Exclusive their, or another imposter

A hard-to-categorize use of their. Clearly, their is co-referential with each other and shares its reciprocal meaning, so that A knows B’s phone number and vice versa.

On the face of it, this looks like a so called picture NP, where each other’s is a possible antecedent for a reflexive as in (i). Compare (ii), which shows that the antecedent can’t be the subject – I think this is most people’s judgement, but there is some variation.

(i) The children saw each other’s pictures of themselves.
(ii) *The children saw Bill’s pictures of themselves.

The problem in the cartoon is that each other should not be able to bind the possessive. So in picture NPs we have the following data:

(iii) *Bill saw Mary’s pictures of her. (with Mary and her co-referential)
(iv) *Mary saw Bill’s pictures of him. (with Bill and him co-referential)

Co-reference is possible with the subject, however:

(v) Bill saw Mary’s pictures of him. (with Bill and him co-referential)
(vi) Mary saw Bill’s pictures of her. (with Mary and her co-referential)

Back to the couple in the sofa. The co-reference isn’t actually between each other’s and their, then, but rather between we and their. So, their has a plural antecedent, but it’s first person, rather than third. I’m not sure everyone would approve of this particular usage, but for those who do what it appears to show is that they, them, their and themselves are used in quite a wide range of contexts and with quite a range of antecedents. Singular they is just one case. The case here is ‘imposter they‘ or, since the antecedent is first person (exclusive, i.e. the lady in the armchair is not included), ‘exclusive they‘.


Everything you ever wanted to know about singular “they”

Yet another extensive post on singular ‘they’.

Stroppy Editor

Some people don’t like the singular, gender-neutral use of “they” (along with “them”, “their” etc.):

  • They hung up without saying anything.
  • Who finished their work first?
  • If anyone forgets their hat, you’ll have to leave them out of the photo.
  • Nobody who cares about their future can ignore this.

The objection is:

“They” and its cousins are plural and can’t be singular. The first two of the sentences above are about a single person, so they’re just wrong. The other two may be about several people, but “anyone” and “nobody” are still singular words (we say “anybody is”, not “anybody are”), so they’re still ungrammatical. While the traditional generic “he” can seem odd or sexist, and “he or she” can be clumsy, that doesn’t mean we should break the logical rule that separates singular from plural.

If you’re inclined to agree, I’d like to try to convince you otherwise. It’s…

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Singular “they” and the many reasons why it’s correct

Here’s a good summary of arguments in defense of singular ‘they’. Good links at the bottom of the page.

Motivated Grammar

Suppose you were reading and came to the following line:

“She kept her head and kicked her shoes off, as everybody ought to do who falls into deep water in their clothes.”

Would you …
(a) continue reading, because that’s a perfectly acceptable sentence, or
(b) throw a tantrum and insist that the author is an imbecile speeding the wholesale destruction of the English language?

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’re probably answering (a). If you’re answering (b), I regret to inform you that you hate the writing of C. S. Lewis.

And if you’re the sort to answer (b), the sort of person who rages at the alleged grammatical buffoonery of your fellows, I’m sure it’s because you think you’re doing us all a favor, and that your condescending tone is justified because: first, you’re being helpful regardless of the tone you’re using; second, people…

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An imposter

In today’s Ziggy: an case of not using singular they. This results in a person mismatch — i.e. a second person pronoun with a third person antecedent, whereas singular they involves a number mismatch.

In this particular case, I would actually prefer singular they, as in:

Will the owner of…rethink their priorities.

Is it the case that we are more sensitive to person mismatches than to number mismatches? In general, I think not. Collins & Postal (2012 Imposters, MIT Press) discuss a whole range of such mismatches. In their terminology, our example would involve a 2nd person imposter.  Here are few more imposters from Collins & Postal:

Daddy and Mommy will behave ourselves in the Bahamas.
The authors set ourselves a task to assess the fishing stock.
Your majesty should praise yourself.

The Ziggy type example, as far as I can tell, is not included in their discussion.

A preposition with an infinitival complement

Here’s a Hi and Lois comic that contradicts the claim that English prepositions don’t take (declarative) infinitival clauses as complements.


