|> PRONOUNS ARE NOT FOR AMATEURS [Problems with Pronouns]|
|29.||They is out of their mind.|
|30.||We are obsessed with grammar, her and me. Or should it be she and I?|
|31.||You would never write a sentence like this, simply because you are smarter than me.|
|32.||If I do say so myself . . .|
|33.||Give this advice to whoever asks—and to whomever else it might be useful.|
|34.||This is in reference to your pronoun without a clear antecedent.|
|35.||The Itty-Bitty Pronoun That Causes Great Big Trouble|
|They is out of their mind.|
|The average adolescent sends almost two thousand text messages a month. They contact their friends more by text than by phone or e-mail or instant-message or even face-to-face conversations. (New Yorker)|
|Such an expansive body of work would be impressive from any person of letters in their seventh decade. (New Republic)|
|When an account is close to using up its data, each device on the shared plan receives an alert asking if the customer wants to buy an extra 2 gigabytes of data for $10, Ms. Raney of Verizon said. But if they ignore this and go over the limit, they have to pay $15 for every extra gigabyte they use, she said. (New York Times)|
|The oversharer seems to have no internal filter, posting anything and everything that crosses their mind almost instantly. (Wall Street Journal)|
|Yes, anecdotes and gaffes can tell you something about a candidate, but not nearly as much as what they’ve done—or say they will do—as actual elected leaders. (Time) [Note also the shift from the singular candidate to the plural leaders.]|
|Searching for someone by name on Twitter is exasperating. You can save time and limit frustration by looking for them on Listorious instead. (New York Times)|
|The guard wasn’t the only one who seemed confused; the hostess was unsure about the feasibility of a pre-dinner drink at the half-empty bar, which was unfortunate, because by that time everyone in the group felt that they needed one. (New Yorker)|
|Yet this being college—and the end of the term, at that—not everyone showed up with their calculators. (New York Times)|
|Nobody is entirely trapped in Ferris’s world of paid labor as long as they can express themselves, even if that means a hushed conversation with a colleague on line at Starbucks, or a surreptitious tweet. (Bookforum)|
Many of those who defend using they, them, and their with singular antecedents insist that substituting the politically correct and gender-inclusive pronominal pairs he or she, him or her, and his or her ultimately clutters a sentence or a paragraph. No argument there. But the fact that the English language unfortunately lacks a single-word gender-neutral singular pronoun doesn’t mean that we should go ahead and blur the distinction between singularity and plurality.
|[about sending and receiving texts during a meal] “If you’re going to invite somebody to dinner and ignore them, at least have the decency to get married first and build up years of bitterness and resentment.” (Amy Alkon, quoted in Wall Street Journal)|
The erroneous pronoun them can easily be written out of the sentence.
|“If you’re going to ignore somebody you’ve invited to dinner, at least have the decency to make sure that the two of you have gotten married first and built up years of bitterness and resentment.”|
|When a person chooses to share a story about someone else, it’s because they think that story is significant in some way. (theatlantic.com)|
|A person choosing to share a story about someone else reasons that the story is significant in some way.|
|Someone with the Twitter handle @pubnt, whose bio specifies that they are “not associated with Ellora’s Cave,” has nonetheless been picking fights with and occasionally “doxxing” (posting private information publicly online about) some of the company’s detractors. (New York)|
|Someone with the Twitter handle @pubnt, specified in the accompanying bio as “not associated with Ellora’s Cave,” has nonetheless been picking fights. . . .|
Any of the four tactics for revision will appease picky readers—and, what, after all, is to be gained by alienating them?
|An undergrad can buy an economics textbook new for, say, $263. At Chegg.com, she can rent a hard copy of the same book for $94 for 180 days, or an electronic copy for $128 for the same period. (Wall Street Journal)|
|Think back to the days before email. If somebody who ran a business right next door to you—a business that you didn’t actually patronize—started phoning your office 100 times a year, wouldn’t you stop by and tell her to knock it off? (Wall Street Journal)|
|For millions of years an individual’s social world was limited almost entirely to her village and tribe, and outsiders were, for good reason, considered a threat until proven otherwise. (Wall Street Journal)|
|But what if someone is willing to pay for her data to go faster? (New York Times)|
|As [George] Saunders told me, “A work of art is something produced by a person, but is not that person—it is of her, but is not her. It’s a reach, really—the artist is trying to inhabit, temporarily, a more compact, distilled, efficient, wittier, more true-seeing, precise version of herself—one that she can’t replicate in so-called ‘real’ life, no matter how hard she tries. That’s why she writes: to try and briefly be more than she truly is.” (New York Times)|
For decades, of course, masculine default pronouns prevailed, and they still survive in many sentences. But now that women have risen to the forefront of our economy and our culture, aren’t we ready for a big flip in our use of pronouns?
|Sales is the activity of making another person buy something he or she didn’t know they wanted. (Wall Street Journal)|
|Does the prospect of heavy fines or increased enforcement really make someone less likely to cheat on their taxes, to fill out a fraudulent insurance claim, to recommend a bum investment or to steal from his or her company? (Wall Street Journal)|
Be both correct and consistent within a passage when you are referring to an unparticularized person. Notice how in the following passage, they is used incorrectly but consistently in the first paragraph, and she is used correctly and consistently in the second:
|This evolutionary description has become the primary way we understand ourselves. Deep down we are mammals with unconscious instincts and drives. Up top there’s a relatively recent layer of rationality. Yet in conversation when we say someone is deep, that they have a deep mind or a deep heart, we don’t mean that they are animalistic or impulsive. We mean the opposite. When we say that someone is a deep person, we mean they have achieved a quiet, dependable mind by being rooted in something spiritual and permanent. [Next paragraph] A person of deep character has certain qualities: in the realm of intellect, she has permanent convictions about fundamental things; in the realm of emotions, she has a web of unconditional loves; in the realm of action, she has permanent commitments to transcendent projects that cannot be completed in a single lifetime. (New York Times)|
And don’t get so obsessed with avoiding the misuse of they, them, and their that you end up using a singular pronoun to refer back to a plural antecedent, as in the following two sentences (in the first of which the writer might have been thrown off by the indefinite pronoun one).
|There aren’t many directors one can identify simply by looking at a brief clip of his or her work. (Wall Street Journal)|
|On Wednesday Pandora will add 10,000 clips by more than 700 comedians to its archive, and allow users to sort through them in the same way they do the site’s music: by picking a starting place—a comedian, type of comedy or even a specific joke—and then letting Pandora send a stream of similar material chosen by analyzing his or her taste. (New York Times)|
There is no excuse for using they, them, or their when the antecedent of a personal pronoun is clearly one and only one female or when an indefinite pronoun (such as anyone, anybody, everyone, everybody, no one, or nobody) functions as an antecedent in a sentence or passage that concerns females only.
|[about a book by Lena Dunham] So, this is a confessional book where you cannot be sure if the confessions are true: It’s either a brilliantly ironic subversion of the form, or a deeply wearying put-on by someone who has no sense of who they are when no one is watching. I honestly don’t know which it is. (New Republic)|
|. . . a deeply wearying put-on by someone who has no sense of who she is when no one is watching.|
|And an easy way for a beauty brand to get a viral nudge on an ad campaign is by inserting feminist overtones. (It can also function as a sort of armor: Sell your shampoo—or your sex tips—under the guise of empowering women, and no one can fault you for making them feel the need to spend money on making their hair softer and more touchable.) (New York)|
|. . . and no one can fault you for making her feel the need to spend money on making her hair softer. . . .)|
Throughout the essay from which the following paragraph is excerpted, the writer uses feminine pronouns as the default, so the shift to they (with creator as the antecedent) is jarring.
|While I don’t expect a jilted creator ever to be appreciative of bad press—the most queenly among them might offer a tight-lipped smile, as if to say she is thankful for the engagement but, please, get out of her face now—one hopes they’ll simply gripe about the critic’s lack of judgment or foresight or sex appeal to anyone who will listen, sucker-punch a pillow, and, eventually, forget it. Maybe, a few weeks later, they will even revisit the piece and find something edifying in its admonishments. (newyorker.com)|
|While I don’t expect a jilted creator ever to be appreciative of bad press—the most queenly might offer a tight-lipped smile, as if to say she is thankful for the engagement but, please, get out of her face now—one hopes she’ll simply gripe about the critic’s lack of judgment or foresight or sex appeal to anyone who will listen, sucker-punch a pillow, and, eventually, forget it. Maybe, a few weeks later, she will even revisit the piece and find something edifying in its admonishments.|
Finally, when you’re writing about a representative member of a particular subgroup of people, readers might find it awkward and distracting if you abruptly switch from pronouns signifying one sex to pronouns signifying the other sex, especially within a single paragraph.
