Prescriptivist’s Corner: Genitive Pronominal Antecedents

After three months of repeated letter writing by Kevin Keegan, a Montgomery County, Maryland school teacher, the Educational Testing Service (ETS) has thrown out a question on the 2002 PSAT exam, raising the scores of some 500,000 students. The issue at hand is whether or not the question as originally written was actually wrong.

In the question the students were required to identify a grammatical error, if there was one, in a sentence. The sentence in question was as follows:

Toni Morrison’s genius enables her to create novels that arise from and express the injustice African Americans have endured.

The correct answer, as originally scored by ETS, was that there is no error in this sentence. Keegan disagreed, believing that the was an error in the pronoun her and its antecedent. According to Keegan, a pronoun cannot take a noun in the genitive case as its antecedent. Keegan cited several usage manuals backing up his claim.

Eventually, after consulting a three-person panel of “experts,” ETS reversed its position and declared the question invalid.

The problem is that despite the claims of a few grammar manuals, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a pronoun taking a genitive antecedent. This “rule” has no basis in either logic or in actual usage.

First, let’s recast the sentence so that Toni Morrison is not inflected in the genitive:

The genius of Toni Morrison enables her to create…

Here we have an identical meaning, yet use of the pronoun is acceptable. Why should there be potential confusion in the original yet not in the recast sentence? Next, let’s try an recast the sentence without using the pronoun.

Toni Morrison’s genius enables Toni Morrison to create…

Toni Morrison’s genius enables the writer to create…

Both of these are inadequate. The first is duplicative—and demonstrates that the logical antecedent is indeed Toni Morrison. The second is ambiguous—who is the writer we are talking about? There simply is no good way to write the sentence without using the pronoun.

The only possible logical explanation for the rule is that a pronoun in the objective case should not have a genitive antecedent. But this is an arbitrary rule that flies in the face of common sense. The purpose of rules about antecedents is to ensure clarity in writing. Should we abandon a clear sentence in favor of an awkward construction solely for the purpose of satisfying someone’s idea of what is logical?

Now, let’s turn to usage. While a few grammar manuals do include such a rule. The vast majority do not. Fowler found nothing wrong with the practice. Merriam-Webster specifically says that this “rule” is in error and unreasonable. Further, no professional writer appears to be aware of this rule. Open any newspaper on any day and one will find dozens of pronouns with genitive antecedents. And some of the greatest writers in history have “violated” the rule at will:

It was Mr. Squeer’s custom to call the boys together and make a sort of report, after every half-yearly visit to the metropolis, regarding the relations and friends he had seen.
—Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby

…shaking Snook’s hand cordially, we rush on to the pier, waving him a farewell.
—W.M. Thackeray, The Book of Snobs

Raymond’s sobs softened, and trembled away. She held him, rocking silently and rhythmically, a long time.
—Dorothy Parker, Clothe the Naked

ETS was simply wrong in caving in to an individual, pedantic teacher like Keegan. The identity of the panel of supposed experts is unknown, but clearly they are neither expert nor capable of the most basic inquiry regarding English grammar or usage.

There is an argument to be made that the students should not be penalized for the sins of the teachers. If teachers like Keegan instruct and grade students on this “rule” (and Keegan admits that he does), then the test should not hold the students accountable. But it can also be said that the students should be evaluated against an objective standard. If an answer is wrong, then it is wrong. The test should not cater to the whims of pedants. In the words of Richard R. Hershberger, regular participant in the Wordorigins.org discussion group:

I, on the other hand, find the whole affair rather inspirational.  I still live in a country were a person can make up a rule of English and, through the sweat of his brow, get it accepted by a pseudo-authority.

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