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If you haven’t already heard, Texas’s state senate was engaged in a political thriller last night. I was able to catch the last 40 or so minutes of its livestream, riding that delightful roller-coaster of modern politics that trundles from dim optimism that something good will happen to the crushing realization that the deck has been stacked against it so thoroughly that you can only hope to minimize your losses.

Well, thankfully, there was a substantial group of state senators who managed to lack such pessimism and who stood up to do right by their constituents. Literally, in the case of Sen. Wendy Davis, who began a filibuster of an anti-abortion bill 13 hours before the special session was set to end at midnight. By rule, she had to keep talking throughout, stopping only to take questions. She was not allowed to sit, lean against a desk, leave the floor, or eat. None of this “silent” filibuster garbage of the federal senate: no, this is “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, wreck-your-body-because-you-believe-in-what’s-right dedication.

What I hope becomes an iconic picture of this event.

Sen. Tommy Williams couldn’t have looked more like a political caricature while arguing for a second strike against Davis’s filibuster because another member helped her adjust her back brace. [Photo: Patrick Michels, Texas Observer]

Davis made it ten hours before getting three strikes on her filibuster. Other senators took over, stalling until 11:45, when the Republican majority managed to trigger a vote to trigger a vote on the contemptible SB 5. With this first vote passed and the bill’s passage imminent, Sen. Leticia Van de Putte challenged the first vote on the basis of her having an outstanding inquiry at the time of the vote, a challenge the Senate president overruled by noting that he had not recognized her inquiry.

With calm fury reminiscent of Joe Welch, she asked, “At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over the male colleagues in the room?” The gallery erupted in cheers that continued for the last fifteen minutes of the day, a cacophony that prevented the final roll-call vote from happening until after the midnight deadline. It was powerful stuff, and my eyes welled more than once throughout it.

But this is a grammar blog, and I wouldn’t bring this up unless there was a grammatical discussion to be had. Let’s go back to the second of the three strikes against Davis’s filibuster, the objection I’ve included Patrick Michels’s excellent picture of above. Claire Cardona wrote at the Dallas Morning News’s filibuster liveblog:

“Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, raised a point of order on the filibuster because Davis had help from Sen. Ellis to readjust her back brace. […] but Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, brings up a part in the rules that would permit Davis to sit. […] Zaffirini notes that the rules said ‘may not lean on his desk, his chair, and that note doesnt apply to Sen. Davis.'”

The rule in question, which I think is Senate Rule 4.01 [PDF, p. 8-9], reads:

“When a member has been recognized and is speaking on a motion to re-refer a bill, he must stand upright at his desk and may not lean thereon (61 S.J. Reg. 1760, 1762 (1969)).
When a member has the floor and is speaking on a bill or resolution, he must stand upright at his desk and may not lean or sit on his desk or chair (61 S.J. Reg. 1059 (1969)).”

Of course, we all know what is meant there, that the intended interpretation is gender-neutral he. We see such usages regularly, probably think little of it, and move on. To claim that the use of he in this rule means it doesn’t apply to a woman is crazy, surely.

Or is it? During a filibuster, pedantry is everywhere. I learned but one thing from the time I volunteered at a Model Congress convention: intent and common usage mean little as the parliamentarian sifts through Robert’s Rules of Order to decide which of the fourteen simultaneous objections takes precedence over the rest. Grammatical pedantry, so often out of place, is only fair in this situation.

[Rt. Hon. W.L. Mackenzie King and guests unveiling a plaque commemorating the five Alberta women whose efforts resulted in the Persons Case]

The Canadian “Persons Case”, in which women were suing to be granted the right to be appointed to the Senate, depended in part on whether he included women. The legal gender-neutrality of he had in fact been specified in 1889’s Interpretation Act.