|The English major is, first of all, a reader. She’s got a book pup-tented in front of her nose many hours a day; her Kindle glows softly late into the night. But there are readers and there are readers. There are people who read to anesthetize themselves—they read to induce a vivid, continuous, and risk-free daydream. They read for the same reason that people grab a glass of chardonnay—to put a light buzz on. The English major reads because, as rich as the one life he has may be, one life is not enough. He reads not to see the world through the eyes of other people but effectively to become other people. What is it like to be John Milton, Jane Austen, Chinua Achebe? What is it like to be them at their best, at the top of their games? (Chronicle of Higher Education)|
|The English major reads because, as rich as the one life she has may be, one life is not enough. She reads not to see the world through the eyes of other people but effectively to become other people.|
|Never touch a disabled guest’s wheelchair, which is no different from touching the guest herself. Never address a disabled guest’s aide and ignore the guest; address the aide and the guest, bending down, if need be, to make sure the guest knows you’re aware of his existence. (Shoptimism: Why the American Consumer Will Keep On Buying No Matter What [Free Press], by Lee Eisenberg)|
|Never touch a disabled guest’s wheelchair, which is no different from touching the guest herself. Never address a disabled guest’s aide and ignore the guest; address the aide and the guest, bending down, if need be, to make sure the guest knows you’re aware of her existence.|
|Pronominal complications arising from the writer’s choice of an alternative-compound subject requiring a singular verb (see Chapter 6) are often best resolved by recasting the sentence.|
|In their surviving letters neither Moss nor Bishop discuss their personal lives. (Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker [Farrar, Straus and Giroux], edited by Joelle Biele)|
|In their surviving letters, Moss and Bishop never discuss their personal lives.|
|Errors in using plural pronouns with singular antecedents, or vice versa, are not limited to sentences about human beings. Sentences in which the antecedent is a noun denoting an inanimate object or entity can get us into pronominal trouble as well.|
|Children receive a check for fifty kidzos upon arriving at KidZania, and can supplement that with the “salary” they earn for participating in an activity. The most popular of them, like training to be a pilot on a simplified flight simulator, are not as remunerative as the less popular, like being a dentist. (New Yorker)|
The antecedent of them is the singular noun activity. The quickest fix is to substitute activities for an activity in the first sentence and leave the second sentence alone.
|Though the company was founded in 2000, they’re known for making stuff that looks like it was used by your grandfather, and this new product is no exception. (Wall Street Journal)|
|Though the company was founded in 2000, it’s known for making things that look as if they were used by your grandfather. . . .|
|Today’s cars already can do many automated safety tasks. They can maintain a set distance from the car in front of it and apply mild corrective steering to keep a car in its lane. They can also automatically adjust the headlights and determine if drivers are drowsy and then sound an alarm to awaken them. (New York Times)|
|They can maintain a set distance from the cars in front of them and apply mild corrective steering to keep themselves in their lanes.|
It might be better, of course, to recast the entire excerpt in the singular.
|Today’s car can already do many automated safety tasks. It can maintain a set distance from the car in front of it and apply mild corrective steering to keep itself in its lane. It can also automatically adjust the headlights and determine if the driver is drowsy and then sound a wake-up alarm.|
|It was a small step forward for Google’s plan to digitize every book and make them readable and searchable online, known as the Google Library Project, but it did not resolve the much bigger issue standing in Google’s way—litigation between Google and authors. (New York Times) [The sentence is also weakened by a laggard modifier; see Chapter 23.]|
|It was a small step forward for Google’s plan, known as the Google Library Project, to digitize every book and make it readable and searchable online. . . .|
|Most every fast-food chain now advertises presumably health-benefiting “organic” meat and produce—even as they industriously peddle 880-calorie milkshakes. (New York Post)|
|Most fast-food chains now advertise presumably health-benefitting “organic” meat and produce—even while industriously peddling 880-calorie milk shakes.|
A singular pronoun is required when its antecedent takes the form A or B if B is a singular noun (see Chapter 6).
|Frontera Grill or Pok Pok NY can serve food that is true to the original because they can choose dishes that don’t have to be diluted to appeal to their clientele. (New York Times)|
|Frontera Grill or Pok Pok NY can serve food that is true to the original because it can choose dishes that don’t have to be diluted to appeal to its clientele.|
Another option is to pluralize the antecedent and retain the plural pronouns.
|Frontera Grill and Pok Pok NY can serve food that is true to the original because they can choose dishes that don’t have to be diluted to appeal to their clienteles.|
Finally, avoid using the singular pronouns that and this when the antecedent is plural.
|The issue of pay rocketed around the Internet on Thursday after Ken Auletta of The New Yorker reported, in two articles, that Ms. Abramson had confronted management because she believed that her pay and her pension benefits were less than that of her predecessor, Bill Keller. (New York Times)|
|. . . her pay and her pension benefits were less than those of her predecessor, Bill Keller.|
|The service, style and ambition of Blanca recall that of a larger Momofuku Ko, the chef and restaurateur David Chang’s 200-square-foot dinner theater in the East Village, or a slightly more casual Brooklyn Fare, the chef César Ramirez’s stainless-clad temple to gastronomy, which serves 18 around a snug bar built into his kitchen in Downtown Brooklyn. (New York Times)|
|The service, style, and ambition of Blanca recall those of a larger Momofuku Ko, the chef and restaurateur David Chang’s two-hundred-square-foot dinner theater in the East Village, or a slightly more casual Brooklyn Fare. . . .|
|The pronouns of choice for many persons living outside of the binary-gender system are they, them, their, and themself—all used in a singular sense. Plural, not singular, verbs should be used with they when the pronoun refers to a person of nonbinary gender.|
|Vivian Chace, 22, who identifies as nonbinary, said they struggles when other people fail to recognize Chace as such. (Washington Times)|
|Substitute struggle for struggles.|
|We are obsessed with grammar, her and me. Or should it be she and I?|
The subjective personal pronouns (I, we, she, he, and they) and their objective counterparts (me, us, her, him, and them) are rarely misused in print, so only a quick recital of the rules is needed here. (We don’t need to worry about the pronoun you, because it can function as both a subjective and an objective pronoun. The subjective who and whoever and the objective whom and whomever, though, are a different story altogether, and the rules governing their use are discussed in Chapter 33.)
|This time Sanchez was not playing football in a brief video that surfaced on the Internet Tuesday. Rather, a person who appeared to be him was shown dancing with two young women, his bare rear end exposed to the camera. (Newsday)|
|Rather, a person who appeared to be he was shown dancing with two young women. . . . OR: Rather, a person who appeared to be Sanchez was shown dancing with two young women. . . .|
|Increasingly, though, the subject seemed to be him, not her. (New York Times)|
|Increasingly, though, the subject seemed to be he, not she. OR: Increasingly, though, he, rather than she, seemed to be the subject.|
Objective pronouns serve as direct objects of transitive verbs (I texted her); as indirect objects of transitive verbs (She gave him and me a lecture); and as direct objects of gerunds (She wouldn’t accept money for driving us to the station), of participles (The person recommending her is my mother), and of infinitives (The company wants to hire her). Objective pronouns also serve as objects of prepositions (He dedicated the book to her); are used before appositives functioning as objects (She praised us interns); are used before appositives functioning as objects (The coach congratulated the new members of the team—her and me); and serve as direct objects of implied verbs in elliptical dependent clauses (She likes her brother more than me [that is, she likes her brother more than she likes me]).
|Rebecca Kowalski—the mother of Chase, a 7-year-old boy killed—said her son spoke to her in a vision one night after he died and that he told her that her [she] and her husband, Stephen, would change lives with their work. (Wall Street Journal)|
The subjective pronoun she is one of the two subjects of the nounal dependent clause that she and her husband, Stephen, would change lives with their work.
|It was the first day of the new academic year and, in keeping with College tradition, me and several other “mature” students [several other “mature” students and I] were checking out the latest batch of “freshettes.” (How to Lose Friends and Alienate People [Da Capo], by Toby Young)|
The subjective pronoun I is one half of the additive-compound subject in the second independent clause of the sentence.
|In the male hegemony of publishing, us [we] gals are supposed to stick together. (themillions.com)|
The subjective pronoun we (followed by the appositive gals) is the subject of the independent clause.
