Persnickety about Pronouns

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A line from a news arti­cle I read today at the New York Times blog for Kin­dle (and, yes, I know I said I wouldn’t reveal sources when I turn writ­ing errors into teach­ing moments, but some­how I think the Times is big enough to take it from li’l ol’ me; I won’t name the author, though):

“Mr. Blago­je­vich, a Demo­c­rat whose for­mer aides say once saw him­self as a pres­i­den­tial con­tender some day, was found guilty…”

To be fair to the writer, this is a really tricky con­struc­tion. I had to reread it a few times to even sort out whether it was incor­rect or not. But, alas, it is. You can prob­a­bly tell that, too, when you read it through slowly enough; doesn’t that sec­tion between com­mas sound a bit “off”? Just because a sen­tence is long and fancy, we mustn’t assume it’s auto­mat­i­cally right.

The prob­lem here is ask­ing one pro­noun to serve two pur­poses — one of which it is not made to serve, ever. The over­bur­dened pro­noun is “whose.” Poor pos­ses­sive pro­noun is being asked to serve as a nom­i­na­tive (or sub­ject) pro­noun at the same time, and it’s sim­ply not pos­si­ble! It almost sounds right because we need to hear the word “who” and we hear “whose”; our brains are nearly con­vinced we’ve heard a cor­rect sen­tence… but not quite. The sen­tence requires the word “who,” and “whose” can be replaced with “his.” So here is how the sen­tence would read with each nec­es­sary ele­ment of gram­mar present to carry its own load:

“Mr. Blago­je­vich, a Demo­c­rat who, his for­mer aides say, once saw him­self as a pres­i­den­tial con­tender some day, was found guilty…”

You might argue that the sen­tence is a bit unwieldy, overly stuffed with pro­nouns, and try­ing to cram too much infor­ma­tion ahead of a period. But at least you can’t argue any longer that the sen­tence is incorrect.


So, have you read any sen­tences lately that sound a lit­tle “off”? Send them my way (by post­ing a com­ment below), and let’s see if we can sort it out together.

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