Falling in Love with Pronouns
In the latest issue of The American Scholar, psycholinguistics graduate student Jessica Love explains how she became entranced with a mild-mannered part of speech, the pronoun. "I have fallen for pronouns," Love writes. "It's hard to shut me up about them."
Before we can understand a word, we first have to retrieve its meaning from memory. Most of the time, this happens quickly—so quickly we call it automatic—but sometimes it doesn't, sometimes the word is good and dusty. Say my lab manager says, "Sally saw Rosemary Clooney on the bus today!" I'll quickly retrieve some meaningful representation for Sally and saw and bus and today, but Rosemary Clooney might throw me. I retrieve her a bit at a time, one piece leading to another. She sounds familiar. She's a singer, right? Isn't she George Clooney's aunt? Then I remember Rosemary Clooney, George's aunt, died several years ago. "No way," I reply, that bit of idiomatic speech rolling off my tongue effortlessly. "She's been dead for years."
And here we've come to a pronoun. My lab manager delves into memory for representations of dead and years, and finds them, no problem. Delving for she, my lab manager comes back up with a representation of Rosemary Clooney. But she doesn't always mean Rosemary Clooney. Sometimes she means Sally or Hillary Clinton or the girl I ate lunch with on the first day of seventh grade. She could be anything that can be referenced as a single female—even a ship or a country. But my lab manager knows, straight away, that she is Rosemary Clooney. Pronouns involve that extra step, that discourse mining, that sensitivity to intent and likelihood: that matchmaking. Right here, right now, who is she?
Perhaps you are beginning to see why I am obsessed.
Read the rest of Love's paean to pronouns here.