|For every Spider there are thousands of spiderettes awaiting their turn to spin that gossamer web of alluring wackiness which entrances and entraps we [us] lesser mortals. (Wacky Chicks: Life Lessons from Fearlessly Inappropriate and Fabulously Eccentric Women [Simon & Schuster], by Simon Doonan)|
The objective pronoun us is the direct object of the transitive verbs entrances and entraps in the adjectival dependent clause which entrances and entraps us lesser mortals.
|Being English through and through, John had planned to take Sean and I [me] to England on the QE 2. (Rolling Stone)|
The objective pronoun me is one of the two objects of the infinitive to take.
|To Chris and I [me], though, she was the ultimate total Betty. (How to Lose Friends and Alienate People [Da Capo], by Toby Young)|
The objective pronoun me is one of two objects of the preposition to in the introductory prepositional phrase.
|That always sounded appealing, particularly to Larry, for there was still nobody but she [her] who could remain so attractive while laying waste to a stage set. (A Ship Without a Sail: The Life of Lorenz Hart [Simon & Schuster], by Gary Marmorstein)|
The objective pronoun her is the object of but, which in this sentence is functioning as a preposition equivalent in meaning to the preposition except.
|“In April 6, 2010, our chief of police and pastor of our church came looking for my wife and I [me] to tell us a positive match had been made,” Mr. Reveron said. (New York Times)|
The objective pronoun me is one of the two objects of the preposition for in the prepositional phrase for my wife and me.
|“Things are really good between Nate and I [me] now,” Parker told the Web site IGN.com. (New York Post)|
The objective pronoun me is one of the two objects of the preposition between.
|“This was mainly about David and I [me],” says [Roger] Waters. (Rolling Stone)|
The objective pronoun me is one of the two objects of the preposition about.
|His assistant, me (they made a little show of calling me his “associate”), sat at a desk in a small annex. (Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen [Norton, first edition], by Mary Norris)|
The subjective pronoun I is needed in the appositive following the subject, but if His assistant, I, or I, his assistant, sounds ungraceful to you, refashion the sentence.
|I was his assistant (they made a little show of calling me his “associate”) and sat at a desk in a small annex.|
|And it [the question] remains unsettled in part because nobody—certainly not us poets—seems to be sure exactly what we mean by “personal.” (Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry [Harper], by David Orr)|
The appositive phrase certainly not us poets follows the subject (nobody) of an adverbial dependent clause, so the pronoun in the appositive must be in subjective form.
|And it remains unsettled in part because nobody—certainly not we poets—seems to be sure exactly what we mean by “personal.”|
|But the simple truth is: all three co-owners of the site, me, Patrick Appel and Chris Bodenner, have come to the conclusion that the practical, financial and editorial challenges of continuing on are simply too great for us to bear as we are, let alone without me. (dish.andrewsullivan.com)|
|. . . all three co-owners of the site—Patrick Appel, Chris Bodenner, and I—have come to the conclusion. . . .|
|Forget what great sales he and his team—us—had produced for the past two-plus years. (Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail [Portfolio], by Caitlin Kelly) [The direct object of the verb forget is the nounal dependent clause what great sales he and his team—us—had produced for the past two-plus years.]|
|Forget what great sales he and his team—we—had produced for the past two-plus years. OR [with us now functioning as the object of the preposition of in the appositive]: Forget what great sales he and his team—all of us—had produced for the past two-plus years.|
Things can get tricky when you need to choose the correct pronouns in lengthy appositives. Pronominally correct appositives can look and sound awkward, but a writer can write her way out of the awkwardness, as in the second revision suggested for each of the following excerpts. In each of the second revisions, the appositive has been expanded into a pair of independent clauses requiring subjective pronouns.
|She always joked that we started cooking together in 1949, me in a restaurant apprenticeship and she at the Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris. (New York Times)|
The phrasing following 1949 is a postponed appositive; it specifies to whom the subjective pronoun we refers.
|She always joked that we started cooking together in 1949, I in a restaurant apprenticeship and she at the Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris. OR: She always joked that we started cooking together in 1949: I was an apprentice in a restaurant, and she was a student at the Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris.|
|The White House dinner changed everything. In its immediate aftermath, the now-infamous photos of the Salahis—he in his tuxedo, she in her striking red and gold sari (since sold for about $7,000, all of which, beyond an auction house fee, went to charity, according to the Salahis)—were the stuff “Saturday Night Live” skits were made of. (New York Times)|
The phrasing set off by dashes is an appositive following the object of a preposition, so the pronouns within the appositive need to be in objective form.
|In its immediate aftermath, the now-infamous photos of the Salahis—him in his tuxedo, her in her striking red-and-gold sari . . .—were the stuff Saturday Night Live skits were made of. OR: In its immediate aftermath, the now-infamous photos of the Salahis—he was in a tuxedo, and she wore a striking red-and-gold sari . . .—were the stuff Saturday Night Live skits were made of.|
|But it was not all sunshine on that trip, especially when paparazzi shots of the couple—he shirtless and her in a two-piece bathing suit, strolling along the beach—appeared on the cover of a Swedish publication, prompting Madeleine to take to her Facebook account to denounce the invasion of privacy. (New York Times)|
As in the previous example, the appositive set off by dashes follows the object of a preposition, so the pronouns within the appositive must be objective pronouns.
|. . . paparazzi shots of the couple strolling along the beach—him shirtless and her in a two-piece bathing suit—appeared on the cover of a Swedish publication. . . . OR: . . . paparazzi shots of the couple strolling along the beach—he was shirtless, and she was in a two-piece bathing suit—appeared on the cover of a Swedish publication. . . .|
And the title of this chapter? It obviously needs to be We are obsessed with grammar, she and I.
|You would never write a sentence like this, simply because you are smarter than me.|
Knowing which category of pronoun—a subjective pronoun (I, we, she, he, or they) or an objective pronoun (me, us, her, him, or them)—should follow than (or as, for that matter) can stump the most brilliant writers. In the space of a few pages, for instance, James Wolcott, a dazzler cited often in this book, writes in Attack Poodles and Other Media Mutants: The Looting of the News in a Time of Terror (Miramax Books):
|I’ve made up with much worse ego-monsters than him.|
|He interrupts everyone but steps up his fragmentation campaign with liberals less besotted with Gulfstream owners than he.|
The same inconsistency presents itself in the following two excerpts, from Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams [Doubleday], a biography by Nick Tosches, which is written in a salty, colloquial, slangy style.
|Dean [Martin] and Jack Kennedy, who was barely two weeks older than him, had first met back in the winter of 1947-48.|
|Jack Kennedy’s kid brother Bobby, a worse spoiled brat than he, was chief counsel to the McClellan Senate committee’s investigations into labor racketeering.|
Subjective pronouns outnumber objective pronouns after than in the following seven sentences from The New Yorker.
|[from a “Personal History” piece] But she was five years older than me, and we hadn’t known each other.|
|[from a book review] He was needier than she, a bit of a blowhard, and seldom let a conversation stray too far from his own accomplishments.|
|[from a book review] The ultimate conspiracy, sex, sends forth two agents to Stephen: intrusive, bothersomely knowing Barbara Berrill, a year older than he, and tall, brown-eyed, soft-voiced Mrs. Hayward herself, who as her private plot thickens needs to enlist the child in her errands and seductively invades his and Keith’s sweet-smelling den of privet.|
|[from an “Onward and Upward with the Arts” piece] This shift was occasioned by her affair with Michel Petitjean, an editor of the progressive newspaper La Flèche, who was only eight years younger than she.|
|[from the same “Onward and Upward with the Arts” piece] Dominguez, four years older than she, was born in the Canary Islands and, after moving to Paris, hung out on the fringes of the Surrealist movement.|
|[from a Profile] He said that von Hantelmann is seven years older than he, and that it was time.|
|[from a short story] Over the last few months Morse had become involved with a master sergeant in division intelligence—a calm, scholarly man five years older than he.|
Some writers, editors, and bystanding grammarians argue in defense of the objective pronoun in such sentences, and others insist on the subjective.
