Arrant Pedantry


Whose Pronoun Is That?

In my last post I touched on the fact that whose as a relative possessive adjective referring to inanimate objects feels a little strange to some people. In a submission for the topic suggestion contest, Jake asked about the use of that with animate referents (“The woman that was in the car”) and then said, “On the flip side, consider ‘the couch, whose cushion is blue.’ ‘Who’ is usually used for animate subjects. Why don’t we have the word ‘whichs’ for inanimate ones?”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (one of my favorite books on language; if you don’t already own it, you should buy it now—seriously.) says that it has been in use from the fourteenth century to the present but that it wasn’t until the eighteenth century that grammarians like Bishop Lowth (surprise, surprise) started to cast aspersions on its use.

MWDEU concludes that “the notion that whose may not properly be used of anything except persons is a superstition; it has been used by innumerable standard authors from Wycliffe to Updike, and is entirely standard as an alternative to of which the in all varieties of discourse.” Bryan A. Garner, in his Garner’s Modern American Usage, says somewhat more equivocally, “Whose may usefully refer to things ⟨an idea whose time has come⟩. This use of whose, formerly decried by some 19th-century grammarians and their predecessors, is often an inescapable way of avoiding clumsiness.” He ranks it a 5—“universally adopted except for a few eccentrics”—but his tone leaves one feeling as if he thinks it the lesser of two evils.

But how did we end up in this situation in the first place? Why don’t we have a whiches or thats or something equivalent? MWDEU notes that “English is not blessed with a genitive form for that or which“, but to understand why, you have to go back to Old English and the loss of the case system in Early Middle English.

First of all, Old English did not use interrogative pronouns (who, which, or what) as relative pronouns. It either used demonstrative pronouns—whence our modern that is descended—or the invariable complementizer þe, which we’ll ignore for now. The demonstrative pronouns declined for gender, number, and case, just like the demonstrative and relative pronouns of modern German. The important point is that in Old English, the relative pronouns looked like this:

Case Masculine Neuter Feminine Plural
Nominative se þæt sēo þā
Accusative þone þæt þā þā
Genitive þæs þæs þǣre þāra, þǣra
Dative þǣm þǣm þǣre þǣm, þām
Instrumental þȳ, þon þȳ, þon

(Taken from The þ is a thorn, which represents a “th” sound.)

As the Old English case system disappeared, this all reduced to the familiar that, which you can see comes from the neuter nominative/accusative form. The genitive, or possessive, form was lost. And in Middle English, speakers began to use interrogative pronouns as relatives, probably under the influence of French. Here’s what the Old English interrogative pronouns looked like:

Case Masculine/Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative hwā hwæt hwā/hwæt
Accusative hwone hwæt hwone/hwæt
Genitive hwæs hwæs hwæs
Dative hwǣm hwǣm hwǣm
Instrumental hwȳ hwȳ hwǣm

(Wikipedia didn’t have an article or section on Old English interrogative pronouns, so I borrowed the forms from Wikibooks.)

On the masculine/feminine side, we get the ancestors of our modern who/whom/whose (hwā/hwǣm/hwæs), and on the neuter side, we get the ancestor of what (hwæt). Notice that the genitive forms for the two are the same—that is, although we think of whose being the possessive form of who, it’s historically also the possessive form of what.

But we don’t use what as a relative pronoun (well, some dialects do, but Standard English doesn’t); we use which instead. Which also had the full paradigm of case endings just like who/what that. But rather than bore you with more tables full of weird-looking characters, I’ll cut to the chase: which originally had a genitive form, but it too was lost when the Old English case system disappeared.

So of all the demonstrative and interrogative pronouns in English, only one survived with its own genitive form, who. (I don’t know why who hung on to its case forms while the others lost theirs; maybe that’s a topic for another day.) Speakers quite naturally used whose to fill that gap—and keep in mind that it was originally the genitive form of both the animate and inanimate forms of the interrogative pronoun, so English speakers originally didn’t have any qualms about employing it with inanimate relative pronouns, either.

But what does that mean for us today? Well, on the one hand, you can argue that whose as an inanimate relative possessive adjective has a long, well-established history. It’s been used by the best writers for centuries, so there’s no question that it’s standard. But on the other hand, this ignores the fact that some people think there’s something not quite right about it. After all, we don’t use whose as a possessive form of which or that in their interrogative or demonstrative functions. And although it has a long pedigree, another inanimate possessive with a long pedigree fell out of use and was replaced.

His was originally the possessive form of both he and it, but neuter his started to fall out of use and be replaced by a new form its in the sixteenth century. After English lost grammatical gender, people began to use he and she only for people and other animate things and it only for inanimate things. They started to feel a little uncomfortable using the original possessive form of it, his, with inanimate things, so they fashioned a new possessive, its, to replace it.

