Just In: NYT Violates PAP!

I haven’t posted for some time on the Possessive Antecedent Proscription (PAP), a fictitious principle of English usage/grammar that bars possessive-marked nouns as antecedents for personal pronouns, as in this NYT front-page headline on October 9:

Astor’s Son Is Convicted of Stealing From Her

Astor’s (referring to Brooke Astor, “the legendary New York society matriarch”) is the possessive-marked noun, and it serves as antecedent for the personal pronoun her (functioning here as the object of the preposition from).

Most readers will fail to see any problem with the NYT headline, but a few will recoil from it. These will be people who have been explicitly taught the PAP, in school or in a usage handbook or style sheet. I have yet to come across anyone who tacitly induced the PAP from their linguistic experience. In fact, in my experience everyone who espouses the PAP violates it (with no apparent awareness of having mis-stepped) on occasion. (I used to track such violations down, but it was a time-consuming and unrewarding occupation, and I’ve given it up.)

[Before I go on, let me say that if you want to cleave to the PAP, that’s fine. If you do so, no one will criticize you for your bit of harmless nuttiness (sort of like not stepping on the cracks in sidewalks). Just don’t go around slapping people down for not sharing your avoidance of possessive antecedents.]

The PAP seems to be mostly a product of three bad ideas:

(1) the idea that pronouns are simply replacements for repeated nouns (“That’s why they’re called pronouns, dummy!”);

(2) the idea that possessive-marked nouns are adjectives (because they modify — in some sense of modify — nouns), so of course — see (1) — they can’t serve as antecedents for pronouns; and

(3) the idea that if a linguistic element can in some way contribute to difficulty in understanding, ambiguity, unclarity, or awkwardness, then it should always be barred.

Idea (3) is breath-takingly silly, though it’s trotted out again and again as ammunition against some usage or construction a writer doesn’t like; the writer cites some examples, involving the item in question, where one of these defects arises. Taken at face value, (3) would prohibit speech and writing completely.

The other two ideas spring from more technical misapprehensions, both with long histories in the Western intellectual tradition. But in both cases, they are just hypotheses, however venerable, and most modern linguists reject them, for good reason.

For a more extended discussion of the PAP, see the material here (please check this before you comment on this posting), and note these Language Log postings:

GP, 10/5/03: Menand’s acumen deserts him: (link)

AZ, 10/8/03: Louis Menand’s pronouns: (link)

AZ, 10/21/03: Grammaticality, anaphora, and all that: (link)

AZ, 10/23/03: In search of the fimpossant: (link)

AZ, 2/20/06: Collateral damage: (link)

AZ, 5/22/08: More theory trumping practice: (link)

2 Responses to “Just In: NYT Violates PAP!”

  1. Robin Says:

    Interestingly, I don’t like that headline, but haven’t been taught anything about PAP. It just doesn’t scan well for me. The feeling I have is that it just ends weakly, and I don’t think it gets any closer to being rational than that.

    Basically, if I wrote something like that in something important, I’d probably rephrase it on proofreading, although I expect that a headline like that would be hard to fix.

  2. Copyediting Tip of the Week: Macbeth’s mind « Copyediting Blog Says:

    […] “Just In: NYC Violates PAP!” […]

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