the author’s thread of reasoning after having lost it in that spectacular way. If the reader has paused to laugh at some point in this process, and even (like me) to formulate an understanding of the point on the basis of the misunderstanding of the sentence, then the thread is even harder to find, let alone pick up. At that point, unless the reader is an instructor of writing and the writer is a student, the reader may just give up, set the whole thing aside, and move on to some more lucid essay.

And that’s why grammar matters.

“…because they are cheap…”

I led with this phrase because it’s a little time bomb: what does “cheap” mean? —”inexpensive”? “penny-pinching”? “not willing to spend the money for quality”?

Those possibilities energize today’s Horror. Here’s the whole sentence:

“Parents often take children to fast-food restaurants out of convenience or because they are cheap, something rare in this economy.”

Well, when we tumble into the “something rare” modifying phrase, we might find some clarification. After all, if “they” is parents, meaning that parents are cheap, then the statement that cheap parents are rare in this economy is confusing. In this economy, I would think, cheap parents are increasingly common, not rare, except possibly among the One Percent.

That leaves us with what the student almost certainly meant: fast-food restaurants are cheap. And maybe all the definitions of “cheap” work for this one: inexpensive because penny-pinching and not willing to spend the money for quality ingredients or quality chefs or quality ovens or quality cookbooks.

Just the same, even after acknowledging that that’s what the student meant, I go back to the beginning, start reading again, and still find myself reading about cheap parents. I think the problem actually lies in the first adverb: “out of convenience.” That modifies the action, but clearly by providing a motivation for the subject, the parents, to take the action. Follow that phrase with an “or” and you set up the expectation of a parallel—and there it is, another adverb. Yes, this time it’s a clause and therefore not really grammatically parallel, but that doesn’t defeat the expectation of parallel intention, and so the adverb clause can be assumed (rightly) to be modifying the verb “take,” and (okay, wrongly) to be providing a motive for the subject to take the action. With these assumptions as the set-up, “they” has to refer to “parents,” and “cheap” has to modify them.

Besides, we’ve all had moments when we thought our parents were impossibly, embarrassingly, or infuriatingly cheap. That fact probably confirms the assumptions in the thought process I’ve just described.

My recommendation is to ignore the final phrase in the student’s sentence and enjoy the laughter explosion caused by the little “cheap” bomb.

“Some of Plath’s true feelings are so strong…”

Here comes another pronoun-reference problem. The pay-off is worth it!

“Some of Plath’s true feelings are so strong that they are held in the Smith College Book Room until her mother and younger brother die.”

My student must have been referring to some of the letters (or other papers) of Sylvia Plath. Unfortunately for him, and fortunately for those of us who like to gambol around in the arms of our imaginations, the pronoun really has to refer to the closest preceding noun of the same number, and this sentence contains a nice plural noun, feelings, for “they” to refer to.

I’ve never been to the Smith campus, but I would very much like to go now, just to see if I can peek into Plath’s alma mater‘s Book Room (which I imagine is in the library) and get a glimpse of those feelings. Are they held in just by a lock and key, or are shackles involved? Do they test their strength constantly as they batter the door and strain at their bonds (if bound), or do they concentrate their forces in occasional mighty lunges, attempting to escape prematurely (Aurelia Plath, Sylvia’s mother, died in 1994, but brother Warren is still living, or at least was still living this past summer, if the Internet can be believed)? At any rate, that Book Room must be a mighty place, to  be viewed as the best place to “hold” feelings described as “so strong” as to need restraint.

I have to further note that these are some of Plath’s “true feelings.” The false feelings, or the Bowdlerized feelings, or perhaps the politically-correct feelings (having died before the concept of “political correctness” emerged in either a serious or an ironic sense, could Plath have even had politically-correct feelings?), are presumably tame. So I’d think those would be the ones readers and admirers would want to lock up somewhere, no?

Anyway, as my student’s statement also suggests, some of Plath’s true feelings must already be at large, available to the public. The intensity of her poetry certainly rings true: strong, true feelings. So my student must not be referring to feelings that are strong in the sense of powerful, heartfelt, urgent; he must mean they are strong in the sense of harsh, hurtful, hard to take (and more so than the published ones). That would legitimize keeping them in protective custody—protective not of themselves, but of the people who would be hurt in some way by them. “Preventive custody,” perhaps I mean. But that’s prior restraint, isn’t it? Can feelings be imprisoned because they might, or even probably would, cause damage if let out?

