November 01, 2007

The perpendicular pronoun

From a review on

I'm very much of two minds about this book. There's little need to offer further comment on:

1. The author's ego (in one paragraph on page 59, he uses the perpendicular pronoun 7 times; the possessive first person another 5) ...

This somewhat cutesy way of referring to the pronoun I (which in its spelling is nothing but a line perpendicular to the line of text) was new to Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky (who reported it to me) and to me, but it's fairly well represented on the web (1,590 raw hits just now).  Perhaps it's a way of avoiding actually USING the pronoun, which gets a bad press in a lot of advice to writers.

On the web you can find a 2003 column "The Perpendicular Pronoun" by Maureen Dowd, contrasting Bush 41's avoidance of this pronoun -- according to Dowd, he often omits the subject I entirely, sometimes uses an inclusive we (though just how much "modesty and self-effacement" -- Dowd's words -- this shows is debatable) -- with Bush 43's bold use of it.

Twenty years before this (on 11/25/82) we find the expression in an episode of  Yes Minister, in the mouth of a stunningly circumlocutory character:

Sir Humphrey: "Minister, I think there is something you perhaps ought to know."

Jim Hacker: "Yes Humphrey?"

Sir Humphrey: "The identity of the Official whose alleged responsibility for this hypothetical oversight has been the subject of recent discussion, is NOT shrouded in quite such impenetrable obscurity as certain previous disclosures may have led you to assume, but not to put too fine a point on it, the individual in question is, it may surprise you to learn, one whom you [sic] present interlocutor is in the habit of defining by means of the perpendicular pronoun."

Jim Hacker: "I beg your pardon?"

Sir Humphrey: "It was...I."

(This quotation is used in the Wikipedia page on logorrhoea (or verbal diarrhea) to illustrate the phenomenon.)

And you can find plenty of badmouthing of I, as on the blog Daily Diatribe (written by an Australian):

One of the difficulties of writing about personal experiences and thoughts is the perpendicular pronoun: "I". Allan Moult, the editor who guided my early writing efforts [note missing comma] was quite fierce about eliminating every possible occurrence of the perpendicular pronoun [many style manuals would require a comma here too] and my gratitude to him on this account is immense. On the other hand, it can be quite difficult to achieve. One way out of the difficulty is to invent an alter ego, hence The Pompous Git.

The idea that I (also me) is immodest has a long history, but many writers on usage regard avoiding the pronoun as false modesty (or, in Bill Safire's phrasing in No Uncertain Terms, p. 183, "phony humility"), especially since the strategies of avoidance -- the author, the present writer, yours truly, myself (which Safire calls the "horizontal pronoun", in contrast to the perpendicular pronoun), recasting in the passive, etc. -- mostly offend writers like Safire and Bryan Garner (see his article on FIRST PERSON in GMAU, p. 349) much more than straightforward I and me would, especially in writing about personal experiences or opinions.  And in this case I agree with them.

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at November 1, 2007 07:16 PM