January 13, 2006

People that would do ourselves harm

I jumped when I heard it ten minutes ago on NPR's "All Things Considered", and turned to Google immediately to double-check transcripts. And sure enough, during his press conference with German chancellor Angela Merkel, President Bush used a reflexive pronoun with no permissible antecedent — the noun phrase it was co-referring with was not in a position that the grammar allows. I didn't mishear. Reuters has already quoted it:

"Guantanamo is a necessary part of protecting the American people. And so long as the war on terror goes on, and so long as there's a threat, we will inevitably need to hold people that would do ourselves harm."

That's totally ungrammatical, in all dialects. Reflexive pronouns like ourselves must (to put it roughly — there are some codicils) have an antecedent earlier in the same clause, agreeing with it in person, number, and gender. This isn't a subtle usage or style point. It isn 't a matter of dialect variation. Bush really does have a problem with spontaneously uttering sentences that respect the syntax of Standard English. He balks even on short ones. I'm not generally one of the picky-picky "Bushism" collectors, but even I sometimes have to wonder, are our president learning?

Of course, the wires are burning up with people emailing me examples of emphatic reflexives and telling me Bush might have been using one of those. He wasn't. The example cited above isn't a possible context for an emphatic reflexive, and he spoke it with no stress. He just forgot what the subject of his clause was. So did the people who wrote these examples, sent to my by Chris Culy:

So we put our collective heads together and came up with a moniker that does ourselves proud. (http://www.cufsnorth.org/newslett1.htm)

I think labeling them as "evil" is a demonization which does ourselves a disservice by adding a religious bias to our relationship with that country. (

I'm not buying it, Chris: sometimes people write down sentences that just don't cut it grammatically. These are painfully ungrammatical.

What I will grant you, though, is that ourselves does sometimes occur (stressed) with the meaning "us ourselves", as in the example you sent me:

'I said come here, cell-sword! This concerns you as much as it does ourselves', hissed the rogue, his rat-like face pulling itself into a grimace of agitation. (http://www.pulpanddagger.com/pulpmag/dark/cobra1.html)

That's a genuine emphatic (notice, syntax nerds, it's the obligatorily focused final constituent in a pseudogapping construction).

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 13, 2006 05:32 PM