I’m no legal expert, and I’m certainly not an expert at what terminological choices are taken as given in the Texas Senate rulebook, so take this discussion with a grain of salt. But Zaffirini’s argument isn’t without merit. I found no declaration at any point in the Senate Rules that he is to be assumed as gender-neutral. In fact, there are eight instances of “his or her” in the rules — one occurring in the first sentence of Rule 4.01, the very rule being debated. If he is understood to be gender-neutral in the third and fourth sentences of Rule 4.01, why is he insufficient in the first?*

I wrote last year about how such uncertainty of the interpretation of gender-neutrality on the male pronoun in governmental settings was not a new concern: even the first U.S. Congress, in 1790, used “he or she” in some of their bills. It’s all hair-splitting, of course, but it’s a hair that may need to be split. When the issue at hand is so entwined with gender, maybe it’s a good time to examine our assumptions, starting with a little pronoun.


*: Possibly because the third and fourth sentences are based on 1969 formulations and the first sentence isn’t. But are Senate rules to be interpreted diachronically or synchronically?

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I’ve mentioned my fondness for compiling historical grammatical errors as a reminder that we are not, point of fact, destroying what used to be a perfect language. Previously, I’d found unnecessary quotation marks in a 1960 World Series celebration, it’s for its in a 1984 John Mellencamp video, and an apostrophe incorrectly marking a plural in a famous 1856 editorial cartoon. But these were all punctuation-based errors. Today’s is a proper grammatical error, and one that people full-throatedly bemoan nowadays.

I found this error by admitting to myself that I am secretly an old man, and coming to terms with it by spending much of the summer sitting in parks, reading books on naval history and international relations. One of them, Nathaniel Philbrick’s Sea of Glory, tells the story of the U.S. Exploring Expedition, who discovered Antarctica and created the country’s first accurate naval charts for the Pacific islands. It’s a good book, but then it turned great by having two interesting old quotes four pages apart.

In the first, the Expedition is approaching Fiji and takes on another pilot due to the many coral reefs in the area:

“Wilkes felt it necessary to secure yet another experienced pilot at Tonga named Tom Granby. ‘You will find when we get to the Islands,’ Wilkes assured Granby, ‘that I know as much about them as you do.’ Granby smiled. ‘You may know all about them on paper,’ he replied, ‘but when you come to the goings in and goings out, you will see who knows best, you or myself.'”

Myself here is clearly non-standard, as no first-person pronoun has appeared anywhere in the sentence. The standard rule for reflexives, known as Principle A in Government and Binding theory, and discussed in pretty much every introductory syntax class, is that a reflexive must be bound in its governing category. Or, to say it in a more theory-agnostic and somewhat looser way, the coreferent of the reflexive (I/me for myself) has to appear within the smallest clause that contains the reflexive, and structurally “above” the reflexive. The syntactic specifics they depend on which syntactic theory you’re adhering to, but luckily they don’t really matter here; there’s no possible coreferent anywhere within the sentence, so any standard definition of Principle A will label the sentence ungrammatical.

Turning from this syntactic jungle to the Fijian jungle, a few pages later the Expedition lands on an island and hikes to its peak:

“Almost two years at sea had left them ill-prepared for such a demanding hike. ‘I have seldom witnessed a party so helpless as ourselves appeared,’ Wilkes wrote, ‘in comparison with the natives and white residents, who ran over the rocks like goats.'”

Again, it’s obvious that this is a non-standard usage, since no first-person plural noun phrase appears in the sentence to justify the reflexive.

Now, I’ve been marking these as non-standard rather than incorrect, and there’s a reason for this that is more than a desire to be non-judgmental. These supposedly erroneous uses of reflexives are widespread — so much so that I’d argue they’re at least borderline acceptable in many people’s forms of Informal Spoken English. That means that they ought to be explainable, that there ought to be some option in the rules of English that allow you to consider these uses acceptable without having to change much else in the language. I’m going to speculate for the rest of this post, so feel free to bail out here.

But before you bail, let me just brag about where I get to read.

