Too Much Determination

by Mark L. Levinson

“TiePlumb helps you straighten the necktie that you’re wearing it.”  I looked up from the headline of the mocked-up ad into the turquoise-lidded eyes of Levona the Marketing Princess.

“Just one small correction,” I said.  I handed the mock-up back with the “it” crossed out, and as the eyes of Levona reconsidered the text, I conceived of a wonderful invention:  it should be possible to ring your own telephone by pushing a pedal hidden under your desk.  That would have got rid of her before she could ask.

“Why?” she asked.

I knew I couldn’t put across an explanation, but perhaps I could at least put across the impression that I think I know what I’m talking about.  “It comes down to a difference between English and Hebrew,” I said.  “The word ‘it,’ in the objective case, can serve as a relative pronoun in Hebrew but not in English.” 

She looked at me a moment.  Then she said ambiguously, “My boss remembers you from Scitex,” and she left.

Botched grammatical links are widespread, even apart from Hebrew-inspired clauses like “the necktie that you’re wearing it,” where “that” fills the role of relative pronoun and “it” remains unable to participate in the same role.  I’ve collected a few examples of one error that seems to be contagious among sentences that start with “For.”

“For each row, enter its values as follows,” said one spec that crossed my desk.

Commenting on the successor to Christopher Reeve as the movies’ Superman, a Houston Chronicle article says:  “For millions of fans, Reeve is their Superman.”

In the Jerusalem Post, Michael Freund writes:  “For some, particularly those on the Left, the encirclement of Israel by hostile forces is what underlies their determination to reach a final deal as quickly as possible with Mahmoud Abbas.”

In each of those three cases, a possessive pronoun superfluously attributes the noun (“its values,” “their Superman,” “their determination”) to the noun to which the word “For” has already, in its own way, attributed it.  If I have my linguistics jargon straight, the noun is thus doubly determined.

It would have been enough to say “For millions of fans, Reeve is Superman;” or “Reeve is the Superman of millions of fans.” From one point of view, the redundant version — “For millions of fans, Reeve is their Superman” — seems to violate the author’s intent by hinting at an alternative, as if while for millions of fans Reeve may be their Superman, another actor may be the Superman of those same fans for somebody else. (The fashionable philosophy that there is no universal truth, but only a truth for me and a truth for you, may have slipped out of control there, as well as elsewhere.)

From another point of view, the problem is that the possessive pronoun can’t properly refer back to the object of the preposition (for example, “their” can’t refer back to “millions of fans”) because the prepositional phrase is a little realm of its own at the start of the sentence, serving as a whole to modify the rest of the sentence as a whole, and a noun from elsewhere in the sentence can’t just break through the phrase’s perimeter and pick out an individual word to relate to.

On the copyeditors’ list back in 2005, a practice question for the Scholastic Aptitude Test raised eyebrows by evidently expecting the student to flag an antecedent as improper not because it was in a prepositional phrase but because it was in the possessive case.  “Shel Silverstein’s books can be easily identified by the black-and-white cartoon-style drawings he created to accompany his writing.”  The idea is that “he” can’t refer back to Silverstein because Silverstein has taken the form of a possessive adjective.  Wikipedia says: “This rule does not reflect ordinary English usage, and it is commonly ignored (intentionally or otherwise) even by those who have heard of it.”

So now you’ve heard of it too.  But do be careful of the prepositional phrases.

Comments and questions are welcome:  ]]

Mark L. Levinson

Born 1948 a few trolley stops from Boston, Massachusetts. Bachelor's degree from Harvard College. Moved to Israel in 1970. Worked and learned Hebrew on Kibbutz Ramat Hashofet. Moved to Haifa and worked teaching English to adults. Did similar work in the army. After discharge, turned to technical writing, initially for Elbit. Then promotional writing for Scitex, and more technical (and occasionally promotional) writing for Edunetics, Daisy Systems (later named Dazix, SEE Technologies, and Summit Design), Memco, and Gilian. Also translated from Hebrew to English, everything from business articles to fiction, filmscripts, and poetry. Served as local chapter president for the Society for Technical Communication, editor of several issues of local literary journals, occasional political columnist and book reviewer for the Jerusalem Post, and husband & father.