You can probably tell my brain is lightly sautéed, if not yet completely fried, here in the fine frothy frenzy of exams, last papers, and grades. Enjoy my student’s pronoun error; don’t get burned by falling too deeply into my musings. That’s my advice for the day.

“the pleasure of biting into it…”

Now, there’s a phrase that may be promising more than the blog delivers. Or maybe the blog will deliver more?

The essay was on fast-food restaurants and their alleged enabling of the obesity epidemic in America. The problem in the complete sentence from my student’s essay is mere pronoun reference.

I’m deep in reading final papers, so I leave the complex and deep delights of the passage to my own readers to plumb for themselves:

“It seems as if there is a restaurant on every corner and once it is seen the sensation of biting into it fills the body.”

Love that bricks-and-mortar! Want fries with it?

“…microscopes which will increase the number of jobs…”

My thoughts today are on an omitted comma.

“The objective is to manufacture biomedical supplies such as optical devices, prepared slides, and microscopes which will increase the number of jobs available for city residents.”

This is from another essay on the co-op farm in a city one of my students referred to as “New Heaven.” (That goes along, perhaps, with a senator who used to represent Connecticut: as one student named him, Christ Dodd…)

Among the enterprises city planners hoped to attract to their planned development was the manufacture of biomedical supplies. We speculated in class about what that term might comprise, and the student here incorporated some of those specifics. But she also incorporated an adjective clause, and that was her downfall.

I continue to distinguish between “which” and “that” as the pronoun beginning an adjective clause, generally assigning “which” to nonrestrictive (“defining,” in my lingo) clauses and “that” to restrictive (“specifying”) clauses. This differentiation can be associated with the correct punctuation for the type of adjective clause—comma with “which” and no comma with “that.”

A comma to accompany the “which” in this passage would go part of the way toward improving the clarity of the utterance, but we would still have a question: to what noun does the “which” refer? What is the adjective clause modifying? We don’t really have a lot of choices: either “objective” or one of the specific biomedical supplies. By position, so crucial an issue for adjectives, even with the comma the adjective clause has to modify “microscopes.” If we try to associate it with “objective” we are thwarted not only by the sentence order but also by the fact that an objective per se cannot increase the number of jobs, although the objective might be to increase the number of jobs. This is a “you knew what I meant!” moment, for sure. And my reply is the same as ever: “Of course I knew what you meant. That’s how I knew you didn’t say it.”

The grammar of the sentence dictates that those microscopes will increase the number of jobs, and that’s what makes the sentence so peachy. Considering the employment picture of today, we might need a microscope to find the jobs, especially in an inner-city area. Good old microscopes, which make tiny things visible to the naked eye: in a sense, they make tiny things bigger. Well, at least the tiny things look bigger.

Microscopes don’t generally increase the number of things under the lens, though, in appearance or in reality.

Still, we might recommend to politicians that in addition to smoke and mirrors they might want to employ microscopes in this electoral cycle, to give the public a sense that the number of jobs is growing, or that it would be growing under their plan. Sure looks bigger, and isn’t that what you want to think they mean?

“Our government uses these situations to get their foot in the door…”

Is “government” singular or plural? If we lived in Great Britain we might have more flexibility, since there are nouns that look singular but are grammatically plural because of their meaning; in the U.S. we can cavort a bit, having some nouns that are singular in form but are singular or plural for the verbs’ sake depending on the unity or disunity of their component parts, “jury” being one of note. But in the U.S., “government” can’t be plural—not even the government we’ve got now, regardless of appearances. And my student intended “government” to be singular: note the singular verb. Well, maybe “intended” isn’t what I mean; perhaps I should say my student had readily internalized the -s form of the verb to follow “government”: government is, government has, government says, government wants, etc.

But then we come to the crisis of the pronoun. In this case my student cannot use the explanation, or excuse, that she couldn’t say “he” without excluding the women: no one I know has ever substituted “he” OR “she” for “government.” “It,” the proper choice here, carries no gender issues. But maybe my student was rightly uneasy about picturing a “thing” in the place of government—surely government is a human institution, not a thing. The only other explanation, of course, is that the student didn’t think about the pronoun at all, but just wrote “their” because, to many in the rising generations, “they” is the ONLY pronoun. For people, don’t use pronouns at all: just use their names, over and over. “Jane is worried because Jane can’t convince Robert that Robert shouldn’t quit Robert’s job, and if Robert quit, that would mean that Jane and Robert would have to live on Jane’s salary.” Okay, I just made that one up. But truly, I do get whole paragraphs that use maybe two personal pronouns, the writers obsessively repeating and repeating and repeating the noun instead.

