Contemporary Language Debate: Possessives as Antecedents

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Links in this essay will take you to information about the usage experts and their work. Numbers in parentheses are page references in the sources.


Possessives as antecedents


       In 2003, the College Board got into trouble with the sentence Toni Morrison's genius enables her to create novels that arise from and express the injustices African Americans have endured. The PSAT given the previous fall had asked whether that sentence contains a grammatical error. According to the College Board, the sentence was error-free. But as Kevin Keegan, a high school journalism teacher, pointed out, some usage experts insist that a possessive noun (such as Toni Morrison's) cannot properly serve as the antecedent for a pronoun in the objective case (such as her in the exam question) or the subjective case (such as she). In the end, the College Board decided to recalculate the scores of 1.8 million tests and give credit for both responses.

       Are the two viewpoints equally valid? Some grammarians insist on a strict interpretation based on grammar and its logic. As The New York Public Library Writer's Guide explains, "Once a noun becomes possessive, it no longer is a noun; it is an adjective and cannot function as an antecedent." It gives this example of a sentence that breaks the rule:


In Dickens' novel Great Expectations, he recounts much of his tormented childhood. (132)


       Even strict grammarians, however, allow possessive pronouns to have possessive antecedents. They would accept a rewording of the exam sentence in which the possessive noun Toni Morrison's is the antecedent for the possessive pronoun her:


Toni Morrison's genius infuses her novels with a unique perspective on the injustices African Americans have endured.


       While admitting that some possessive antecedents may cause ambiguity,Theodore Bernstein and other experts don't believe that possessive antecedents should be outlawed entirely. Bernstein argues: "The rule shall be considered valid whenever it functions to preclude ambiguity. . . . If there is no possibility of ambiguity and observance of the rule would serve only to gratify the strict grammarian's sense of fitness, forget it" (115). Most people, he says, "would understand [the following] sentence and find nothing wrong with it":


Immediately upon the President's arrival a crowd broke into cheers for him. (115)


       Other authorities make an additional point: Refusing to allow possessive antecedents can result in awkward or downright ugly wording. The British language expert Michael Quinion, on his Web site World Wide Words, writes:


If somebody says to you, "My neighbour's wife left him," or "John's mother loves him" (both of which would be outlawed by the rule) you understand the meaning at once. Indeed, you will find it next to impossible to rephrase these sentences elegantly and without repeating yourself.


       Conclusion: The rule against letting possessive nouns and pronouns serve as antecedents for subjective and objective pronouns has the same purpose as most rules of grammar—to help you express yourself clearly. When following it does increase clarity, follow it. And when following it is easy and doesn't get in the way of clarity or style, you might as well. But feel free to break the rule when trying to follow it is only going to make trouble for you and your readers.



Source: Hacker Handbooks (Boston: Bedford, 2013).