In other words, there’s precedence for disfavoring inanimate whose and using another word or construction instead. Unfortunately, now thats or whiches will never get off the ground, because they’ll be so heavily stigmatized as nonstandard forms. There are two different impulses fighting one another here: the impulse to have a full and symmetrical paradigm and the impulse to avoid using animate pronouns for inanimate things. Only time will tell which one wins out. For now, I’d say it’s good to remember that inanimate whose is frequently used by good writers and that there’s nothing wrong with it per se. In your own writing, just trust your ear.


Continua, Planes, and False Dichotomies

On Twitter, Erin Brenner asked, “How about a post on prescriptivism/descriptivism as a continuum rather than two sides? Why does it have to be either/or?” It’s a great question, and I firmly believe that it’s not an either-or choice. However, I don’t actually agree that prescriptivism and descriptivism occupy different points on a continuum, so I hope Erin doesn’t mind if I take this in a somewhat different direction from what she probably expected.

The problem with calling the two part of a continuum is that I don’t believe they’re on the same line. Putting them on a continuum, in my mind, implies that they share a common trait that is expressed to greater or lesser degrees, but the only real trait they share is that they are both approaches to language. But even this is a little deceptive, because one is an approach to studying language, while the other is an approach to using it.

I think the reason why we so often treat it as a continuum is that the more moderate prescriptivists tend to rely more on evidence and less on flat assertions. This makes us think of prescriptivists who don’t employ as much facts and evidence as occupying a point further along the spectrum. But I think this point of view does a disservice to prescriptivism by treating it as the opposite of fact-based descriptivism. This leads us to think that at one end, we have the unbiased facts of the language, and somewhere in the middle we have opinions based on facts, and at the other end, where undiluted prescriptivism lies, we have opinions that contradict facts. I don’t think this model makes sense or is really an accurate representation of prescriptivism, but unfortunately it’s fairly pervasive.

In its most extreme form, we find quotes like this one from Robert Hall, who, in defending the controversial and mostly prescription-free Webster’s Third, wrote: “The functions of grammars and dictionaries is to tell the truth about language. Not what somebody thinks ought to be the truth, nor what somebody wants to ram down somebody else’s throat, not what somebody wants to sell somebody else as being the ‘best’ language, but what people actually do when they talk and write. Anything else is not the truth, but an untruth.”1In Harold B. Allen et al., “Webster’s Third New International Dictionary: A Symposium,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 48 (December 1962): 434.

But I think this is a duplicitous argument, especially for a linguist. If prescriptivism is “what somebody thinks ought to be the truth”, then it doesn’t have a truth value, because it doesn’t express a proposition. And although what is is truth, what somebody thinks should be is not its opposite, untruth.

So if descriptivism and prescriptivism aren’t at different points on a continuum, where are they in relation to each other? Well, first of all, I don’t think pure prescriptivism should be identified with evidence-free assertionism, as Eugene Volokh calls it. Obviously there’s a continuum of practice within prescriptivism, which means it must exist on a separate continuum or axis from descriptivism.

I envision the two occupying a space something like this:

graph of descriptivism and prescriptivism

Descriptivism is concerned with discovering what language is without assigning value judgements. Linguists feel that whether it’s standard or nonstandard, correct or incorrect by traditional standards, language is interesting and should be studied. That is, they try to stay on the right side of the graph, mapping out human language in all its complexity. Some linguists like Hall get caught up in trying to tear down prescriptivism, viewing it as a rival camp that must be destroyed. I think this is unfortunate, because like it or not, prescriptivism is a metalinguistic phenomenon that at the very least is worthy of more serious study.

Prescriptivism, on the other hand, is concerned with good, effective, or proper language. Prescriptivists try to judge what best practice is and formulate rules to map out what’s good or acceptable. In the chapter “Grammar and Usage” in The Chicago Manual of Style, Bryan Garner says his aim is to guide “writers and editors toward the unimpeachable uses of language” (16th ed., 5.219, 15th ed., 5.201).

Reasonable or moderate prescriptivists try to incorporate facts and evidence from actual usage in their prescriptions, meaning that they try to stay in the upper right of the graph. Some prescriptivists stray into untruth territory on the left and become unreasonable prescriptivists, or assertionists. No amount of evidence will sway them; in their minds, certain usages are just wrong. They make arguments from etymology or from overly literal or logical interpretations of meaning. And quite often, they say something’s wrong just because it’s a rule.

So it’s clearly not an either-or choice between descriptivism and prescriptivism. The only thing that’s not really clear, in my mind, is how much of prescriptivism is reliable. That is, do the prescriptions actually map out something we could call “good English”? Quite a lot of the rules serve little purpose beyond serving “as a sign that the writer is unaware of the canons of usage”, to quote the usage entry on hopefully in the American Heritage Dictionary (5th ed.). Linguists have been so preoccupied with trying to debunk or discredit prescriptivism that they’ve never really stopped to investigate whether there’s any value to prescriptivists’ claims. True, there have been a few studies along those lines, but I think they’re just scratching the surface of what could be an interesting avenue of study. But that’s a topic for another time.

Notes   [ + ]

1. In Harold B. Allen et al., “Webster’s Third New International Dictionary: A Symposium,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 48 (December 1962): 434.


