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May 20, 2003

Cross words.

Daniel Radosh

Clare Boyle, sophomore at James Hubert Blake HS ("And student of the wonderful Kevin Keegan") has a little remedial education for Francis and Rose:

I personally think Kevin Keegan is correct. Here is another example sentence to show the ambiguity that occurs when a pronoun is incorrectly used to replace an adjective:

Frank's textbook helps him study for tests.

If this sentence appeared in isolation on the PSAT, students could be confused by the word "his," since is does not directly refer to anything. In this instance, Frank could have lent his textbook to Bob, and Bob uses it to study for tests. We are unclear about to whom "his" is referring. It could be, "Frank's textbook helps him (referring to Bob) study for tests." Keegan is right in saying that a pronoun cannot modify an adjective (which possessive nouns are) because it is unclear what subject the pronoun is modifying. This is a rule that I learned in Catholic school in 6th grade, and I was one of those students who chose "A" on the PSAT and got marked wrong for actually knowing the correct answer. I'm just happy Mr. Keegan gave me my rightfully deserved point back on my score.

Pretty persuasive. Lucky for me, writing for a living requires no actual understanding of grammar. I'm still open to being swayed by whatever new arguments come down the pike. And whether this Keegan guy is ultimately right or wrong, anyone who challenges the Standardized Testing Gods is A-OK in my book.

Update: Rose ain't having this shit. And, unlike me, she ain't pulling her punches just because her challenger is a teenager. (And, also unlike me, Rose has a good grasp of the elements of grammar). Her reply to Clare:

I'm confused here: why does she keep saying "his" when it doesn't appear in the sentence? And aren't these people just being willful? In isolation, the sentence "Frank's textbook helps him study for tests," clearly refers to Frank. If there are two sentences, "Bob borrowed a book from Frank. Frank's textbook helps him study for tests," then "him" refers to Bob. That's what pronouns and possessive adjectives do, for God's sake -- they refer to different things at different times!

Here is another bizarre sentence: "Keegan is right in saying that a pronoun cannot modify an adjective (which possessive nouns are) because it is unclear what subject the pronoun is modifying." What the fuck is she talking about? There are no pronouns "modifying adjectives" in either her example sentence or the original one. The possessive adjectival form of the pronoun is *referring* to a proper noun's adjectival form.

I think the confusion (which seems entirely made up to me) is because the word "her" is both the objective case of the pronoun "she" as well as the possessive adjectival form, whereas the word "him" is the objective case of the pronoun "he" but the possessive adjectival form is "his".

Saying that someone "could be confused" by a sentence that contains a pronoun seems like precisely the kind of sophomoric sophistry I would expect from a bright high school sophomore. She should do well in politics.

And I'm pissed off at having to use the word "adjectival" so damned many times. A pox on these people!

While I would not stoop to calling anyone a nascent politician, and, as I have said, am stoopid about rules, I do have a gut affinity for Rose's argument that a good reader can trust her ear as to whether something is correct, and need not go seeking confusion where there is none -- it's how I manage to make a living at the word game without knowing exactly what I'm doing. Is the problem here that standardized tests reward excessive fealty to rules and punish common sense? Or is Rose just plain right, and Mr. Keegan wrong? Answer the question, Clare.

Or perhaps Mr. K can weigh in himself. Feel free to curse, sir. Rose can handle it.

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