A quick search in Google books reveals a handful of similar examples where places to look for things is the speaker’s concern. The prescribed alternative – drop the preposition – also occurs, of course. The following two examples from Google Books illustrate the difference. As in the comic example, it is clear that we’re dealing with a complement rather than a purpose infinitive:

Bellwether and his men searched everywhere they could think of to look 
Mary and Joseph searched everywhere they could think to look 

Interestingly, the preposition seems to get more consistently dropped in negatives:

Hidden history lives in places that you wouldn’t think to look
If you had papers or a disc or even a chip to hide you would want to put it somewhere where an intruder would not think to look
He knew the cops would look in the dumpster but would never think to look for something behind the Coke machine

There are no examples in Google Books of not think of to look, and the entire web has a measly 8. Here’s one with a long-distance dependency thrown in for good measure:

The one thing I did not think of to look at for that job…

I don’t know if this might be a first step in some sort of differentiation of meaning between the two structures, but it seems to me there’s a subtle semantic difference between the cases with and without the preposition, such that think in quite a few of the dropped-preposition cases seems to imply a more thorough memory-search than the cases with the preposition. Most of the examples are in relative clauses, but I have no idea whether that’s relevant or not.

A nicely stranded preposition

An oldie from Bizzaro.

Pied piping seems pretty well unacceptable in this context:

*something big enough in the back of which to put my wife’s Prius
*something big enough of which to put my wife’s Prius in the back

Seems like a straightforward violation of the Complex NP Condition in all these cases, although I actually think the stranded preposition variant in the cartoon is slightly better. Anyway, if we get rid of the lowest NP things should be fine:

something big enough to put my wife’s Prius in
??something big enough in which to put my wife’s Prius

somebody trustworthy enough to rely on
??somebody trustworthy enough on whom to rely

Again, however, I’m not too keen on the pied-piped versions. I tried to check this with a couple of informants, but they seemed genuinely uncertain, hence the question marks, but the more I look at them the worse they get. The (irrelevant) semi-OK readings seem to be ones where the infinitive modifies the pronoun rather than the adjective. Getting rid of the modified adjectives results in unobjectionable structures with or without pied-piping:

something to put my wife’s Prius in
something in which to put my wife’s Prius

somebody to rely on
somebody on whom to rely

I really don’t know what is going on here. It might be that enough creates a tough-like structure. Clearly, pied-piping is out with tough-movement:

Bill is tough to talk to
*Bill is tough to whom to talk

Tough-movement, of course, is everybody’s exit cue, so…

Passive-aggressive bias in questions

In my second-semester grammar class I usually talk about the implicatures that arise with negative polarity items when they are used in unexpected contexts. For example, I bring up the positive bias found in questions like Have you done the dishes already?

As a diversion I sometimes also bring up the implicatures that arise in negative interrogatives like Haven’t you done the dishes already?, which can be understood in three steps, as discussed for example by Leech in his Principles of Pragmatics (1983). Leech’s story goes something like this: You ask the question in this way if you hold the following beliefs:

1) You think that the hearer has done the dishes.
2) You have some indication, e.g. an utterance or implication from the hearer, to the effect that the hearer has NOT done the dishes.
3) Nevertheless, you still assume, in conflict with 2) that the hearer HAS done the dishes. As a result the question is not really trying to elicit information, but rather becomes “an indirect and slightly tactful way of expressing disbelief” in 2).

There’s not to my knowledge any conventional term, like positive-bias, to refer to the implicature that arises in these negative questions, which I also tell my students. In my last class, someone suggested ‘passive-aggressive’ as a suitable term, at which we all laughed. However, we agreed that it might not be such a bad characterization. We would then have the following pattern of Yes/No questions.

Have you done the dishes yet? — Neutral
Have you done the dishes already? — Positive bias
Haven’t you done the dishes yet? — Negative bias
Haven’t you done the dishes already? — Passive-aggressive

Nice idea. However, I’m not sure that a psychologist would agree with the use of the term passive-aggressive for the last type of question. For that, we probably need to add yet another layer of interpretation, namely that Leech’s step 3) above is not an actual belief held by the speaker but that s/he KNOWS that the answer is No. Thus, step 3) would just be pretence. In fact, it seems that all but possibly the negative-bias question would be passive-aggressive if the speaker KNOWS that the answer is No, but pretends otherwise. I have no intuition about which type of question is the most aggressive one, though. I guess that’s an empirical question to be approached with some caution in a domestic setting.

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