|[the italicizing has been retained from the source] Dee was two years younger than me, and we had been close—or at least I thought we were close. (Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen [Norton, first edition], by Mary Norris)|
|Dee was two years younger than I. . . .|
|I must have said something about my sisters being so much older than me. (Lonely: A Memoir [Harper], by Emily White) [The sentence needs another change as well: an apostrophe must be added after the third s in sisters; see Chapter 44.]|
|I must have said something about my sisters’ being so much older than I.|
|A handful of other hopefuls also waited to be interviewed, including a huge guy, Ali G’d to the max, far more muscular than me, better qualified to move cartons and reach merchandise on upper shelves. (Shoptimism: Why the American Consumer Will Keep On Buying No Matter What [Free Press], by Lee Eisenberg) [The sentence is also weakened by a laggard modifier; see Chapter 23.]|
|Also waiting to be interviewed were a handful of other hopefuls, including a huge guy, Ali G’d to the max, far more muscular than I. . . .|
|Instead, most of his energy seems to have been devoted to importing a bed into the studio so that his wife, more seriously injured than him in their Scottish car-crash at the end of June, could survey proceedings and lend him moral support. (Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties [Henry Holt], by Ian MacDonald)|
|. . . his wife, more seriously injured than he in their Scottish car-crash. . . .|
|From our perspective at Random House, Knopf and Viking had aged more than ourselves, while Simon & Schuster remained in a state of ageless adolescence. (Book Business: Publishing Past, Present, and Future [W. W. Norton], by Jason Epstein)|
|From our perspective at Random House, Knopf and Viking had aged more than we. . . . OR: From our perspective at Random House, Knopf and Viking had aged more than we had. . . . OR: From our perspective at Random House, Knopf and Viking had aged more than we ourselves. . . .|
In direct quotations of speech, a reader can expect to find both subjective and objective pronouns.
|“There is no better expert than she.” (New York Times)|
|“Someone as accomplished as her is going to have mental reserves the average person can’t draw upon.” (New York Times)
|If I do say so myself…|
It’s time to put the pronoun myself back in its place. The same goes for its kindred pronouns yourself, herself, himself, ourselves, yourselves, and themselves—pronouns called compound personal pronouns because of the suffixes self and selves. These pronouns keep showing up where they don’t belong.
|And neither Mr. Jett nor myself would have fallen prey to the so-called Hipster Grifter, the Brooklyn con woman who has a tattoo declaring her love for bearded men. (New York Times)|
|Majella and myself have spent time with them and they are two very hospitable and easy people to be around. (Sunday World [Ireland])|
|About a month ago, my girlfriend of four years, our 2-year-old son and myself were out to eat at Jillian’s Sports Bar at Grand Prairie. (Peoria Journal Star [Illinois])|
|There was a little path that led to a bunk house, where myself, and my brother and sister slept. (Pocono Record [Pennsylania])|
|Myself and others enter the turn lane later, after passing the Banana Factory entrance and Northampton Street. (Morning Call [Allentown, Pennsylvania])|
|Having missed the first draw due to having the audacity to take a rota day off, myself and a number of colleagues demanded that a second draw be held. (Yorkshire Post [U.K.])|
|She shared stories with the kids and myself, making connections and informing us of who she was and where she’d been. (Sleepy Eye Herald-Dispatch [Minnesota])|
|One of the issues of concern to the bishop and myself is our inability to access significant funding from the charitable arm of the Episcopal Church. (San Diego Gay & Lesbian News)|
|Some reviewers, including myself and the New Yorker’s John Lahr, loved this sharp, darkly hilarious play, set in 1978 among roommates like the ones in TV’s “Three’s Company.” (New York Post)|
|Yesterday CNBC was kind enough to have me on to talk about Apple’s reported plans to release an iPad-mini. [next paragraph] It ended up being a debate between myself and the other guest, Todd Schoenberger of Blackbay Group. (Business Insider)|
|My mom didn’t watch “Mad Men.” Despite the insistence of television critics, her bohemian friends, my siblings and myself, she held out. (New York Times)|
|For the cartoonists, Bob’s decision to run humor on the cover was a boon, and many of those who had seldom done covers before, including Bud Handelsman, Bob Mankoff, Roz Chast, Danny Shanahan, and myself, began to appear regularly, along with more familiar cartoonists like Ed Koren, George Booth, Ronald Searle, Don Reilly, and André François. (The Art of The New Yorker, 1925-1995 [Knopf], by Lee Lorenz) [A hyphen is needed after more; see Chapter 86.]|
In each sentence, myself has displaced the correct pronoun—I in the first six sentences, me in the final six.
|There are familiar dropdown menus for design choices like font and text size. There is even a Save icon, to reassure yourself that your draft has been saved if you want to work on it again before publishing. (New York Times)|
The reflexive use of yourself is inappropriate here, because the subject of the independent clause is icon, not you.
|Substitute you for yourself.|
|Diana [Trilling] always dismissed the possibility of literary competition between her and her husband. (New Yorker)|
Here, the subject (Diana) and the pronoun her, which serves as one of the two objects of the preposition between, both refer to the same person, so a reflexive pronoun is needed.
|Diana always dismissed the possibility of literary competition between herself and her husband.|
Each of the following two sentences requires a reflexive pronoun: herself instead of her and himself instead of him.
|Greta Gerwig, the darling, leads the all-aces cast as Violet, a sophomore who yearns to make Seven Oaks U. a more congenial place for her and cohorts Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and Lily (Analeigh Tipton). (Rolling Stone)|
|Mr. Eichner does a great job of controlling the physical space between him and his subjects, intimidating them with enthusiasm and body language. (New York Times)|
In the following excerpt, the writer misuses the reflexive pronoun himself.
|[Lou] Reed apparently disliked [Victor] Bockris’s [book] Up-Tight so much that, when he learned of the author’s plans to write a biography of himself, he demanded of his musical collaborators that no one should co-operate. (The Rough Guide to the Velvet Underground [Rough Guides], by Peter Hogan)|
Bockris planned to write a book about him—that is, about Reed—and not about himself.
|Substitute him for himself.|
|Give this advice to whoever asks—and to whomever else it might be useful.|
|“Welcome to Earth, population zero,” says the show’s narrator, which raises even more questions: Is he the only one left on Earth? And if there’s no one here, who is he talking to? (New York Post)|
The question who is he talking to? can be resequenced as he is talking to who. Now, which pronoun could replace who in that sentence? Obviously not she or they. But her or them would fit perfectly. That’s your clue that you need whom. The pronoun is serving as the object of the preposition to, and any pronoun serving as the object of a preposition needs to be an objective pronoun.
|And if there’s no one here, whom is he talking to?|
|If you were attacked by pirates, who would you want by your side? (Wall Street Journal)|
You can easily reorder who would you want by your side into you would want who by your side. Putting she or they in place of who would produce nonsense, but her or them would fill the bill—so whom is correct. The grammatical explanation? Whom is the direct object of the verb want. Any pronoun serving as a direct object needs to be an objective pronoun.
|If you were attacked by pirates, whom would you want by your side?|
2. Who or whom (or whoever or whomever) in an adjectival dependent clause
|The “Acne boys,” who I met through an Australian friend, their head of public relations, Anthony Kendal, are also, in their very essence, cool. (Harper’s Bazaar)|
The adjectival dependent clause you’ll need to segregate is who I met through an Australian friend. Reordered, its words form the clause I met who through an Australian friend. Only them can sensibly take the place of who—so whom is the only correct choice for the sentence. Whom is the direct object of the verb met.
|The “Acne boys,” whom I met through an Australian friend. . . .|
|And on the phone with NYTV on Monday afternoon, Mr. Dobbs, with a little prompting, took another shot at his Public Elitist Number One—Governor Eliot Spitzer, who he has been criticizing night in and night out for the past month, thanks to the governor’s plan to give driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. (New York Observer)|
The adjectival dependent clause who he has been criticizing night in and night out for the past month is easily rearranged into he has been criticizing who night in and night out for the past month. Only an objective pronoun—in this case, him—could fit into the slot filled by who, so whom is the appropriate choice. Whom is the direct object of criticizing.
|. . . Mr. Dobbs, with a little prompting, took another shot at his Public Elitist Number One—Governor Eliot Spitzer, whom he has been criticizing night in and night out. . . .|
|He’s [Dennis Miller is] more at ease with pundits of his own persuasion, such as “my friend” David Horowitz, a right-wing provocateur who Miller introduced as “David Hero-witz.” (Attack Poodles and Other Media Mutants: The Looting of the News in a Time of Terror [Miramax Books], by James Wolcott)|
Rephrase who Miller introduced as “David Hero-witz” into Miller introduced who as “David Hero-witz,” and it is obvious that whom is the correct pronoun; it’s the direct object of introduced.
