February 13, 2005

Who loves whose country?

Arnold Zwicky objects to the American Heritage Dictionary's definition of patriot as "[o]ne who loves, supports, and defends one's country". He explains that "[t]he subject ... is an indefinite pronoun one, in alternation with the indefinite pronoun someone, while the possessive ... is a generic pronoun one's, in alternation with the generic pronoun your".

Reading his post, I agreed with Arnold's objection -- the definition seemed weird to me too, suggesting that the one who loves and the one whose country is loved are different, as they are in the phrase "someone who loves, supports and defends someone's country". But thinking about it further, I began to wonder whether Arnold and I might both have taken a wrong turn here.

The definition of patriot is not an isolated example -- the AHD also includes

traitor: One who betrays one's country, a cause, or a trust, especially one who commits treason.
witness: 3c. One who signs one's name to a document for the purpose of attesting to its authenticity.
nailbiter: 1. One who bites one's fingernails as a nervous habit.
acrobat: 2. One who changes one's viewpoint on short notice in response to the circumstances.
pedant: 2. One who exhibits one's learning or scholarship ostentatiously.

So apparently this "mistake" is a matter of editorial policy at the AHD, a circumstance that ought to give us pause.

This is also not some new-fangled editorial intervention to avoid gendered pronouns. The 1913 Webster's 2nd has

parricide: 1. Properly, one who murders one's own father; in a wider sense, one who murders one's father or mother or any ancestor.
matricide: 2. One who murders one's own mother.

And if we look on the internet for similar examples (e.g. via the pattern {"one who * one's"}), it seems that many on the net agree with this usage:

One who seeks one's own happiness by inflicting pain on others, entangled by the bonds of hate, will never be delivered from hate.
One who knows one's former births, who sees heaven and hell, who has reached the end of births and attained to the perfection of insight, the sage who has reached the summit of spiritual excellence--such a one do I call a holy person.
The mighty individual is the one who conquers one's passions.
I thought the whole point of being a true American, one who loved one's country, was having the guts to take a look at the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
What sort of "anti-Semite" would be one who risks one's own life to save Jewish children?
[The one who] finds one's life will lose it and [the one who] loses one's life [for my sake] will find it.
...the Lord Himself always recompenses one who expends one's life in His way.
[Be like] one who loves one's fellow creatures and brings them close...
refugee, one who leaves one's native land either because of expulsion or to escape persecution.

[emphasis added, square brackets original]

So apparently quite a few people allow one's to be a possessive indefinite pronoun, in Arnold's terminology. And some of these people write glosses for well-respected dictionaries. On the other hand, the pattern {"one who * his"} has 233,000 hits, and {"one who * their"} has 36,900, compared to 610 for "{one who * one's}", suggesting that Arnold and I are not alone in being uneasy about this.

There's more to say here -- as often, when you start pulling on the loose ends it unravels a lot of the fabric of grammar, so to speak -- but this much will have to do for now.


Posted by Mark Liberman at February 13, 2005 10:47 PM