Notes from school

Last week’s notes from my grand-daughter’s school included this report from a student in the middle school:

In L.A [Language Arts — what used to be called English] we had a lesson on how to organize a story with a follow-up question: Do people make decisions with his head or her heart.

Now, people is plural, used for generic reference, so the standard pronoun anaphoric to it is they (their in the possessive): with their head or (with) their heart. Why go with singular his or her instead?

Two possible factors. One, people doesn’t look plural; it doesn’t have a plural suffix. And two, peevish objections to “singular they“, even with generic antecedents — Everybody thinks either with their head or (with) their heart — have led people to be suspicious of anaphoric they with generic antecedents, even when these are in fact plural. The proscription against singular they has contaminated ordinary anaphoric usage. (For other cases of proscriptions contaminating perfectly innocent constructions, see here.)

These weekly reports are created from interviews with the students in questions, so we can’t be sure who’s the source of this peculiar anaphora.

In the same newsletter, there’s a report from my grand-daughter that I admired:

This week we’ve been testing our group projects for science fair. My group has been seeing how to filter water from a flower pot with blotting paper and coarse sand inside. In science we had a lesson on the food chain. In the lesson they taught how sunlight helped grow the plants which were then eaten by the omnivores and herbivores that then were eaten by the carnivores. For P.E we played dribble knock-out, where you dribble a basketball while trying to hit other peoples’ balls out of boundaries.

This is syntactically complex, but clear. It has nice sentence-to-sentence links, making for cohesive text:

our group projects … My group …

a lesson on the food chain … In the lesson …

And it has explicit (and parallel) markers of topic shift after the first topic, so that the larger structure of the text is made clear:

In science …

For P.E …

Not bad for 2nd grade.

As a bonus, the passage has a restrictive relativizer which (in addition to a following restrictive relativizer that) — despite the fact that at least one teacher in the school proscribes it. Readers of Language Log and this blog will remember that my linguistics crew deprecates this proscription. In fact, I have no quarrel with the which above — didn’t even notice it on my first two readings — although I will point out that the sentence is one that could be written with either restrictive or non-restrictive relative clauses in it. The alternative version:

sunlight helped grow the plants, which were then eaten by the omnivores and herbivores, which then were eaten by the carnivores

This has a nice chaining of parallel constructions, but the definite article in the plants isn’t motivated in this version, while in the restrictive-relative version, the definite article goes along with the restrictive relative modifier.

(If you’d like parallelism and restrictive relatives, then you can use parallel relativizers: either which … which or that … that, according to your taste.)


3 Responses to “Notes from school”

  1. Dennis Preston Says:

    Shouldn’t the target of this be “…his or her head or heart”? As it stands, it seems to suggest a dichotomy between male heads and female hearts, adding stereotypical sexism where the initial motivation would appear to have been avoidance.

  2. Rick Sprague Says:

    There might also have been an urge to avoid the suggestion of supernumerary body parts inherent in “Do people think with their heads or their hearts”, though it’s hard to imagine anyone being truly confused about it.

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