|. . . my friend” David Horowitz, a right-wing provocateur whom Miller introduced as “David Hero-witz.”|
|A man who she used to date picked her up on Dixie Highway, and neither has been seen since. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)|
Who she used to date becomes she used to date who; and thus whom needs to replace who. The pronoun is serving as the direct object of the infinitive to date.
|A man whom she used to date picked her up on Dixie Highway. . . .|
|She said she first contacted the congressman, who she called “the wonderful Anthony Weiner,” over Facebook in mid-August, to compliment his “Daily Show” appearance and to praise him for taking on Republicans in Congress. (New York Times)|
Quarantine the adjectival dependent clause who she called “the wonderful Anthony Weiner,” and then rephrase it as she called who “the wonderful Anthony Weiner”—and there’s no way you would not substitute him for who. Whom is thus the correct pronoun for the sentence. The pronoun functions as the direct object of called.
|She said she first contacted the congressman, whom she called “the wonderful Anthony Weiner,” over Facebook. . . .|
Each underlined who in the following three sentences needs to be a whom.
|He’s obviously a figure who Solomon has thought about quite a lot. (New Criterion)|
|He also spots old-fashioned impulses in seemingly outré shows like “La Cage aux Folles,” which had a score by “arguably the most traditional of all the songwriters,” Jerry Herman, and a libretto by Harvey Fierstein, who he compares favorably to Abe Burrows (the buttoned-down veteran who co-wrote the book to “Guys and Dolls,” among others). (Wall Street Journal)|
|I hate arriving in a new town. I have no idea who I tip my hat to and who I can kick into the gutter. (attributed to Vladimir Nabokov, in Wall Street Journal)|
3. Who or whom (or whoever or whomever) in a nounal dependent clause
|If “Beautiful Thing” were to be made into a film, Shetty would be played by whomever is the current Bollywood equivalent of Paul Giamatti. (New York Times)|
Some readers will argue that whomever is the correct pronoun for that sentence. They will claim that whomever is the object of the preposition by—and therefore whoever would be wrong. But their argument quickly falls apart. The object of the pronoun by is in fact the entire nounal dependent clause whomever is the current Bollywood equivalent of Paul Giamatti. Now what pronoun could you substitute for whomever in that clause? Obviously not him. Only he will do; it’s a subjective pronoun serving as the subject of the clause.
|. . . Shetty would be played by whoever is the current Bollywood equivalent of Paul Giamatti.|
|Guggenheim, who died in 1979, ran away to Europe, shopped enthusiastically, slept with whomever attracted her and said whatever she felt like, and it’s entertaining to observe that kind of freedom. (New York Times)|
The nounal dependent clause is whomever attracted her (the sentence, of course, also includes an adjectival dependent clause, who died in 1979, in which the subjective pronoun who is the correct choice), and it functions as the object of the preposition with. The wrongness of whomever should be readily apparent, because only a subjective pronoun such as she, he, or they could be slipped in to replace it.
|Guggenheim, who died in 1979, ran away to Europe, shopped enthusiastically, slept with whoever attracted her. . . .|
|She knows who you’re dating, who you’re not dating, who you might date, and who you never would. (New York)|
That shortish sentence includes four nounal dependent clauses (who you’re dating; who you’re not dating; who you might date; and who you never would [the verb date is implied after would]), all of which function as direct objects of the verb knows. That the pronoun who in each of the clauses must be replaced with whom becomes obvious as soon as you resequence each clause into standard order: you’re dating who; you’re not dating who; you might date who; and you would never date who. Only an objective pronoun—such as her or them—could replace who as the direct objects of dating and date.
|She knows whom you’re dating, whom you’re not dating, whom you might date, and whom you never would.|
|Wolkoff considers not only who each guest is next to but also who is behind him or her. (New York)|
This specimen includes two nounal dependent clauses (who each guest is next to and who is behind him or her), which function as the direct objects of considers. Only the first of the two dependent clauses needs to be restored to standard word order: each guest is next to who. The pronoun at the end of the clause is serving as the object of the preposition to and thus needs to be replaced with whom. The second dependent clause, however, is fine as it is: in who is behind him or her, the subjective pronoun who is serving as the subject of the clause.
|Wolkoff considers not only whom each guest is next to but also who is behind him or her.|
|Di Marco found himself phoning Pinault—who he often calls his “shareholder”—to ask for a meeting in Paris. (Wall Street Journal)|
The pronoun whom is needed as the direct object of calls.
|Di Marco found himself phoning Pinault—whom he often calls his “shareholder”—to ask for a meeting in Paris.|
In each of the following two sentences (both from a book review), the writer does not seem to realize that become and becomes are functioning as linking (or equational) verbs—verbs that establish an equivalency between a subject and a complement. The subjective pronoun who needs to be substituted for each misused whom, because the pronoun is serving as a complement in the inverted structure of the nounal dependent clause.
|Find a real teacher, and you may open yourself to transformation—to discovering whom you might become. (New York Times)|
|Find a real teacher, and you may open yourself to transformation—to discovering who you might become.|
|In this context, Mr. Edmundson reminds us of the power strong teachers have to make students rethink who they are and whom they might become. (New York Times)|
|In this context, Mr. Edmundson reminds us of the power strong teachers have to make students rethink who they are and who they might become.|
4. Who or whom (or whoever or whomever) in a dependent clause in which another clause is embedded
|Staley asked Diederich about rum punch, which prompted a long story about “the old guy César” at the Grand Hotel Oloffson, in Port-au-Prince, whom Greene thought made the best one. (New Yorker)|
The complete adjectival dependent clause is whom Greene thought made the best one, and the clause-within-a-clause is Greene thought. Mentally subtract the clause-within-a-clause, and you’re left with whom made the best one. The pronoun whom is obviously wrong; you could not replace it with an objective pronoun such as him.
|. . . “the old guy César” at the Grand Hotel Oloffson, in Port-au-Prince, who Greene thought made the best one.|
|As we never tire of pointing out, the unlikely roots are found in the 1998 tobacco settlement. Those cases weren’t filed on behalf of smokers, whom courts ruled repeatedly accepted the risks of smoking. (Wall Street Journal)|
In the second sentence, the complete adjectival dependent clause is whom courts ruled repeatedly accepted the risks of smoking, and the clause-within-a-clause, which we need to ignore, is courts ruled. Because they, not them, could substitute for the pronoun in whom repeatedly accepted the risks of smoking, the subjective pronoun who is the correct choice.
|Those cases weren’t filed on behalf of smokers, who courts ruled repeatedly accepted the risks of smoking.|
In each of the following examples, the complete dependent clause has been boldfaced, and the clause-within-a-clause has been underlined.
|Mr. Diller, whom Forbes magazine estimates is worth $1.5 billion, is a man who is used to getting what he wants. (New York Observer)|
|Mr. Diller, who Forbes magazine estimates is worth $1.5 billion, is a man who is used to getting what he wants.|
|As the primary battle continues across the country, the conversation will largely be driven by these new young voters, voters whom the pundits said would never turn out to actually vote, because they were too lazy, too cynical, too self-absorbed. (New York Observer)|
| . . . the conversation will be driven largely by these new young voters, voters who the pundits said would never turn out to actually vote
. . . .
|VH1 yesterday announced a management shuffle that elevated two senior executives to replace programming boss Michael Hirschorn, whom the network confirmed would be stepping down to form his own production company. (New York Post)|
|VH1 yesterday announced a management shuffle that elevated two senior executives to replace programming boss Michael Hirschorn, who the network confirmed would be stepping down. . . .|
|Most surprising was her view of DeNiro, whom she felt gave a hollow, chilly performance as Pupkin, never endowing him the sort of humanity that might trigger a strong emotional response in the audience. (Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark [Viking], by Brian Kellow)|
|Most surprising was her view of DeNiro, who she felt gave a hollow, chilly performance. . . .|
|Lardner wrote the script, which Fox liked, and when Preminger asked Litto whom he thought might direct it, he suggested one of his other clients—Robert Altman. (Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark [Viking], by Brian Kellow) [In this example, the dependent clause in which another clause is embedded is a nounal clause.]|
|. . .when Preminger asked Litto who he thought might direct it, he suggested one of his other clients. . . .|
|What he saw was twelve-and-a-half-year-old Florence Evelyn, whom he later said looked to him about eight or nine, running down the walk from the steps of the depressingly respectable boardinghouse. (American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, the Birth of the “It” Girl, and the Crime of the Century [Riverhead], by Paula Uruburu)|
|What he saw was twelve-and-a-half-year-old Florence Evelyn, who he later said looked to him about eight or nine. . . .|
|While leaving the locker room at the team’s facility in Florham Park, N.J., Scott, a linebacker, extended his middle finger and cursed at a photographer whom he felt had ventured too close. (New York Times)|
|. . . Scott, a linebacker, extended his middle finger and cursed at a photographer who he felt had ventured too close.|
|He was a moral crusader who challenged leaders whom he thought were doing wrong. (Washington Post) [Note that the faulty adjectival dependent clause is preceded by an adjectival dependent clause (who challenged leaders) in which the writer chose the appropriate pronoun.]|
|He was a moral crusader who challenged leaders who he thought were doing wrong.|
There’s another way to look at an adjectival dependent clause that includes another clause within it. Instead of mentally crossing out the clause-within-a-clause, you can retain it—and then mentally rephrase the entire construction in standard word order. In the erroneous example immediately above, for instance, the words forming the construction whom he thought were doing wrong can be resequenced as he thought whom were doing wrong. Only a subjective pronoun can follow thought; nobody would write he thought them were doing wrong.
