Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Us teachers aren't pronouns

I have complained before about TESOL grammar guru Richard Firsten's grammatical misanalyses. Well, he's at it again.
Dear Richard,

I can't figure out whether I should say for we teachers or for us teachers. My inclination is that us is the correct form of that pronoun to use, but we doesn't sound bad to me. Can you please explain which is right and why?

Thanks in advance for your help.
Ackmal Yusof
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Dear Ackmal,

Your inclination is correct. After a preposition, we need to use the object form of a pronoun, so we need to say for us. The reason you might have been thrown is that this is being followed by an appositive, teachers, which refers to the pronoun. If that phrase is the subject of a sentence, you'll use we: We teachers need to express our concerns to the administrators. But your phrase is not the subject; rather, it's the object of the preposition, so for us teachers is the way to go.
I hope that clears this up, Ackmal.

My own sense of things, as well as the corpus searches that I've done seems to bear out Firsten's assertion that [preposition + us + (people)] is standard and [preposition + we + (people)] is not. And I further agree with him that it's a matter of case.

Where I disagree is with his analysis of we/us as a pronoun with an appositive. If that were the case, then you would expect to also find for them teachers and for him teacher. Clearly, these are not standard English. The first one is a dialectal variant (perhaps of those rather than of they suggests Geoff Pullum), and the second is simply ungrammatical.

Moreover, the appositive construction is implausible with any noun that I can think of. At least, you would need a determiner before the appositive noun (e.g., for the Packers, the underdogs). And then there's the issue of the comma.

Rather, I think we, us and you, apart from being pronouns, are also determinatives. In our example, determinative us is functioning, as determinatives typically do, as a determiner in a noun phrase. Under this analysis, the head of the noun phrase is teachers, where Firsten has us as the head.

Note that the other personal pronouns do not have equivalent determinatives, which is why you don't find for them teachers or for him teacher. It is, however, interesting to note that determinatives do not typically decline for case. You is the other one that might except that you does not have distinct forms for subject and object.

[See the follow up here]


jto said...

You're right, of course, but as grammar advice goes, this instance by Firsten seems way above average to me.

Contrast this amazing nonsense. I can't find a single thing they got right.

Brett said...

Of course, you're right. But as the grammar-question answerer for TESOL, I think he needs to uphold a fairly high standard.