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Test This Question

It’s rare for a point of English grammar to feature on the front page of a newspaper, but on 14 May 2003 a dispute over a subtle issue was so reported in the Washington Post.

In the USA, the Educational Testing Service (ETS) administers PSATs (Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Tests), for high school students. A question in a recent test caused the problem. Try it yourself. Is there a grammatical error in this sentence: “Toni Morrison’s genius enables her to create novels that arise from and express the injustices African Americans have endured”?

My guess is that the great majority of readers will not be able to find an error; I would certainly mark it as grammatically correct, if stylistically poor. So did a small majority (53%) of those who took the test last October. All the experts who reviewed the test before it was issued — some 30 altogether, the article reports — also said it was grammatically impeccable and that the right answer was to mark it as such.

However, Kevin Keegan, a high-school journalism teacher, argued the answer was wrong. After months of dispute, and consultation with an outside panel of experts, the ETS has deleted the question and re-scored the test.

So what’s wrong with the sentence? Mr Keegan says that it’s not correct for a pronoun (her in the sentence) to refer back to a noun in the possessive case (Toni Morrison’s). He would insist that the sentence be rewritten.

Many of the linguists who have since debated the subject on various lists have never heard of this rule. However, it does appear in a number of current American style guides, including The Penguin Handbook and The Scribner Handbook For Writers. More often, grammar books say nothing about it, which suggests that they don’t acknowledge the rule exists. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (regarded as a dangerously permissive work by conservative grammarians) is a rare public opponent of the rule. It says that “This sort of logic … does little more than impose an unnecessary burden on the writer” and argues that a type of notional agreement is occurring that makes the usage legitimate.

Certainly, there’s no ambiguity in the sense. If somebody says to you, “My neighbour’s wife left him”, or “John’s mother loves him” (both of which would be outlawed by the rule) you understand the meaning at once. Indeed, you will find it next to impossible to rephrase these sentences elegantly and without repeating yourself. (“John’s mother loves John”? Hardly. That’s what pronouns are for, after all.) The construction has been used by good writers for centuries. In Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens wrote: “It was Mr Squeers’s custom to call the boys together and make a sort of report, after every half-yearly visit to the metropolis, regarding the relations and friends he had seen”. And another example from an impeccable source: “The writer’s colleagues in the Department of English in Cornell University have greatly helped him in the preparation of his manuscript” (William Strunk, The Elements of Style, from the 1918 edition at Project Bartleby).

The problem really comes down to sense versus logic. The formal approach of the rule treats such sentences as though they were something akin to a computer program, which has to be correct in all particulars or it will not work. This is the view of what is sometimes called rather pejoratively “traditional grammar”, which is ultimately based on Latin models in which case agreement is important. Modern linguists prefer to work using concepts such as discourse analysis, in which the topic is clearly Toni Morrison, and it is legitimate for a pronoun to refer back to this implied topic. Also, “Toni Morrison’s genius” can be rewritten as “The genius of Toni Morrison”, which makes the relationship obvious. This conforms to the common-sense view of the way English works. You can tell this is really the nub of the problem, since Mr Keegan is reported as arguing at one point that the exam wasn’t testing whether sentences were clear but whether they were correct.

The consensus among the linguists who have written about this since the newspaper article appeared is that the supposed rule is daft and that it’s a legacy of attempts by grammarians of earlier times to impose a Latin-like structure on our language by diktat, without considering the way people actually speak it. However, Mr Keegan made one point which is incontrovertible: the rule exists, and some instructors insist on it (as Mr Keegan does), so that it’s unfair to include a question in a test when teachers disagree about the right answer. This argument seems to have been the one that finally convinced the ETS to change its mind.

One contributor to the American Dialect Society discussion on the issue summed matters up thus: “The high school sophomore who is ready to ponder the ambiguities of a possessive case noun serving as an antecedent does not exist”. That goes for most of us.

[I’m grateful to various members of the American Dialect Society and Linguist lists who have discussed the issue for many details in this piece.]

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Page created 31 May 2003