Beverly Flanigan flanigan at OHIO.EDU
Tue Jul 18 18:17:21 UTC 2006

At 01:32 PM 7/9/2006, you wrote:
>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 -

For the past several years I've had students who in fact tell me they were
taught not to use pronouns in writing.  The result is a constant repetition
of nouns where pronominal substitutions would have been perfectly
comprehensible.  Most annoying.

The American Dialect Society -

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