The Passive Voice Is Corrected by Buzzword

I was just reading this article about Adobe’s new online word processor, and something caught my eye. In the screenshot, there’s a sentence that’s highlighted, and a bubble in the margin says, “Passive wording fixed.” First of all, it makes me groan to think that so many people still think that the passive voice is simply something that should be fixed, but that’s a topic that’s been covered in a lot of depth elsewhere, notably Language Log, so I won’t get into that right now.

The real head-scratcher is that the sentence “It has some very nice features” is not one that can easily be made into a passive. Yes, it is transitive, so it meets the basic requirements, but I can’t imagine that any native English speaker would produce the sentence “Some very nice features are had [by it]” unless they were intentionally trying to create an example of when the passive voice is a poor choice.

More likely, I think, is that Buzzword misidentified some other type of construction—perhaps there is/are—as the passive voice and then corrected it. There’s a lot of grammatical advice out there right now that makes the same sort of mistakes. Heck, even Bryan Garner and staff members of the Chicago Manual of Style get it wrong.

Unfortunately, I don’t have access to the trial of Buzzword, so I can’t test out its grammar checker to see if this is the case. If anyone knows more about it, please let me know.


Editing Chicago

Those who have worked with me before may remember that I was once nicknamed “The Index to The Chicago Manual of Style” (or just “The Index” for short) because I always knew where to find everything that anyone needed to look up. I’ve always been a fan of the big orange book. It is so painstakingly thorough, so comprehensive, so detailed—what’s not to like? But I must admit that I was rather disappointed with the new chapter on grammar and usage in the fifteenth edition.

In theory it sounded like a great addition. However, when I recieved my copy and started flipping through it, I quickly realized that the new chapter was marginally helpful at best and outright incorrect at worst, though most of it settled comfortably on the middle ground of merely useless.

One passage in particular caught my attention and just about made my eyes bug out when I read it. For those of you who would like to follow along at home, it’s section 5.113:

Progressive conjugation and voice. If an inflected form of to be is joined with the verb’s present participle, a progressive conjugation is produced {the ox is pulling the cart}. The progressive conjugation is in active voice because the subject is performing the action, not being acted on.

Anyone who knows their grammar should know that a construction can be both progressive and passive; the two are not mutually exclusive. And anyone who knows how to spot a passive construction should realize that the section illustrates how wrong it is with the last three words, “being acted on.”

You see, while it is not technically a passive, but rather a pseudo-passive*, it shows that you can take an inflected form of be, in this case “is,” followed by a present participle, “being,” followed by a past participle, “acted.” Voila! You have a passive progressive. I wrote the Chicago staff a nice e-mail saying that maybe I had misunderstood, but it seemed to me that there was a contradiction here. Here’s what they wrote back:

Yes, I think perhaps you are misunderstanding the point here. Section 5.113 seeks to prevent an inaccurate extension of 5.112, which states that “the passive voice is always formed by joining an inflected form of to be (or, in colloquial usage, to get) with the verb’s past participle.” In 5.113, CMS points out that phrases like “the subject is not being acted on,” which might look passive, are actually constructed with a present participle, rather than a past participle, and are active in voice. (Note that the subject—the word “subject”—is performing the action of not being; this is active, not passive.)

Thank you for writing


So not only does the anonymous staff member confuse syntax and semantics, but they aren’t even bothering to analyze the verb phrase as a whole. I wrote back to explain myself in more detail. I even cited a web page from Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab. Notice the second example. Here’s their response:

Well, I’ve done my best to defend Mr. Garner’s take on the subject, but I’ll be happy to add your letter to our file of suggested corrections and additions to CMS. If you wish to explore this question further, you might take the matter up with experts at grammar Web sites and help pages. Meanwhile, please write us again if you have a question about Chicago style. –Staff

Apparently the creators of the Purdue University Online Writing Lab don’t count as experts at a grammar Web site. The sad thing is that there are a lot of editors in the world like this anonymous staffer, completely lacking the analytic tools and grammatical knowledge necessary to identify such problems and make such arguments. A good editor should know that Bryan Garner’s take on the subject is misleading and incorrect. It’s become apparent to me that many of the self-appointed guardians of the language don’t even know what it is they’re guarding.


*I’d like to thank Geoffrey Pullum for pointing out this distinction. The construction in the end of the quoted section is not a true passive because the verb is technically intransitive; it only seems to be transitive because of the stranded preposition. Notice that the “active” form (which is not actually active according to some definitions), “the subject is acting,” is intransitive and contains no preposition, stranded or otherwise.

The genesis of this post goes traces back several months. I was reading Language Log, notably some posts by Geoffrey Pullum on the passive voice, and felt inspired to write to him. He pointed out that he had already written about the issue, but he said that he was so surprised by the staffer’s response that he would write about it on Language Log and appoint me an honorary deputy. Sadly, he never got around to writing that post, but I was recently reading Far from the Madding Gerund and was reminded of the whole thing, so I decided to write about it myself.

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