October 05, 2003

Menand's acumen deserts him

For a man who will write in a national magazine that “Microsoft Word is a terrible program” I will cut a lot of slack. Louis Menand can't be all bad. And his generally entertaining review article on the new 15th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style, which appeared in the October 6 issue of The New Yorker, is fun, cleverly interleaved with a slashing attack on Word's brainlessly irritating efforts to take charge of your writing. But he works himself up into such a lather of pedantry that he cannot resist making a side remark that raises a tired and false grammar story once again. I refer to the baseless claim that the College Board made a grammar mistake in a PSAT test. According to Menand, the Board “replaced the phrase ‘Toni Morrison's genius’ with ‘her’,” and it is a failing of the Chicago Manual that it does not warn the reader against this sort of thing. Well, the College Board did nothing of the sort, and Menand should be ashamed of his sloppiness. If we're going to play the grammatical pedant, then let's be careful to get it right.

What the College Board actually did was to use this sentence as the basis for a grammar question:

Toni Morrison's genius enables her to create novels that arise from and express the injustices African Americans have endured.

The questions following it asked about the location of whatever grammatical errors it might contain. The Board correctly took the correct answer to be that there are no errors in it; her refers back to Toni Morrison, which is fine, and nothing else is wrong. But Maryland high school teacher Kevin Keegan persuaded them to change the scores of everyone who took the test because, he claimed, it did have an error in it.

Keegan's case was based on the fact that several usage books insist that a noun phrase that is the genitive determiner of another noun phrase must never be the antecedent of a pronoun. (That is, in the College Board's sentence, the pronoun her simply cannot refer back to Toni Morrison as it is obviously intended to do.) Sometimes the books just assert this as a brute fact; sometimes they seem to imply that the rationale has to do with avoidance of ambiguity; and sometimes they seem to say that it is simply a logical truth: any modifier of a noun is ipso facto an adjective, they claim, and a pronoun replaces a noun, so a pronoun can never replace a genitive noun phrase in determiner function.

All of this is nuts. It is patently ridiculous to suggest that that sentences like Roy Horn's white tiger attacked him on stage are ungrammatical. Such sentences are commonplace in the work of the finest writers. The prohibition against them is a mistaken over-generalization of a style recommendation about not getting antecedents too deeply embedded (“In several of Hitler's diary entries he says...” is not very good, for reasons that are rather hard to put a finger on), or about not writing ambiguously (in “Mary's mother thinks she's too fat” we can't tell who's supposed to be fat). And prenominal genitive determiner noun phrases are not adjectives, so to think that they can't be antecedents of pronouns for that reason is even madder than merely imagining that some obscure rule is being violated.

Geoff Nunberg published a very nice article in The New York Times that dealt with both the grammar and the politics of this case. It is a pity Louis Menand didn't read it. Menand's reverence for prescriptive usage books has blinded him to the fact that some of them (not all that many, actually) repeat silly rules from long ago that were never genuine principles of sentence formation in the language. (And was that last sentence of mine, which you read without a qualm, ungrammatical? Of course not.)

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at October 5, 2003 02:22 AM