October 06, 2004

Wednesday morning grammar maven

How could I have missed this tragic gem of linguistic mis-analysis, from Greg Easterbrook's 8/24/2004 Tuesday Morning Quarterback column at nfl.com?

In the new Microsoft slogan -- "Your potential inspires us to create software to help you reach it" -- the antecedent of "it" is "software." So your potential inspires us to create software to help you reach software. This slogan must have gone through the Microsoft Word grammar-checker tool! Then again, the line does pretty much sum up Microsoft sales strategy.

So true, and yet so false!

Back on August 28, I blogged Easterbook's discussion of new proposals for the Washington Redskins' name, and specifically his plan to change his vote from the "Potomac Drainage Basin Indigenous Persons" to the "Washington Wohnata". But except for the discussion of the Eagles' prospects, I just glanced through the rest of that (long, long) column. So I missed the paragraph titled "TMQ, Grammar Snob", tucked in between the recommendation of tough love for Randy Moss and the evaluation of the Saints' defensive line.

Let's look at that Microsoft slogan again:

"Your potential inspires us to create software to help you reach it"

This slogan certainly demonstrates that short sentences are not necessarily clear sentences. But is it really true that "the antecedent of 'it' is 'software'", as Easterbrook confidently asserts?

On the linguistic merits, Easterbook is full of it -- and I don't mean that he's full of Easterbrook.

I can't persuade myself to understand this sentence the way Easterbrook thinks I should. Except as a sort of pencil-and-paper joke, I can only understand the antecedent of "it" as "your potential". In fact, I was unable to invent a sentence where pronoun linkage works the way Easterbrook thinks it does in the Microsoft slogan, even when I try to choose the material to nudge the meaning in the right direction:

??Alan Turing inspired me to create an AI program to help me write it.
??She told us to build a raft to let us float on it.

(where the boldface nouns are supposed to be the antecedents for the boldface pronouns).

There's a linguistic literature about "non-coreference conditions" that's probably relevant here, depending on what you think those conditions really are, and what you think the structure of these sentences is. But to say that Easterbrook's construal violates some grammatical rule gets it backwards. Any such rule is a summary of norma loquendi: what we (tacitly) know about our language and how we use what we know in practice. I'd be happy enough to discover that some of the people, some of the time, construe such sentences the way Easterbrook says they should. But looking to Google for guidance, I can't find any examples of roughly comparable structures where the pronouns work Easterbrook-wise:

We will write, edit, co-write or ghostwrite your book - and, if you're going to self-publish, we'll also design it inside and out, and even create material to help you promote it.
I love the fact that my job allows me to interact with people in different fields and learn about what they do and create software to help them do it .
We also offer special private life coaching in which you find out your purpose in life, form your goals, create strategies to help you achieve them, and have on-going support to help you stay motivated and follow through.
Since there may be times when you want to save email messages, Messenger allows you to create folders to help you organize them.
If you have many projects to complete in a given time period, create Tasks to help you sort them.
Where I have the contributor's permission, I'll also create links to help you contact them for additional advice.
Then we'll work with you to identify the decisions that you need to make and create solutions to help you make them.
If people have rights, they will create organizations to help them defend them.
Explain to the class that some of these words are similar and ask the students to help you group them together in logical clusters.
Then, bring all of the pizzas out and ask the children to help you sort them according to size.
Once, in my father's presence, he claimed that he had flung his resignation in the King's face, and that he had controlled the voting in the Conclave, forgetting that he
had asked my father to beg the King to take him back ...
He knew that the chances of them being alive at the end of his long sentence were extremely remote, and so he asked my help to request the authorities to let him visit them just once.
Pray for this work - and make a gift to help us sustain it.

As far as I can tell, the norms of English usage are 100% against Easterbrook and in favor of Microsoft. In fact, I'm skeptical that Easterbrook's linguistic intuitions really support his own assertion. I suspect that he's blindly applying a piece of false grammar-maven lore, namely the view that the antecedent of an anaphoric pronoun must be the most recent noun phrase that agrees in number and gender.

Now, it's a good idea to worry about confusing pronoun linkages, but insisting that the antecedent must always be the string-wise-closest previous suitable noun phrase is nonsense. In Easterbrook's own column, there are several counterexamples that are perfectly clear and reasonable English:

"Wohnata" would take a bit of getting used to, but is no harder off the tongue than commonly spoken team names like Knickerbocker. It even works in the fight song... ["it" refers to "Wohnata", not "Knickerbocker" or "the tongue".]

Let's see, the Falcons were 3-1 with Michael-Mike Vick and 2-10 without him. What could that mean? Could the CIA figure it out? Don't answer that! Could the new national intelligence czar proposed by the 9/11 Commission figure it out? ["it" refers to "what that could mean", but not to "the CIA" or "the 9/11 Commission"]

There are lots of reasons why skipping the string-wise nearest possible antecedent might work -- but surely the fact that it's structurally unsuitable -- as in the Microsoft slogan -- is a pretty good one!

I like Easterbrook's TMQ column, and I especially like the self-deprecating TMQ logo. It fits this case particularly well.

[Easterbrook "Grammar Snob" link from Mike Pope's web log. ]

[Note that I'm no fan of that Microsoft slogan. It's aesthetically awkward -- an unmotivated little tangle of small clauses. It's psychologically inauthentic -- surely it's our money that mainly inspires Microsoft, not our potential. It's bad faith morphologized. But it's not ungrammatical. ]


Posted by Mark Liberman at October 6, 2004 10:14 AM