Wednesday, April 20, 2011

They get to me, too

Although I don't consider myself a militant grammarian, as a writer and as a teacher of writing, I have a number of grammar pet peeves. High on my list of annoyances sits pronoun reference errors. When a writer uses a pronoun without a logical antecedent—or when the antecedent is vague—the grammarian in me awakens, and I can barely stop myself from picking up a pen and scribbling "vague/unclear pronoun antecedent!"

Recently, I delighted in reading "They Get to Me: A young psycholinguist confesses her strong attraction to pronouns" in The American Scholar. The author, Jessica Love, discusses a number of fascinating aspects of pronoun use and history. She notes that pronouns, by definition:
only contain vague information, like first-person or plural. In order for something this vague to effectively retrieve a word’s meaning, there has to be a whole lot of context. Imagine all the words contained in your mind as a vast pool of fish. Look carefully and you’ll see that each fish is different from all the others. If you had a hook selective enough, you’d be able to control which fish you catch. But pronouns are not selective hooks. Pronouns are sweeping nets. You have to cast your net shallowly in the hopes that you catch the one noun the pronoun refers to. That’s what context does: it pushes what’s relevant to the surface of the mind.
Helping students understand the contextual nature of pronouns can be challenging. Young writers often struggle to see how anyone (especially their teacher!) could not "see" the context so clear in their minds. As students develop both the facility to use more complex language structures and the recognition that their readers' minds may lack contextual information, students become more skilled at detecting and correcting pronoun reference errors.

Love also discusses dummy pronouns, "which don’t mean anything at all." She explains:
They’re those pronouns that exist only because the English language demands that each sentence contain a subject: the it in “It’s raining” or the there in “There is a shed in my back yard.” (Note: the there only works as an example of a dummy pronoun if I am not pointing to a shed, and am nowhere near my back yard.) (Note: most linguistic examples have caveats like this, making the linguist’s life frustrating...)
After reading Love's piece, pronouns may get to you, too.

1 comment:

  1. As a fellow grammar-lover, I am eager to read more of your posts about your grammar pet peeves! Keep 'em coming!