Thursday, May 15, 2003

This is from the Weekly Standard; apparently there's been a stink about one of the questions on the PSAT. David Skinner's point is that the question 'Are there any grammatical errors in this sentence:"Toni Morrison's genius enables her to create novels that arise from and express the injustices African Americans have endured".' is obviously a patronizing token bone thrown to the minority pride lobby. Why make your example sentence a paean to the genius of an author who is, to say the least, controversial? There are five hundred American authors more worthy of being cited as genii ahead of Toni Morrison. Some of them are even black. Well, if the black community isn't complaining about this tokenism, then I'm not.

What bugs me is that, according to Skinner, the original correct answer was "No errors", but some smartypants said that the sentence was grammatically incorrect on the grounds that the pronoun "her" is incorrect because it refers to "Toni Morrison's genius", which would be an "it", I suppose. The PSAT had to replace the question.

Ridiculous. Just recast the sentence like this: "Toni Morrison's genius allows Toni Morrison to spout off massive quantities of horsehockey." This is quite plainly the meaning of the original sentence, slightly modified. Now let's apply the law that says we substitute a pronoun for a noun whenever possible to avoid repeating the noun. "Toni Morrison" is the noun we don't want to repeat. "Toni Morrison" is a feminine noun, last I checked. I suppose she mighta had one of them operations, but I ain't heard about it yet, so let's replace the second "Toni Morrison" with the appropriate feminine pronoun, which is "her" because the second "Toni Morrison" is the direct object and so the pronoun takes the objective case.

You don't believe me, do you? Well, let's make up some parallel examples.

1) "Noam Chomsky's prejudices allow him to perform flights of fancy in his alleged logic." Gee, that sounds grammatically correct to me.
2) "The Democratic Party's habitual stupidity will allow the Republican Party to sweep the 2004 elections." No pronoun replacement of the object. Any problem there? Nope. So how about this one:
3) "The Democratic Party's habitual stupidity will cause it to get its clock cleaned in 2004." We replace "the Democratic Party" with "it" because "the Democratic Party" is neuter. We didn't replace "the Republican Party" in the second example because it was the first time that body was mentioned in the sentence. "The Republican Party" had no antecedent. But in Example 3 "the Democratic Party" has an antecedent. That antecedent doesn't have to be the subject; in this case it's a possessive.

The error that the smartypants made is that of believing that a pronoun must be in the same case as its antecedent. The pronoun must actually be in the same case as the noun it replaces.

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