Meanwhile, of course, this plural entity hops around on only one foot, which it inserts in doorways like the Fuller Brush Man.

Not much of a blooper to devote a blog post to, eh? Okay, here’s the whole thing, and you’ll see that the government is NOT the Fuller Brush Man, having a more challenging use for that foot:

“Our government uses these situations to get their foot in the door and open Pandora’s box.”

Love it?

When I was in junior high, the grammar textbook was called “Warriner’s.” I’m sure the title was longer, but everyone including the teacher referred to it as Warriner’s. That was back in the days when textbook designers spent very little time making the pages look inviting, or “fun.” Most of the illustrations in Warriner’s were diagrams of sentences. But on one page of the arid desert of print was a sudden cartoon—refreshingly, set in the ocean. A raft floated on the waves, and on that raft stood a boy scratching his head (question mark in the air above) and looking at a signpost on the raft, one of those intersection signs with arrows pointing in different directions. The caption: “He came to a crossroads in the sea of life.” The lesson? Mixed metaphors. I loved that boy. I loved the fact that he had somehow found himself floating on a raft in the middle of the sea. I loved that the raft had a road sign. I loved his quizzical expression. Most of all, of course, I loved finding a cartoon in my textbook—the same delight I experienced in my college physics class when I saw the Cousin Itt cartoon among the formulae and diagrams in my text.

And my student here is mixing her metaphors. As a result, I long for the kindly cartoonist—if only Chas Addams were still alive!—who would draw for me a government-type guy (census-taker is probably the right image, but Uncle Sam might be a cute choice too) standing at a door, a housewifely Pandora (“call me Dory, dearie” she might tell her friends) leaning on the inside of the door trying to shut it. Mr. Government has inserted his right foot (okay, I’ll grant him two feet; and the choice of right foot is determined only by the design of most front doors, not politics!), the leg of which is preternaturally long and flexible, through the small gap. Behind Dory on the floor sits a box, and Mr. Government is using his foot (shod? bare, toes eagerly flexing?) to pry open that box. Mwah-ha-hah!

I can’t quite figure out why the government would want to open Pandora’s Box. We do hear politicians warn from time to time that various proposed legislative acts might, or would, open Pandora’s Box, but such warnings are meant to deter, not encourage. That box was full of all the ills of the world. Lurking at the bottom, we’re told, was Hope (can’t be totally negative here!), but I’d hate to think that the only way to acquire hope was to let all hell break loose first.

My student clearly is critical of such tactics, as should we all be. I wish I could remember what kinds of situations she believed the government “uses” to set up the door/box scenario, but the image so completely filled my mind that there was no room left for contexts.

“Rich women protected themselves from the poor by putting on their hats.”

I’m sorry. I have no idea on earth what she meant. I neglected to note the context when I transcribed this gem—because, I would imagine, I was laughing so hard I couldn’t hold the pen any longer.

Thinking of hats like those worn at Prince William’s wedding by the women in the British royal family makes the sentence even more hilarious, unless the hats were intended to inspire hysteria among the poor and thus render them incapable of assault.

It’s possible that my student was writing about Katherine Mansfield’s poignant short story “The Garden Party.” Still wearing her garden-party hat, young Laura carries a basket of leftovers down into the working-class village where a man lies dead. Class-consciousness, self-consciousness, and a somewhat romanticized awe are all expressed in what she softly says to the deceased: “Pardon my hat.” But how could a reader imagine Laura had donned the hat for self-protection?

Tempting now to speculate on who’s referred to by “their.” One can find the possibility that the writer means rich women protect themselves from the poor by putting on the hats of the poor—as camouflage? because the hats of the poor are thick and would cushion any blows? because the poor wouldn’t do violence to their own hats, regardless of the heads wearing them?

But all of that is just playing around, and distracts from the delicious lunacy of the main utterance. When I was in my early teens, my mother tried to enforce the rules of her own generation in her insistence that I wear gloves and a hat when I went to New York City. Could she have been thinking those wisps of propriety would protect me from unsavory passers-by?



“In ‘The Lottery’ one person a year is rocked to death.”

Spoiler alert: If you haven’t read the short story mentioned in this sentence, read it here before proceeding, since the commentary deals with the surprise ending.

Shirley Jackson’s tale of municipally-sponsored stone-throwing has unsettled readers ever since 1948, when it was published in The New Yorker, and I know this student was trying to describe the events of the story. Perhaps inadequate exposure to the Old Testament during her formative years left her ignorant of the verb “to stone”; this is obviously her attempt to do without it.

