November 14, 2007

Drivers and kings

All right, class, put your books away; this will be a closed-book surprise quiz. It will count toward your final result in the course. Put your name legibly at the top right corner of a clean sheet of paper, and write a short essay answer to this question.

Compare the following two sentences:

  1. Do not speak to the driver or distract their attention without good cause.
  2. *Do not speak to the king or distract their attention without good cause.

Example 1 is closely modeled on a sign found behind the driver's cab on route 29 Lothian Buses in Edinburgh. It is clearly grammatical and acceptable. (Prescriptivists might object to it, but as you know, singular antecedents for forms of the pronoun they are attested in the finest English authors since Middle English times; the prescriptivists just haven't paid attention to the evidence of literary usage.) Example 2 contrasts in only one word, yet is clearly ungrammatical (or strikingly unacceptable at the very least). Why? What is the difference between driver and king that is responsible for the contrast?

You have five minutes. Then I'll collect them in and we'll discuss it.

A model answer for this question has now been posted on Language Log as promised; follow this link.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at November 14, 2007 05:22 PM