Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Sun Jul 9 17:32:28 UTC 2006

for some time i've been collecting examples of interesting pronominal
anaphora.  some of the examples are inept; the reader is initially
led to entertain an unlikely antecedent, and sometimes it is almost
impossible to shake the wrong reading; these examples are akin to the
truly inept dangling modifiers that the Fellowship of the Predicative
Adjunct has/have [choose according to your nationality] been
collecting for some time.  but other times there is no problem, given
the context and real-world knowledge.  here's one of the latter from
The New Yorker of7/10&17/06, p. 90, in a review of "The Devil Wears
Prada" by David Denby:

A high-minded college journalist who wants to do serious work, Andy
hangs up Miranda's coat and bag every morning after she flings them
down on Andy's desk; she runs and fetches, criss-crossing the city,
tending to Miranda's dog, her twin daughters, her dry cleaning.

1.  the first "she".  Miranda is the most recently mentioned
discourse referent, but the mention is in a modifier, while Andy is
mentioned in a structurally parallel position to "she" (both are
subjects), and this portion of the review is about Andy, two factors
that would favor Andy as the intended referent.  nevertheless, we
expect that in the real world the boss does the flinging and the
employee does the picking up.  and that expectation is supported by
the following possessive "Andy's", which would have to be "her" if
the preceding "she" referred to Andy.  Miranda it is.

2.  the second "she".  Andy is the most recently mentioned discourse
referent, but again in a modifier, and the passage is still about
Andy.  meanwhile, "Miranda" is in a structurally parallel position to
"she" (both are subjects).  but real-world expectation fixes on Andy
as the runner and fetcher.  and so it is.

3.  the two instances of possessive "her".  Miranda is the most
recently mentioned discourse referent (again, in a modifier), and the
possessives are structurally parallel to "Miranda's".  but "she"
referring to Andy is the subject of the clause and the participial
modifier is understood as predicating something about Andy.  real-
world expectation picks out Miranda.  and so it is.

in all of these cases, Most Recently Mentioned happens to win.  but
this is scarcely always the case: "Bush invited Putin to his ranch"
and many similar examples.

the fact is that huge numbers of personal pronouns are potentially
ambiguous in their reference, but this is rarely a problem.  which
means that handbook advice to avoid ambiguity of reference for
pronouns is remarkably unhelpful; this is tantamount to telling
people to avoid pronouns, period.  if you start from an inept
example, it's easy to see that referential ambiguity is the problem
-- but such examples are overwhelmed by a tidal wave of potentially
ambiguous examples that aren't misleading or troublesome.  what
people do when they comprehend pronoun reference is fabulously
complex, in fact.

arnold (zwicky at

The American Dialect Society -

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