|This is in reference to your pronoun without a clear antecedent.|
Think of a pronoun as the shadow of a noun. When the light is just right and a sentence is not crowded with nouns, a reader has no trouble making out which noun in a sentence is casting any one particular shadow. But the light is often less than ideal, and sentences all too often are heavily furnished with nouns. It’s no wonder, then, that readers get frustrated when they can’t track a shadow back to its source. Grammarians call that source an antecedent—a word literally meaning that which comes before. Sentences in which the antecedent of a pronoun is not instantly evident suffer from what are commonly called errors in pronoun reference.
|I tell people to immediately report vexatious neighbors to the police so that when they finally shoot their dog or key their Hummer, an extensive paper trail will document the neighbor’s previous transgressions. They never call the cops. (Wall Street Journal)|
Competing for status as the antecedent of the pronouns they and their are three nouns: people (the subject of an infinitive), neighbors (the direct object of an infinitive), and police (the object of a preposition). The first time a reader makes her way through the sentence, she can be forgiven for mistakenly thinking that the victims have turned vengeful and that they’re the ones who shot the vexatious neighbors’ dog or keyed the neighbors’ Hummer.
|I tell people to immediately report a vexatious neighbor to the police department so that when he finally shoots their dog or keys their Hummer, an extensive paper trail will document the neighbor’s previous transgressions. They never call the cops. OR: I tell everyone to immediately report vexatious neighbors to the police department so that when they finally shoot her dog or key her Hummer, an extensive paper trail will document the neighbors’ previous transgressions. But nobody ever calls the cops. [Troubled by the split infinitive to immediately report? See Chapter 52.]|
2. Subjects make strong antecedents; objects of prepositions make flimsier antecedents.
|While general-admission tickets to the shows aren’t available, websites will live-stream many of them. (Wall Street Journal)|
The noun tickets has a stronger claim than shows to being the antecedent of them, because tickets is the subject of a clause and shows is just the humble object of a preposition. So a reader might have to do a double take before figuring out that shows is the intended antecedent.
|Web sites will live-stream many of the shows for which general-admission tickets aren’t available.|
That revision leads us to the third principle.
|A poster is worth a thousand words. That’s the gist of “Drew: The Man Behind the Poster,” a documentary valentine to Drew Struzan, a semiretired top-tier illustrator whose promotional designs for countless movies—among them the “Indiana Jones,” “Star Wars” and Muppet franchises—have greatly defined their image in the collective consciousness. (New York Times)|
The pronoun their, toward the end of the second sentence, is tugged more forcefully toward designs (the subject of an adjectival dependent clause) than toward movies (the mere object of a preposition) or toward the list of movie franchises fenced off with dashes. The sentence can easily be refashioned, though, to dispose of the pronoun.
|That’s the gist of Drew: The Man Behind the Poster, a documentary valentine to Drew Struzan, a semiretired top-tier illustrator whose promotional designs have greatly defined the images of countless movies—among them the Indiana Jones, Star Wars, and Muppet franchises—in the collective consciousness.|
4. Don’t fall for far-flung antecedents.
|Noise-canceling (NC) headphones don’t actually reduce irregular noises like speech and crying babies in the row behind you. Even so, cutting down airplane roar is supposed to cut down on “noise fatigue,” an edgy tiredness that comes from hours-long exposure to loud noise. They also let you listen to music or videos on the train or plane at a much lower (and safer) volume. (New York Times)|
An entire intermediary sentence separates the pronoun they, in the third sentence, from its antecedent (headphones), in the first sentence.
|[third sentence] The headphones also let you listen to music or videos on the train or plane at a much lower (and safer) volume.|
A somewhat similar problem afflicts the following, somewhat longer passage, although in this case the antecedent (once again the noun headphones) is positioned not as a subject but as the lowly object of a preposition.
|The design of the headphones leaves little room for buttons, however. The Play button is—you guessed it—right on the ear bud. Fortunately, it was easy to press, so I didn’t feel as if I was going to jam it into my ear canal. But for $130, I was hoping for better audio, which sounded dull. At least they come with a decent carrying case. (New York Times)|
The pronoun they, in the fifth sentence, is separated from its antecedent by three intermediary sentences. The simplest solution, again, is to replace the pronoun with a noun.
|[fifth sentence] At least the headphones come with a decent carrying case.|
|[the beginning of a paragraph about Bruce Springsteen] As much as Hilburn loved the album, he had some criticisms. He thought the sources of his ideas—whether Orbison or Spector—were too evident. . . . (Runaway Dream: Born to Run and Bruce Springsteen’s American Vision [Bloomsbury], by Louis P. Masur) [The last sentence of the previous paragraph is about Elvis Presley, not about Springsteen. Another problem is that the alternative compound whether Orbison or Spector clashes with the plural noun sources.]|
|He thought the sources of Springsteen’s ideas—such as Orbison and Spector—were too evident. . . .|
5. An unaccompanied this or that can spell trouble.
|Hispanic residents and civil-rights advocates have raised alarms for years about the police in East Haven, Conn. Their claims gained chilling corroboration on Tuesday. The Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested a sergeant and three officers on charges of terrorizing the town’s Hispanic neighborhoods, stopping and detaining people, searching businesses without cause, beating people in handcuffs, smashing a man’s head into a wall.
The charges echoed what the Justice Department reported in December, accusing East Haven police of widespread “biased policing, unconstitutional searches and seizures and the use of excessive force.” This was made more appalling when the mayor, Joseph Maturo Jr., was asked by a reporter how he would respond to the arrests and said that he might have tacos for dinner. First, he said he was joking. When it dawned on him that snide flippancy was the wrong response to grave accusations of police brutality, he said he was sorry for his “off-collar comment.”
That is not enough. (Wall Street Journal)
It may take a reader a few seconds to conclude that what the writer means is something like This inexcusable pattern of mistreatment or This record of systemic discrimination. So why not insert some clarifying phrasing after this instead of stranding the pronoun all alone at the beginning of the sentence? A lone this often confuses a reader, who then has to come up with an antecedent on her own.
|At its height, Sears was the country’s biggest retailer. But that has not been true for more than two decades and now, the department store chain, struggling to execute on its latest turnaround, is looking to shrink again. (New York Times)|
What is a reader to make of the pronoun that following but at the head of the second sentence? Exactly what is it that has not been true for more than two decades? Is the reader to infer that with the passage of more than twenty years, the truthfulness of what the first sentence is declaring has been nullified—in other words, that never, even at its height, was Sears the country’s biggest retailer? Only after a few seconds of reflection is a reader likely to unpuzzle what the writer meant.
|Until two decades or so ago, Sears was the country’s biggest retailer. But now the department-store chain, struggling to execute on its latest turnaround, is looking to shrink again.|
6. Flee from wicked whiches.
|Solid-state drives are also quieter than hard drives and don’t consume as much power, which extends battery life. Solid-state drives also generate less heat, which can make computers run cooler. (New York Times)|
The reader of that two-sentence excerpt is hagridden by two whiches. In the first sentence, power obviously cannot serve as the antecedent of which. The pronoun lacks any clear-cut antecedent in the sentential surround, and the sentence, in fact, can make do without the pronoun at all.
|Solid-state drives are also quieter than hard drives and don’t consume as much power, thereby extending battery life.|
The which in the second sentence also lacks an explicit antecedent and can also be revised right out of the phrasing.
