Grammar Wednesday

Pronoun Reference Edition!

Even though they’re in a composition (as opposed to a grammar) class, I’ve been giving my students worksheets and quizzes to get them up to speed on the basics of grammar – you know, all the rules and conventions they don’t give a fig about when they’re texting their friends’ cell phones?

We started out, in the first class, with a quiz about possessive nouns. It did not go well for many of them (one student got only one of the apostrophes right, poor baby). This week, I hit them with a pronoun reference quiz.

Pronouns are simply words that stand in for nouns, and they can can be delightful things. They save us from having to write things like “Pronouns can be delightful things. Pronouns save writers from having to write things like ‘pronouns save writers from having…’” Here’s my favorite pronoun lesson – go on and watch; you’ll love it:

“WHAT made that horrible noise and WHICH one of them is getting off first!!”

So, we’ve very clearly established that pronouns save us a lot of speaking (or writing) and keep us from being mind-numbingly repetitive with all our nouns.

What this fun little lesson failed to mention, though, is that it’s terribly important to know WHO or WHAT we’re talking about before we start bandying pronouns about. We know that he in the Grammar Rock lesson is Rufus, that she is Rafaella and that I is Albert – that’s established before the pronouns start flying. We would get into trouble, though, if someone else were telling us this story – say the narrator is me, for example – and I said something like “he brought it on the bus, but they decided to walk.” Now we don’t know if Rufus is on the bus or if Albert’s on the bus (though we do know that Rafaella, being the only she in the story, is walking).

To illustrate my point further, let’s look at this sentence:

Carl told his father that he was too old to play with the Cub Scouts.

In this sentence, we’re not sure exactly what is being protested. Is Carl saying “Dad, I’m too old to be in the Cub Scouts” or is he saying “DAD! Go away! You’re too old to play with my Cub Scouts friends“?

Get it?

I’ve given my class a worksheet boosted directly from this site, which I love – how can you not love a site which boasts that it’s “grammar instruction with attitude”? – and I’m really hoping they get it. They’ve been instructed to figure out whether a sentence is ambiguous in its pronoun reference and, if so, to rework the sentence to make sense, though I suspect most of them will miss the “decide if the sentence needs fixing” part and will try to fix them all. Some of the sentences are just terrible, though; take the first sentence, for example:

Fred told Tony that polka-dotted underwear was showing through the ripped seat of his dress pants.

So, Dear Readers, how would you fix that sentence so we know just whose skivvies are showing?

Happy Wednesday!



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8 responses to “Grammar Wednesday

  1. John, you’ve got a good memory for this stuff!! I’d remembered that I’ve gone over pronoun reference before, but I’d forgotten your comment about the Cree language. Thanks for the link back.

    Could you maybe explain what “proximate” and “obviative” mean for me and my readers who aren’t linguistic whizzes?

  2. They’re just terms for two kinds of grammatical markers. We could call them A and B. In Cree, the sentence might be something like

    FredA told TonyB that polka-dotted underwear was showing through the ripped seat of hisA dress pants.

    So we know that his refers to Fred. Or we could say something like

    FredB told TonyA that polka-dotted underwear was showing through the ripped seat of hisA dress pants.

    Which would mean that his refers to Tony.

  3. I was thinking that Carl told somebody else’s father to go away . . . . Wow. I suck at this!

  4. whodoesshethinksheisanyway

    I would write it like this; “Hey, dumb ass!” Fred said to Tony, “your polka-dotted panties are showin’ through your ripped dress pants! Can’t you feel the breeze, Moron?”
    Is that correct?

  5. Fred told Tony: “Your polka-dotted underwear is showing through the ripped seat of your dress pants.”

    Fred told Tony, “My polka-dotted underwear was showing through the ripped seat of my dress pants.”

    Fred told Tony, “Girl, I just about died. I tore a big old hole in my slacks, and now everyone at my office knows I wear polka-dot Ginch Gonch manties.”

  6. Michael, I’ve got a student in my class from whom the last sentence would not surprise me. He is gloriously and flamboyantly OUT, and his sense of humor is keen and boisterous.

    An example? We were talking about favorite movies in the first class. Someone mentioned that she wanted to see The Great Debaters and another student made some snoring noise and asked why anyone would want to see a movie about, essentially, a debating class. My queer kid said, right out loud and with no hesitation, “HELLO?!! DEN-ZEL! I’d pay money to watch THAT man read the PHONE book!”

    It was then I knew I loved him….

  7. Obviously, Tony’s the one with the shredded trousers, because dudes don’t CHOOSE to show off cutie drawers to each other.

    Now if the undies had Batman on them, it might make things more complicated…

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