December 06, 2005

Mid-sentence person shifting

Science News (November 19, 2005, p. 331) has this quote from scientist Matthew Burrow, who was doing cancer research at Tulane University until Hurricane Katrina wrecked his entire program by destroying his crucially important collection of cell lines:

It's not just that our work has been set back 6 months to a year, but you've suddenly lost all your tools.

I noticed it because it was pulled out and printed again as one of those pull-out-quote column interrupters that they use to catch your eye. And the shift of person from first person plural (our) to the informal indefinite use of the second person (you, your) did catch my eye. It's a slip, I think. I wouldn't recommend such switching to a foreign learner who was learning Standard English. I don't mean this remark as a criticism of Matthew Burrow, to whom my heart goes out; if a hurricane had destroyed my entire research program and I had to talk to a reporter about it on the fly, one might well hear us tangle your pronouns a bit as one struggled to express myself. I wouldn't want the result to be that I was nibbled to death by ducks for it on Language Log. But I noticed the utterance because it's a nice attested oral example of an ill-advised mid-sentence shift of person. Usage books warn against doing this when composing English prose, and I think they're right. Notice, the quoted sentence can't really be said to violate any syntactic constraint: our work has been set back 6 months to a year is a grammatical declarative sentence, and so is you've suddenly lost all your tools, and where P and Q are grammatical declarative sentences, there's nothing grammatically wrong with using them in the construction it's not just that P, but Q. So what Matthew said is not syntactically ill-formed. It's just ill-advised on a discourse level, because it confuses the hearer/reader about what perspective to take.

Added later: Barbara Partee writes to point out that my parodying of person-shifting above ("one might well hear us tangle your pronouns a bit as one struggled to express myself") goes beyond anything that could conceivably be regarded as grammatical, because it actually switches pronoun lexeme choice clause) between complements of the same verb (the subject and object in the express clause do not match, as they are required to by the grammar of reflexivization). Guilty as charged. I was kidding, of course. And since I hate to see cheating of that kind in the writings of prescriptivists, who criticize a grammatical usage by inventing an exaggeration of it and mocking that, I guess I really should be ashamed of myself. I hope you will note that my attitude above is sympathetic: I was not saying that Matthew Burrow was an ignorant twerp or that he didn't know English, or handing out any of the sort of abusive nonsense you get from real prescriptivists. Nonetheless, I think I may turn myself in to the enforcement authorities at Language Log Plaza for some punishment. We have various unpleasant tasks that we reserve for reminding our staff writers of their duty not to be the linguistic analog of Blue Meanies. Cleaning the basement toilets with Clorox and an Oral B toothbrush is one. Another is reading aloud the whole of page 48 of the 4th edition of Strunk & White, three times. I think I'll go for the toilets.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 6, 2005 05:00 PM