|Solid-state drives also generate less heat and thus can make computers run cooler.|
|The suit claims Visconti also used a corporate card issued to Axium to buy $40,000 worth of gifts at Tiffany’s on Valentine’s Day, which he never repaid. (New York Post)|
|The suit claims that Visconti also used a corporate card issued to Axium to buy $40,000 worth of Valentine’s Day gifts at Tiffany’s, for which he never repaid.|
7. An adjective can never an antecedent be.
|After revelations of its cadmium-battery problems arose, GP quit making them at its plants, and now outsources that production to independent factories in China. (Wall Street Journal)|
The hyphenated compound cadmium-battery is behaving adjectivally: it’s modifying the noun problems.
|After revelations of its cadmium-battery problems arose, GP quit making the batteries at its plants and now outsources their production to independent factories in China. [The appearance of both battery and batteries in the sentence, though, is stylistically inelegant.] OR: After problems with its cadmium batteries arose, GP quit making them at its plants and now outsources their production to independent factories in China. [Better, but the antecedent of them and their is the object of a preposition.] OR: After its cadmium batteries were revealed to be hazardous, GP quit making them at its plants and now outsources their production to independent factories in China. [The antecedent of the pronouns is now a subject, not an object.]|
|Fany Gerson, who started her paleta business, La Newyorkina, out of a cart at the Hester Street Fair some four years ago, now sells them to markets all over town and offers her Mexican sweets online. (New York Times)|
The pronoun-reference error (the noun paleta is comporting itself adjectivally, modifying the noun business, and therefore cannot serve as the antecedent of them) is compounded by an error in pronoun-antecedent agreement (see Chapter 29), because the pronoun them is plural.
|Fany Gerson, who started her business, La Newyorkina, by selling paletas out of a cart at the Hester Street Fair some four years ago, now sells them to markets all over town and offers her Mexican sweets online. OR: . . . now sells the Mexican ice pops to markets all over town and online.|
|Although most Downtown businesses were closed Labor Day, at the few that were open, the Pirates game played on every TV as eager fans watched to see if they’d reach their first 80-win season since 1992. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)|
Pirates, the antecedent of they and their, is functioning adjectivally, modifying the noun game.
|Most Downtown businesses were closed for Labor Day, but at the few that were open, the Pirates were playing on every TV, and eager fans watched to see if the team would achieve its first eighty-win season since 1992. OR: Most Downtown businesses were closed for Labor Day, but at the few that were open, the Pirates game played on every TV as eager fans watched to see if their team would achieve its first eighty-win season since 1992.|
8. Don’t let a possessive noun impersonate an antecedent.
|Melinda’s latest paintings demonstrate that she has mastered abstraction.|
A noun in possessive form, after all, functions as an adjective—and, again, only a noun (or a noun-equivalent) can serve as the antecedent of a pronoun.
|[photo caption] Relatives of Stephen Schneider’s patients asked him about all the opioids they were taking. (New Yorker)|
|Relatives of patients treated by Stephen Schneider asked him about all the opioids he was prescribing.|
|The iPhone’s problems were legion and unpredictable. It randomly dropped calls on its cellular channel. It had trouble holding connections on Wi-Fi. Its memory was so buggy that it needed frequent re-starting, like a ten-year-old computer, and it crashed when anybody tried to play a video in its entirety. (New Yorker)|
|The iPhone was unpredictable and caused many problems. It randomly dropped calls. . . . OR: The iPhone was unpredictable, and problems with it were legion. It randomly dropped calls. . . .|
|By the time the book was published, [Jayson] Blair seemed unable to keep track of his own deceptions. In Katie Couric’s Dateline interview, she stumped him with a question about his own memoir. (Hard News: The Scandals at The New York Times and Their Meaning for American Media [Random House], by Seth Mnookin)|
In the second sentence of the excerpt, Katie Couric’s (a possessive noun, behaving adjectivally) cannot work as an antecedent.
During a Dateline interview, Katie Couric stumped him. . . . OR: When Katie Couric interviewed him on Dateline, she stumped him
|In DeRogatis’s biography he writes that Lester [Bangs] became “a player in a love triangle” between me and the woman whose initials are the same as mine, but it wasn’t really quite that way, it was hardly as Jules and Jim as all that, doesn’t matter now. (Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York [Doubleday], by James Wolcott)|
|DeRogatis writes in his biography that. . . . OR: In his biography, DeRogatis writes that. . . .|
|The team’s post-[Monty] Python careers have enjoyed mixed success. [John] Cleese’s Fawlty Towers, based on a dreadful small hotel the team once stayed in, was voted No. 1 of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes by the British Film Institute, and he has appeared in over 60 movies, including the James Bond film The World Is Not Enough, as gizmo specialist “R,” successor to “Q.” (Newsweek)|
|John Cleese based Fawlty Towers on a dreadful small hotel the team once stayed in, and the sitcom was voted No. 1. . . . He has also appeared in more than sixty movies. . . .|
|His parents separated when he was twelve. (New Yorker)|
|He was twelve when his parents separated.|
|Gould’s mother had always taken it for granted that he would become a physician, but after getting his A.B. he told her he was through with formal education. (New Yorker)|
|Gould knew that his mother had always taken it for granted that he would become a physician. . . .|
A possessive pronoun, of course, may have a possessive noun as its antecedent, as in Melinda’s latest paintings demonstrate her mastery of abstraction.
|The Itty-Bitty Pronoun That Causes Great Big Trouble|
If we’re not careful, the tiny pronoun it can turn into a two-letter terror and make our readers’ lives miserable. It, like many other pronouns, is used correctly only when it has an antecedent—in the form of a noun, a noun phrase, a nounal dependent clause, or, in some cases, another pronoun—to which it unmistakably refers. If our readers can’t instantly trace the pronoun back to its antecedent, we’ve wasted their time.
|It’s dinner time, yet entering Lupa, the Roman-style osteria opened in 1999 by the team of Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich, is about as joyous an experience as trying to squeeze onto the subway at rush hour. You know you will be bumped and jostled, but you don’t know which direction it will come from. (New York Times)|
In the second sentence of the excerpt, it lacks a nounal antecedent. The writer might well have had bumping and jostling (gerunds, or verbal forms functioning as nouns) in mind as the antecedents of it, but bumped and jostled, the words that materialized in the sentence, are past participles (verbal forms that function as adjectives) and therefore can’t serve as antecedents. (A further problem, of course, is that the phantom antecedent is plural, and thus there’s an error in pronoun-antecedent agreement as well [see Chapter 29].) An easy way out is to rephrase the sentence by disposing of it.
|You know you will be bumped and jostled, but you don’t know from which direction.|
|Misdiagnoses can come about for various reasons. Pathologists and radiologists may misread slides and scans or fail to use the latest tests or technology. Sometimes doctors may simply get stuck on the idea of one diagnosis and ignore or overlook evidence it might be something else. (Wall Street Journal)|
In the second sentence, it obviously cannot refer back to idea, diagnosis, or evidence, but with some unjustifiable expenditure of effort, a reader can eventually puzzle out what’s intended as the antecedent. A simple revision would save the reader some time.
|Sometimes doctors may simply get stuck on the idea of one diagnosis and ignore or overlook evidence that the symptoms might be pointing to an entirely different disease.|
|In May, when a rapper was invited to perform at the White House as part of an evening devoted to poetry, it was met with predictable conservative outrage. That the kerfuffle was over Common, the most neutered of all rappers, only underscored the bad faith beneath the squawking. (New York Times)|
In the first sentence, it lacks an explicit antecedent. Not one of the six previous nouns—May, rapper, White House, part, evening, or poetry—is qualified to serve.
|In May, when a rapper was invited to perform at the White House as part of an evening devoted to poetry, the news was met with predictable conservative outrage.|
Other possible substitutes for it are the prospect, the announcement, or the mere gesture.
|[about an episode of the sitcom Seinfeld] When George Costanza quit his job in a huff, then went back into work the next day as if nothing had happened, it was based on [Larry] David having done exactly the same thing. (New York) [David should be in possessive form as David’s; see Chapter 44.]|
|The episode in which George Costanza quit his job in a huff, then went back into work the next day as if nothing had happened, was based on David’s having done exactly the same thing. OR: When George Costanza quit his job in a huff, then went back into work the next day as if nothing had happened, he was doing the exact same thing David had done in real life.|
|They [bookstores] can set up a Web page explaining what their fund-raising goal is, why they are asking for it and what the deadline is. (New York Times)|
|. . . why they are asking for money. . . .|
|And though carving out a living as a dance instructor was difficult, it was her only marketable skill in Wichita, Kansas. (Louise Brooks [Knopf], by Barry Paris)|
|And though carving out a living as a dance instructor in Wichita, Kansas, was difficult, she had no other marketable skill.|
A second problem arises when the antecedent of it is in possessive form. A noun in possessive form cannot serve as the antecedent of it (or of any other pronoun [see Chapter 29])—because such a noun is functioning adjectivally. Only a possessive pronoun can have a possessive noun or a possessive pronoun as its antecedent.