Oh, dear, though, doesn’t she know there is  a verb “to rock,” and we do it to babies? I’m sure—well, pretty sure—she never pictured infants in treetops being pelted with stones (or, wait a second! maybe that’s why that bough breaks?). She’s not thinking of other uses of the verb “to rock,” either: Rock and roll had nothing to do with lithobolia on the dance floor; people aren’t strapped into rocking chairs in execution chambers; and in 1971 when Andy Kim’s “Rock Me Gently, Rock Me Slowly” was #1 on the hit parade, no one thought he was asking for a kinder, gentler stoning. (For that matter, what did she think “Everybody Must Get Stoned” was about? Aha! Maybe she thought “stoning” applied only to drugs!)

For me, my student’s statement evoked a picture of someone being literally killed with kindness as the rocking chair gathers speed and the rockee’s brain finally scrambles. (I know this really does happen in some cases of child abuse, but my mental picture is more Edward Gorey or Terry Gilliam than New York Daily News.)

Another student, writing on the same story, attempts to describe its surprise ending and, thanks to an ambiguous pronoun usage, complicates the final picture:

“This allows the reader to be shocked when Jackson tells us ‘a stone hit her in the side of the head.’ No one can truly see it coming.”

That’s what’s so perpetually engaging about all these errors: you can’t see them coming, and when they hit you, they really knock you for a loop. I guess you could say they rock you.

“This kind of thing happens when a person is getting very old except we never understand their side because when you’re in their shoes you end up dying.”

A cheery post for a gloomy-looking day…

The context of this statement was an essay on mercy-killing or euthanasia, not sure which. Looking back, I see myself as something of a ghoul, really: I’ve given case studies on a man who shot his paralyzed brother, supposedly on request; a parent trying to decide the fate of his daughter, who had been in a coma for twelve years; an elderly man who killed his wife, who was in an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s; the Terri Schiavo case…. The assignment usually was to argue for or against the decision to terminate life.

This assignment design was originally developed by my late and beloved colleague George Blake. I enthusiastically adopted the idea, and together we elaborated it further and generated a number of model cases: something occurs, and is covered in the media, that involves a conflict between two or more moral principles, or between a law and a moral principle, or between two unsatisfactory solutions, or between a law and an individual circumstance, or—well, you get the picture. The “fact sheet” summarizes the case, including the various viewpoints expressed by people involved in the case, and then offers a series of “thought questions” aimed at getting students to see the example in a number of contexts. The assignment ends by inviting students to respond to a specific question and defend their reasoning. I have continued to add cases to the collection and have used the assignment to anchor my composition classes for many years—this year I’m trying something else, but only because I added a new kind of assignment last year and see another way of harmonizing the course’s various activities.

Students at every level of writing ability and intellectual sophistication have written engaged and engaging arguments in response to these assignments. George and I felt that putting small cases into larger contexts would enable students to write about issues they cared about (euthanasia, women’s rights, gay rights, artistic freedom, parental responsibilities, spousal abuse, justice, et al.) but in a focused way; we also valued enabling students to comment on one another’s work not only for the writing but also for the choices made, and our own ability to help students identify details as useful or irrelevant in relation to their choice of thesis. The class discussions have always been lively, at least in part because students could see abstract issues embodied, literally, in real people. Students actually have told me discussions of the cases continued back in the dorms, or over dinner; and over the years I have heard from many former students who say that ever since the course they have looked at news items as potential cases, considering what larger issues underlie them and how people actually in the story might explain themselves.

The statement here might have come from the Alzheimer’s case, but any of the euthanasia/right-to-life/mercy-killing cases could have occasioned such an observation.

The student is, of course, right: in such circumstances we hardly ever hear the patient’s point of view. A living will, an humane recent legal instrument, can tell us what the person thought he or she would probably want, but not necessarily what the person might say when actually in extremis. And the step from vegetative or terminal coma to actual death is a short one, and usually taken in silence.

So again we have an example of a conflict between what the student meant and what he actually said. Oh, that jumble of pronouns! Oh, the “end up dying” phrase! And oh, the picture of a comatose or debilitatingly demented patient lying in a hospital bed, perhaps hooked up to life-support machinery, clad in scanty gown, covered only with a hospital sheet…and there, sticking out from under the sheets, two sad feet wearing SHOES!

Well, I hope those shoes are comfortable, but I also hope you and I don’t end up wearing them any time soon.