Possessive Antecedent Proscription

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Wed May 3 00:02:26 UTC 2006

when i last wrote here on this topic -- a proscription against
possessives as antecedents for personal pronouns (as in "Mary's
parents adore her") -- the earliest cite for the PAP was the one
given in MWDEU: Opdycke 1941 (Harper's English Grammar), which,
however, referred to the PAP as an old friend: "There is a good
grammatical rule to the effect that a pronoun cannot take as an
antecedent a noun in the possessive case...   But... this rule is
little respected by writers and authors-- if indeed, known..."

searching back in earlier grammars produced nothing, until my very
own copy of Sterling Leonard's The Doctrine of Correctness in English
Usage 1700-1800 (1929) arrived in the mail and it literally fell open
to the relevant page (198), with the section "Pronoun reference to a

turns out that in the 18th century at least some people objected to a
pronoun anaphoric to the object of "of" in the of-genitive, like
"Great Britain" in "the armies of Great Britain".  and then:

Other writers make the same objection to reference to a noun or
pronoun actually in the possessive, but not on the score of ambiguity
of meaning--solely on the logical-grammatical or authoritative ground
of its "impossibility," perhaps by analogy with Latin.  Priestley,
however, allows this construction...

yes, *the* priestley, joseph priestley.

alas, leonard says priestley cites as correct "thy goodness, who
art..." -- with a relative pronoun anaphoric to a possessive, a type
of example that is no longer acceptable to most modern speakers.

but there are those "other writers" mentioned (but unfortunately not
named) by leonard who banned possessive antecedents on "logical"
grounds (possessives are treated as adjectives, and only nouns can be
the antecedents of pronouns, or so they say).  so the PAP goes back
to at least the 18th century.

my project on advice literature on grammar and usage is pretty much
limited to english, to the 20th century (the fowler brothers to
garner, jespersen to huddleston & pullum on the linguists' side), to
advice for adults, and to advice for general audiences.  i am
constantly being pulled into other stuff  -- gradeschool and middle
school textbooks, ESL material, advice for legal writers, advice for
journalists, advice on other languages, and, most tempting of all,
advice from the 19th, 18th, and 17th centuries.  alas, i already have
material for two books (and will teach a seminar on material for the
second book this fall) and can scarcely look at all this other stuff
in the years of life left to me.  but the 18th century is so full of
great stuff!  i'll have to take a glance at priestley again.

but i'm going to leave to someone else the task of tracing the PAP
back through the 19th and 18th centuries and maybe earlier.


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