Here’s my idea, which I don’t think is novel.* Reflexives are allowed only when, in some sense, there’s a sufficiently salient coreferent for the reflexive. Salience is standardly assessed syntactically, meaning that a coreferent appears structurally above the reflexive, and close enough to remain salient when the reflexive appears. But there is pragmatic salience as well, for people and things who haven’t been explicitly mentioned but remain prominent in the discourse all the same. And what is more pragmatically salient than the speaker? In both of these cases, it seems that the speaker is thinking of themselves as sufficiently salient to trigger the reflexive.

My intuition is that there are more instances of inappropriate reflexives for first person (myself, ourselves) than second person (yourself), and more of either than for third person (himself, herself, itself, themselves). I did a quick corpus search on COCA for sentence-initial As for *self, and the intuition wasn’t fully borne out; as for myself was the most common, but combined as for him/herself showed up almost as often (64 to 60), and as for yourself only registered one instance. So maybe I’m totally off-base on the specifics.** But something is going on that allows so many people to view reflexives as standard in positions that we don’t expect to see them, and like this or not, that needs explained.


*: If you know of any references to discussions about this issue, please share. I’m not primarily a syntactician, and didn’t see anything in a cursory search of the literature, but I really doubt this discussion hasn’t been had before.

**: I think the as for *self construction may be a special case. Most of the third-person uses look to be about how some third party views themself, and while one can state one’s own introspections and speculate about a third party’s, it’s a little bit weird to tell someone their own introspections. That could artificially deflate the second-person counts.

I think the best explanation of this construction may be as an indicator that we are switching mental spaces, if you’re familiar with that theory. Saying as for Xself establishes a new mental space focused on X and their inner workings or opinions, rather than the more generic mental space of the rest of the conversation. Sorry, I’m really going down a rabbit hole here.

All right, it’s time for the second grammar review section; last week’s looked at contractions and their homophones, and today I’ll look at who and whom.

The simplest advice I can give about using whom is not to. Contemporary English doesn’t require whom in any situation other than exceedingly formal writing. Just use who all the time.

Before you think that I’m just some lazy linguistic anarchist for suggesting this, let me point out that I am only agreeing with John McIntyre, former president of the American Copy Editors Society and an editor at the Baltimore Sun, who writes:

“There is a problem that even educated writers have with figuring out whether a subordinate clause should begin with who or whom. If you have that difficulty, you can, except in the most formal circumstances, just use who.”

But perhaps you have a reason to use whom, whether because you need to write very formally, or because you have a stodgy teacher/superior who insists upon its use, or because you’re just good old-fashioned curious about the niceties of English grammar. In that case, here’s my advice on how it’s used.

In short, who and whom are the same word with different case markings. Who is in the nominative (or subjective) case, and whom is in the accusative (or objective) case. That’s the only difference — not that one is more formal than the other or anything like that.*

So knowing how to use whom is simply a matter of knowing when each case should be marked. Unfortunately, English rarely marks case, so it’s not something that we, as native English speakers, are used to thinking about. In fact, aside from who(m), the only other sort of case marking in English is on personal pronouns, and even then only on a few of them.** I and me, for instance, are nominative and accusative versions of each other, as are he and him, she and her, we and us, and they and them.

The first guideline, then, is to use whom wherever it replaces an accusative pronoun (me, him, her, us, them). So:

(1a) Who saw you? (She saw me.)
(1b) Whom did you see? (I saw her.)
(1c) Whom did you give the gift to? (I gave it to her.)

Your intuitions with personal pronouns’ cases are probably pretty accurate, so when you can rephrase the sentence, you’ll do well. The trouble is that you can’t always easily replace who(m) with a personal pronoun. For instance:

(2a) The fellow who(m) I saw at the bus stop
(2b) I don’t care who(m) did it.
(2c) Who(m)ever the werewolf stalks is in trouble.

