Blog Excerpts

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.

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Tuesday May 25th 2010, 11:25 AM
Comment by: David P. (Magalia, CA)
My wife walked into the room as I was reading this article, and I had to read it to her. Hilariously, she suffers from (or, more accurately I suffer from her habit of) freely using pronouns without a preceding proper noun to indicate to whom or what she refers. When she sees my lost expression she gets mad at me, as though I haven't been paying attention. Thank you for sharing this article -- we've had a good laugh about it, and I think we can navigate safely here forward! --David
Tuesday May 25th 2010, 1:31 PM
Comment by: David D.
The lady in my life leaves out pronoun and noun and frequently refers to the third item back in our conversation while I am still considering the most recent thing. Maybe David P. and I have uncovered a California condition. But seriously, what is psycholinguistics? I don't know whether to emphasize the "psycho" or the "linguist." Did Jessica Love just make this up?
I say the above in jest, but I am scratching my head in wonder.
Wednesday May 26th 2010, 11:04 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I've moved the whole article to Word and will use quotes from it to get friends with the problem mentioned above to realize just what they are doing to my brain when they use pronouns without a referent.

I loved the article!

I think I got cured of most inexactness by my husband who had to learn English as a second language. His French pronouns were usually more specific; they cause me problems!

I've always wondered how French feminist fared in a quest to get gender neutral words, never mind just pronouns! This is surely true of other languages.

We do need (or at least I do) a word that will do for 'he', 'she' or 'it'. (I debated putting a comma before 'or'. Did I violate the Oxford comma rule? Sigh!) 'Hir' seems phoney at this stage, though I've seen it used frequently on another site. The subject form is elusive still, and my suggestion to combine the three... s, h, and it, never did take off. (I am not expecting it too very soon!)

I do tire of the use of 'she' where I would just use 'he' as a sort of generic first person subjective singular.

The box is jumping. A sign that the post is long enough! But pronoun discussion could go on and on and on!
Sunday June 13th 2010, 5:04 PM
Comment by: Henryk W. (Roedovre Denmark)
Hey Jane. Loved it too, as I do your idea of the threesome combination. Just imagining that it might take off anyway, some day, makes me giggle.

I've seen a couple of articles about the singular "they" on this site. Could that be what you need? I guess not, but it was worth the try.

BTW, the feminist wave has hit the Danish shores as well in the 70s. Mocking the language-reconstruction fervor of these years, my union monthly (I'm an engineer) begun - tongue in cheek - toying with the idea of combining the pronouns "he" and "she". It all took place on its backpage, which was reserved for witticisms both by editors and the readership, and which, for me (and, I suppose, for most other readers) was the first page to read.

In Danish, the two pronouns are "han" and "hun", respectively; following a lengthy discussion among the readership, and a vote, "hyn" ended up the winner; curiously, it actually turned up that this was not the first time since WWII that that suggestion came up.

It all remained a joke, though, and everybody just kept using "he/she" instead, for years to come. Pity, that, I think; not so much beauty in that one.

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Neal Whitman explains how to use "they" as a singular pronoun.
The Pronoun Problem
Margaret Hundley Parker tackles the lack of a gender-neutral singular third-person pronoun.
Anne Curzan finds singular "they" to be an elegant solution.