Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Defenders of the pronoun

Recently, for whatever reason, I've been in situations where the question of the status of pronouns has come up. Inevitably, there are people who vehemently reject the idea that pronouns are just a special kind of noun. One correspondent writes,
"Why insist on pronouns as a 'special case of nouns' when current handbooks from Hacker to Troyka and Ready Reference unswervingly place pronouns in a different category from nouns?"
Well, because they generally:
  1. signify the same range of concepts
  2. both are subject to distinctions of case
  3. both are subject to distinctions of gender
  4. both are subject to distinctions of number
  5. share almost all the same functions (e.g., subject, object, determiner)
  6. share the same set of modifiers

Actually, 6. is a bit of a stretch. Typically pronouns don't license determinatives or adjectives but they sometimes can in a pinch (e.g., the new you). Then again, proper nouns don't usually license determinatives or adjectives either and nobody wants to set them off on their own.

These defenders of the pronoun inevitably argue that if you look up "parts of speech" in any reference, you will be told that pronoun is one. It has always been so, they say pointing to the etymology (and falling foul of the etymological fallacy). But they offer nothing beyond tradition to explain why pronouns should get a class all to themselves. Nor can they explain why, if pronouns should, auxiliary verbs, for example, shouldn't.

These people are typically unsurprised that the physics, biology, and chemistry they studied in high school is no longer up to date. But they get positively defensive when somebody suggests that grammatical description has moved on. Why is that?


alienvoord said...

Or even that grammar should be studied scientifically in the first place.

GAC said...

In my Linguistics 101 class, we were taught that pronouns usually replace an entire noun phrase, rather than a noun. That doesn't cover "the new you" -- though I suppose that in that instance "you" would be a noun. Was I taught wrong, or am I missing the point?

The Ridger, FCD said...

Nouns are noun phrases. :-)

However, pronouns replace anything from one noun to a massive complex clause. This is how you can tell they're pronouns. (Hint: what does "this" replace?)

As to the question - because they can speak and therefore they know what grammar is. They have an emotional connection to "knowing the language" which is, I suppose, connected to all the insults (lazy, sloppy, ignorant) that get applied to people whose usage differs from others'.

Brett said...

Yes, usually pronouns replace NPs, but it's hard to think what 'who' or 'what' might replace. Dummy subjects such as 'there' and 'it' are another problem. And as The Ridger has pointed out, you can have cases like: "When he's angry, you'll know it" where 'it' is replacing 'he's angry'.

The Ridger, FCD said...

I suppose "who" is "which person" and "what" is "which thing" - or "that person/thing" in relatives (but then, what is "that" replacing?)...

Brett said...

I suppose you could get yourself out of that trap by saying that 'that' and 'what' here are determiners, not pronouns.

GAC said...

OK, I think I understand this a little better now.

Dummy subjects do seem to create problems -- though replacing clauses doesn't seem to be so much.

I don't know. Obviously I'm not a linguist, just a dabbler. Most of what I know is from an introductory course and random web searching to find inspiration for conlangs.