|Another huge theme this year was “use your phone to control everything.” For example, the Tagg from Qualcomm attaches to your dog’s collar and alerts you if it roves out of your yard. (New York Times)|
In the second sentence, it is intended to refer back to dog—but dog has been submerged in the possessive noun (and thus adjectival form) dog’s.
|For example, the Tagg from Qualcomm attaches to your dog’s collar and alerts you if the dog roves out of your yard.|
Other possible substitutes for it include your pet and Rover.
|Google’s disappointing results were particularly surprising because it rarely misses analysts’ expectations and because the fourth quarter is usually its strongest, fueled by retail ads for online holiday shopping. (New York Times)|
There’s no problem with the possessive pronoun—its—in the second half of the sentence, because it correctly has a possessive noun (Google’s) as its antecedent. But Google’s can’t serve as the antecedent of the nonpossessive pronoun—it—in the first half of the sentence.
|Google’s disappointing results were particularly surprising because the search-engine giant rarely misses analysts’ expectations and because the fourth quarter is usually its strongest, fueled by retail ads for online holiday shopping.|
A third (and far more exasperating) problem occurs in a sentence in which the pronoun it appears more than once—each time with a different antecedent, as in the third sentence of the following excerpt.
|After spending more than $5 million on the research, Nascar spent millions more buying back its digital rights in 2013 from Turner, which had paid Nascar a fee to run its Web site. This will help resolve conflicts that have hampered Nascar’s exposure. For instance, a television station currently can shoot video at a track and broadcast it, but it has not been allowed to post the video on its Web site because it competes with Turner’s Web site. That will change next year. (New York Times)|
In the third sentence, it appears three times, and its appears once. The first it has video as its antecedent; the second it and the possessive pronoun its have television station as their antecedent; and the third it has Web site as its antecedent. But readers shouldn’t be burdened with having to sort things out for themselves.
|For instance, a television station can currently shoot and broadcast video from a track, but it hasn’t been allowed to post the video online, because its Web site is in competition with Turner’s.|
In the revision, we’re down to only two pronouns, each with television station as its antecedent. Readers are unlikely to be confused.
|He instructed Bantam on what typeface to use, the precise size and kerning of its characters, and even mailed it a swatch of the exact color he wanted used for the book’s cover. (J. D. Salinger: A Life [Random House], by Kenneth Slawenski) [The sentence also suffers from faulty parallelism; see Chapter 41.]|
Its has typeface as its antecedent, but it has Bantam as its antecedent.
|He instructed Bantam on what typeface to use, specified the precise size and kerning of its characters, and even mailed the publisher a swatch of the exact color he wanted used for the book’s cover. OR [to dispense with the remaining its]: He instructed Bantam on what typeface to use, specified the precise size and kerning of the characters, and even mailed the publisher a swatch of the exact color he wanted used for the book’s cover.|
|The poem [“The New Colossus,” by Emma Lazarus] was mounted on the statue [the Statue of Liberty] only in 1903, after lobbying by influential friends. And it didn’t become popularly associated with it until after the 1920s, a decade when many restrictions were put on how many “tempest-tost” souls should be annually admitted. (New York Times)|
In the second sentence, the first it has poem as its antecedent, and the second it has statue as its antecedent.
|The poem was mounted on the statue only in 1903, after lobbying by influential friends. And the poem didn’t become popularly associated with the statue until after the 1920s. . . .|
|You can even plug an iPhone or other mobile phone into the iPad and it will recognize it as an external camera allowing you to download your mobile photos and videos. (New York Times)|
|You can even plug an iPhone or other mobile phone into the iPad, which will recognize the phone as an external camera allowing you to download your mobile photos and videos.|
|The flashy score [of the film], which encompasses Vivaldi, Laurie Anderson (“O Superman”), a lush “Manhã de Carnaval” (from “Black Orpheus”) and grating punk rock, vividly underlines the characters’ mood swings. While contributing to the movie’s element of surprise and fortifying its vision of life during wartime as a perilous carnival ride, it goes overboard. A scene in which Roméo and Juliette sing to each other feels extraneous. (New York Times)|
|While contributing to the movie’s element of surprise and fortifying its vision of life during wartime as a perilous carnival ride, the soundtrack goes overboard.|
The fourth problem to avoid is writing a sentence (or two consecutive sentences) in which the pronoun it appears in the immediate vicinity of the expletive it. In fact, few sentences are big enough for both the pronoun and the expletive. The expletive it is a word without any meaning at all: it’s merely a prop, a support, pushed into place so that a word-group can hold itself up as a grammatically complete clause. The it in the sentence It is snowing has no antecedent; the word doesn’t refer back to anything else. The expletive isn’t a pronoun—but is easily mistaken for one.
|But in artfully paralleling Vivian’s literary research with the obsessive medical research of an abstracted young doctor (and former student of Vivian’s) who attends her (a very good Greg Keller), [the play] “Wit” gently reminds us of how the seemingly infinite mind divorces itself from the finiteness of the body that sustains it. The industry of thought gets us through life, until life abruptly makes it known that it is disposing of us. Then words—and charts and pictures and poses—fail. (New York Times) [The comma before until should be omitted; see Chapter 73.]|
In the first sentence of the excerpt, both itself and it share mind as the antecedent. In the second sentence, though, the first it is an expletive, and the second it is a pronoun—but the writer cannot assume that the status of each it will be immediately apparent to every reader.
|The industry of thought gets us through life until life abruptly declares that it is disposing of us.|
|The East Haven case is one squalid part of the far larger furor over immigration, where Spanish-speaking people are met with suspicion and abuse and states and localities rush to pass laws empowering local police officers to harass presumed illegal immigrants. Racial-profiling is flourishing in this climate, and the Obama administration has rightly stepped up efforts to fight it. Judging from the racism so casually exhibited by Mr. Maturo, it’s going to be a long struggle. (New York Times)|
In the second-last sentence, it is a pronoun (with racial profiling as its antecedent). In the final sentence, it is an expletive easily mistaken for a pronoun (whose antecedent could be either racism or racial profiling).
|Racial profiling is flourishing in this climate, and the Obama administration has rightly stepped up efforts to fight it. But the racism so casually exhibited by Mr. Maturo suggests that the struggle is going to be a long one.|
|Talk radio—specifically, conservative political commentary—works because it has an audience. It’s the law of supply and demand. Americans don’t have to listen, but they do. (Censorship: The Threat to Silence Talk Radio [Threshold Editions], by Brian Jennings)|
In the first sentence, it is a pronoun (with talk radio as its antecedent). In the second sentence, it is an expletive easily taken for a pronoun whose antecedent could be audience or talk radio.
|Talk radio—specifically, conservative political commentary—works because it has an audience. The law of supply and demand applies mightily.|
Finally, never write a sentence that forces a single it to function simultaneously in two different capacities—both as a pronoun with an explicit antecedent and as an expletive.
|While the textbook industry is ripe for innovation, it already is a crowded market and has been tough for changes to occur. (Wall Street Journal)|
In the independent clause, it is followed by two verb phrases. The verb phrase already is a crowded market requires it to be a pronoun, whose antecedent is textbook industry. The second verb phrase, has been tough for changes to occur, requires it to be an expletive. But it can’t be both things at once.
|While the textbook industry is ripe for innovation, it already is a crowded market not hospitable to change.|
In the third sentence of the following excerpt, a single it functions both as a pronoun (with cork as the antecedent) for the first half of the compound predicate (was startlingly light to the touch) and as an expletive for the second half of the compound predicate (felt as if I were running my fingers through beach sand on a planet with a lesser gravitational pull than Earth’s).
|In a hangar-size room, sacks containing ground-up cork, imported from Portugal, were massed in rows. One sack was open, and I reached in for a handful of cork. It was startlingly light to the touch, and felt as if I were running my fingers through beach sand on a planet with a lesser gravitational pull than Earth’s. (New Yorker)|
|It was startlingly light to the touch, and I felt as if I were running my fingers through beach sand on a planet with a lesser gravitational pull than Earth’s.|
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