Tag Archives: pronouns

Musings on subjects and conjunctions

This issue comes up all the time on grammar blogs and in grammar books: which form of a pronoun should go into conjoined subjects? For example, I want to know which of these to choose:

  • Kimberly and I defended the fort.
  • Kimberly and me defended the fort.

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What can replace phrases?

Traditional analysis of English has a heavy focus on words. The eight parts of speech, which is a core concept in traditional grammar, is all about classifying individual words. Many prescriptive rules are concerned with which words to avoid: Don’t end sentences with prepositions. Don’t start with conjunctions. Don’t say ain’t. Don’t use singular they. Nearly every “improve-your-grammar” book has a list of commonly confused or misused words: their/they’re/there, who’s/whose, that/which, principal/principle, etc.

However, languages are not just big bags of words. Words work together, and they can be grouped into larger units called “phrases”. Phrases are an essential part of any theory of grammar. It’s impossible to properly describe a language without at some point needing to talk about groups of words, instead of just individual words. The most obvious example of such a unit is the “sentence”, which is actually just a very large phrase.

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Pronouns don’t replace nouns

This is a small point, but I see it so often that I feel it needs to be addressed. Pronouns don’t replace nouns. They replace noun phrases (or determiner phrases, if you’re doing that kind of syntax). That means other stuff like the article and the adjectives. For example:

A fat greasy American guy sat next to me on the bus.

Suppose I want to replace the subject with the pronoun he. If it were true that pronouns replaced just nouns, then it would be grammatical to say this:

*A fat greasy he sat next to me on the bus.

But that’s clearly wrong. Instead, we’d say:

He sat next to me on the bus.

And replace all of a fat greasy American guy with he.

Sometimes the noun phrase can contain entire clauses and the pronoun would still replace the whole thing, as in:

[A dolphin [who had been rescued from an oil spill] [which occurred near Japan]] performed a trick.
She performed a trick.

And similarly, I find it odd when people say that adjectives can be used to modify pronouns. This can’t be so, because the adjectives are replaced along with the noun, so they can’t stick around to modify the pronoun. And even if you try and add adjectives, it doesn’t work.

The yellow car crashed.
It crashed.
*The yellow it crashed.
*Yellow it crashed.

The tall woman is famous.
She is famous.
*The tall she is famous.
*Tall she is famous.

(Click here if you don’t know what the * symbol means)

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The Lenakel pronoun system

    Singular Dual Trial Plural
1 inc. —- kat-lau kat-hel kat-ar
1 exc. io kam-lau kam-hel kam-ar
2   iik kami-lau kami-hel kami-ar
3   in il-lau il-hel il-ar

The number 1 means “first person” (I/we), 2 means “second person” (you), and 3 means “third person” (he/she/it). The reason there are two 1s is that Lenakel makes a distinction between inclusive and exclusive pronouns (this is more generally known as clusivity). Inclusive pronouns are those that include the addressee in their meaning, while exclusive pronouns are those that exclude the addressee. For example: the word kat-ar is the 1st person plural inclusive, so it means “the group of us including the person I’m talking to”, while kam-ar is the 1st person plural exclusive, and it means “the group of us, but not including the person I’m talking to”.

Lenakel also has multiple number distinctions not made in English. English distinguishes between only singular and plural, so between only 1 person, I, or more than one person, we. Lenakel has words for 1 person (singular), exactly 2 people (dual), exactly 3 people (trial), and more than 3 people (plural).

This combines with the inclusive/exclusive contrast, to make for some really specific meanings. For instance, kat-hel means “the speaker and exactly two other people, one of which is the addressee”, while kam-hel means “the speaker and exactly two other people, neither of which is the addressee”.

Source: Lynch, John. 1978. A grammar of Lenakel. Pacific Linguistics. Series B. No. 55. Australian National University.
Ethnologue entry for Lenakel

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