Re Personal pronouns

Larry Trask larryt at
Mon Dec 13 11:16:54 UTC 1999

Lloyd Anderson writes:

> In the discussion between Larry Trask and Pat Ryan,
> each of them has a partly valid perspective.

> Pat points out that "Personal Pronouns" may properly
> include "possessives" or "possessive pronouns".

Well, I would query this use of the factive verb 'point out'.  I think
you can only 'point out' something which is true, just as you can only
'realize' something which is true.

> Trask objects that "possessives" are not pronouns,
> as proven by distributional criteria.


> The gap in Trask's logic is the assumption that
> the definition of "personal pronoun"
> must depend essentially and exclusively on a distributional meaning,
> and cannot have another legitimate basis.

Actually, I never said that distribution was the *only* criterion.  There
exist other valid criteria for part-of-speech classification, such as
inflectional and derivational possibilities.  However, as it happens,
these criteria are of little assistance in identifying pronouns in
English, since English pronouns, in general, exhibit little inflection
and virtually no derivation.  Accordingly, distribution becomes the only
genuinely useful criterion for identifying pronouns in English.

> In fact, "personal pronoun" was defined by use long before
> Trask or any of the rest of us were born, and does
> indeed have "a" (not "the") legitimate use emphasizing more the
> semantic content and less the distributional occurrence /
> part-of-speech characteristics of use.

Sorry; I disagree.

It is true that our ancestors often classified words like 'my' as
pronouns.  But, in this, they were simply wrong.  They also often
classified determiners as adjectives, but they were wrong here too.
They also often classified degree modifiers like 'very', the unique item
'not', and various other surprising things as adverbs, but again they
were wrong.  The observation that a classification is traditional is no
argument that it is legitimate.

After all, our ancestors also often classified whales as fish.  But would
anybody want to argue that this classification is therefore legitimate?

Of course, you can get round all this by simply maintaining that words
like 'pronoun' and 'fish' simply had different meanings for our ancestors
from the ones they have for us.  If anybody wants to pursue this
possibility, and to use it to construct a case that older meanings are
just as valid today as our modern ones, then we can discuss it.
Meanwhile, I'll just dismiss this line of thought as irrelevant.

> It is not a valid counterargument
> to say that "possessive pronouns" must be "pronouns" in every respect.

Depends on what you mean by "in every respect".  If you mean only that
there is no requirement that every pronoun must exhibit all the
properties exhibited by every other pronoun, then of course I agree:
subcategorization is just as prominent among pronouns as elsewhere.

However, there is a more fundamental point here: words like 'my' do not
exhibit *any* of the properties exhibited by pronouns.  If you don't
believe me, try it: name any property exhibited by pronouns generally,
and you will find that words like 'my' do not exhibit it.  Moreover, if
you name any property exhibited by words like 'my', you will find that
pronouns in general do not exhibit that property.

I await proposed counterexamples with interest. ;-)

> That depends on the assumption that the composite is transparent,
> and would lead to the conclusion that "White House" must be a white
> house, even if it were another color, patently an error of reasoning.

Of course this is a patent error of reasoning, but what on earth has it
to do with the classification of words like 'my'?  If anything, this
appears to be a (valid) argument against Pat Ryan's position: he wants to
argue that 'my' must be a pronoun because it is transparently related to
the real pronoun 'I'.

> Rather, "possessive" may already signal a member of the class
> of determiners, or whatever one considers "possessive pronouns"
> to be closest to, distributionally.

No; the label 'possessive' does not entail, or imply in any way, the
label 'determiner'.  Words like 'mine' are certainly possessive, but they
are not determiners: in fact, they are pronouns.  And, as I pointed out
[;-)] earlier, the Latin forms like <meus> 'my' do not appear to be
either pronouns or determiners, but rather adjectives.

> So there is no absolute right or wrong in these discussions,
> there are legitimate arguments for each point of view.

Well, I wouldn't care to be classed as an absolutist, but so far I have
seen no valid argument at all for classifying English 'my' as a pronoun,
or as anything other than a determiner.

> Which means it is NOT legitimate to say the other point
> of view is simply wrong (however that may be phrased).

Sure it is.  If position P is supported by no evidence at all, and is
moreover in flagrant conflict with all available evidence, then position
P is wrong.  Observing that P has been asserted by somebody, or that it
was widely accepted in the past, is no argument.

Larry Trask
University of Sussex
Brighton BN1 9QH

larryt at

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