Since there’s no question to answer here, you need to get a bit cleverer and look at the syntactic structure of the sentence. In these examples, who(m) is filling for a missing noun phrase somewhere in the sentence; linguists refer to the missing noun phrase as a “gap”, and who(m) as its “filler”. Even though the filler is usually in a different position from the gap, structurally the filler and gap are linked. Whatever case would be assigned to the gap manifests itself on the filler.

When the gap is an object, whom is appropriate. (2a) can use whom, because it’s filling a gap in the object of the verb saw.

When the gap is a subject, whom is inappropriate. (2b) can’t use whom, because the gap is the subject of the verb did.

(2c) gets tricky, because we seem to have two conflicting case assignments. Who(m)ever is the object of stalks, so you’d expect accusative case, but it also looks like the subject of is, so what do we do? In general, only the closest case assignment matters, and case doesn’t trickle down within a phrase. Since the subject of is is actually the whole phrase who(m)ever the werewolf stalks, not just who(m)ever, its case assignment doesn’t manifest. Only the assignment within the smaller phrase who(m)ever the werewolf stalks matters, and that’s accusative case from stalks. Thus whomever is appropriate here.

This is a bit subtle, and I don’t think I’ve done a great job of explaining it. (A newspaper columnist and I got into a fight about such a case assignment three years ago, and we still haven’t settled it.) This is the sort of situation where you’re probably best to just go with who; even if you have spent the time to prove to yourself that whom is correct, there’s a pretty good chance that someone else will insist that you’re hypercorrecting.

Summary: In contemporary American English, whom is necessary only in certain situations within very formal writing, so you can get by just fine without using it. If you choose to use it, remember that it is not the formal variant of who but rather the accusative-case variant of who. If who is replacing a subject of a sentence, it should never be whom. Whom is reserved for objects of verbs and objects of prepositions.

The Back-to-School Reviews so far:
I: Confusing contractions (your, you’re and the lot) [09/04/12]
II: Who and whom [09/10/12]


*: Whom seems more formal because it’s mostly used in formal writing. In informal writing, who is the form for both nominative and accusative cases.

**: Technically speaking, the apostrophe-s on possessives is a way of marking genitive case, but that’s a topic for another time.

I’m a huge fan of NBC’s show Community, and over the last few months I’ve managed to get my entire family and core friends into it as well. That means going back and watching old episodes over and over again, which I can’t say I mind, especially since the show is forever on the verge of cancellation and there are likely precious few new episodes that I’ll be able watch over and over again. #SixSeasonsAndAMovie

In one episode, the study group that comprises the seven main characters is trapped in their group study room while a puppy parade goes on outside. The problem is that someone has stolen Annie’s pen and she won’t let anyone leave until it is returned. As tempers flare and the desire to see adorable becostumed puppies grows, Jeff attempts to reason with the unknown thief.

But what pronoun can Jeff use? The group is evenly split between men and women, so how will he handle English’s unfortunate lack of a singular ungendered human pronoun? Watch the video below, starting at 0:18, to find out (or just scroll to the transcription I put below it).

JEFF: Someone in this room is hiding your pen. Wanna know why? They feel terrible. They made a mistake. They waited too long to come forward and now they feel bad.
BRITTA: They should.

After all I said above about how awesome this show is, you might think this a kind of boring scene, and surely not a good one to convince you to watch it. But it’s the grammatical point that I’m concerned with, and it’s the mundanity of the dialogue that’s crucial to that. There’s nothing odd about this dialogue, despite all the singular theys in it, and we even see that Britta goes along with Jeff’s singular they in her response. It’d sound terrible with he or she replacing every they, and it’d sound like Jeff knew none of the women did it with he replacing every they.

Yes, singular they has shortcomings. So does he or she or “genderless” he or the various invented ungendered personal pronouns people have created. But singular they is natural in a way that the other options aren’t, and it’s the only reasonable solution in this dialogue.

Of course, I’m probably preaching to the choir here, so I hope you’ll forgive me if I’ve wasted your time.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.



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