July 18, 2006

Another Sign of the Apocalypse?

For some time I've been collecting examples of interesting pronominal anaphora in writing.  Some of the examples are inept; the reader is initially led to entertain an unlikely referent for the pronoun, and sometimes it is almost impossible to shake the wrong reading; these examples are akin to the truly inept dangling modifiers that the Fellowship of the Predicative Adjunct has/have [choose according to your nationality] been collecting for some time.  But other times there is no problem, given the context and real-world knowledge.

I posted some recent examples to the American Dialect Society mailing list, concluding the first of these with the observation that

The fact is that huge numbers of personal pronouns are potentially ambiguous in their reference, but this is rarely a problem.  Which means that handbook advice to avoid ambiguity of reference for pronouns is remarkably unhelpful; this is tantamount to telling people to avoid pronouns, period.

Beverly Flanigan now reports that she has students at Ohio University who were taught just this (in high school, I assume).  Surely the Apocalypse is upon us.

According to Flanigan, on ADS-L 7/18/06:

For the past several years I've had students who in fact tell me they were taught not to use pronouns in writing.  The result is a constant repetition of nouns where pronominal substitutions would have been perfectly comprehensible.  Most annoying.

Annoying?  It is to weep and gnash one's teeth.

For the record, here's the case I wrote about, from The New Yorker of 7/10&17/06, p. 90, in David Denby's review of "The Devil Wears Prada" (pronouns bold-faced):

A high-minded college journalist who wants to do serious work, Andy hangs up Miranda's coat and bag every morning after she flings them down on Andy's desk; she runs and fetches, criss-crossing the city, tending to Miranda's dog, her twin daughters, her dry cleaning.

Finding a referent for a pronoun can, in principle, involve checking out (at least) the following factors: (a) the properties of the pronoun; (b) how recently mentioned possible referents were; (c) whether a possible referent was mentioned in a position structurally parallel to the one the pronoun is in; (d) whether a possible referent was mentioned via a NP in a prominent position in the sentence, especially the subject NP; (e) the salience/foregrounding/topicality of the referent in the discourse context; (f) the real-world plausibility of the referent.  This is amazingly complicated stuff, and even small changes in wording can shift the likelihood of one referent over others, as in the following set:

Bush invited Putin to his ranch.  [very likely: Bush's ranch]
Bush followed Putin to his office.  [Bush's or Putin's office, depending on the context]
Bush followed Putin to his dacha.  [very likely: Putin's dacha]

(Note that sometimes following the Avoid Pronouns "rule" produces truly bizarre results, like "Bush invited Putin to Bush's ranch.")

Most of the time we sort our way through referent finding without difficulty, relying heavily on real-world plausibility.  I noticed the Andy/Miranda example only because I'm hypersensitive to pronouns (on reflection, Geoff Pullum thinks it's not very good writing; but he didn't notice anything odd the first time through).

Then one that definitely gave me pause, the very beginning of Caroline Leavitt's "Learning Mother Love" in Psychology Today, July/August 2006, p. 44:

It's a shiny bright apple of a day in San Francisco and the three of us--me, my husband, Jeff, and our one-year-old son, Max--are at a concert.  He's in red corduroy overalls and a striped shirt, his hair long and golden as the day ahead of us.  The concert's been going on for an hour already, and the whole time Max has been content to sit on his father's lap, enthralled by the music.

There are several ways to fix this one, but the obvious one is to junk the pronoun and repeat "Max".  Occasionally that's the way to be clear.  Just not ALWAYS.

Finally two that work just fine, I think, but would go differently if the surrounding wording were changed:

Soon after his 60th birthday, Beecher became a celebrity of a far less exalted kind.  Theodore Tilton, his longtime friend and sometime journalistic collaborator, accused the preacher of committing adultery with his wife...
  (NYT Book Review, 7/16/06, p. 10, Michael Kazin review of a biography of Henry Ward Beecher)

To see the issue, suppose that instead of "committing adultery..." the sentence went "committing sodomy...".

Relatives awaiting immigrants from Eastern Europe in 1893 discover they died at sea.
  (NYT Book Review, 7/16/06, p. 28, iUniverse ad for The Golden Door by Charles B. Nam)

To see the issue, try following "discover they" with "don't know which port the ship is headed for" rather than "died at sea".

Trying to teach people how to use pronouns skillfully in writing is a very hard task, as you can see from looking at some examples like these.  But telling them to Avoid Pronouns is certainly not the way to go.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at July 18, 2006 08:33 PM