October 08, 2003

Louis Menand's pronouns

Geoff Pullum has posted about Louis Menand's swipe at possessive NPs serving as antecedents for personal pronouns -- what I've called the Possessive Antecedent Proscription (PAP) in a series of postings to the American Dialect Society since may -- and now it's time to check on Menand's own practice. I've done the obvious thing and pulled out my copy of his book The Metaphysical Club and started looking for violations of the PAP.

[What follows is from a posting of 10/7/03 to the ADS list]

Menand seems to be much given to this useful construction, despite labeling it a "solecism" in his New Yorker review. here are the first six examples i found; they take us through page 38 of this book of 445 pages of text (many of which have extended quotations from the people he's writing about; i didn't look at these).

All these examples have subject or object pronouns (set off by underlining). Examples with possessive pronouns are everywhere, but many handbooks exempt them from the PAP, so I ignored them.

The first one is an example of a type I hadn't considered before, with a reflexive pronoun rather than a plain definite pronoun -- but I can't see why the PAP shouldn't cover these in the same way as the others.

  1. p. 7: ...in a phrase that became the city's name for itself...
  2. 2. p. 7: Dr. Holmes's views on political issues therefore tended to be reflexive: he took his cues from his own instincts...
  3. 3. p. 25: Emerson's reaction, when Holmes showed him the essay, is choice...
  4. 4. p. 28: Brown's apotheosis marked the final stage in the radicalization of Northern opinion. He became, for many Americans,...
  5. 5. p. 31: Wendell Holmes's riot control skills were not tested. Still he had, at the highest point of prewar contention...
  6. 6. p. 38: Holmes's account of his first wound was written, probably two years after the battle in which it occurred, in a diary he kept during the war.

There's really no point in pursuing this further. there are probably close to a hundred examples in the book.

Further comment: Menand writes well, and these sentences do nothing to tarnish his reputation. there's nothing wrong with them.

I've sent copies of my ADS postings about him to Menand. I hope he won't conclude that he should now be trying to avoid possessive antecedents! This is a possible response: when a colleague posted to the newsgroup sci.lang that possessive antecedents were just ungrammatical, and I mailed him an example from his own writing, he was inclined to think that he should just be more vigilant.

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at October 8, 2003 11:30 AM