A medal for pronoun case

In today’s Stanford News, a report by Dayo Mitchell, “The projects conducted by the winners of the 2016 Firestone and Golden medals and the Kennedy Prize represent the breadth of the undergraduate experience at Stanford. They included research on germ cell, federal farm animal policy, the tailoring industry in Naples, ethics and autonomous vehicles, and the writings of author Zadie Smith.”

Thirty-five graduating seniors were recognized recently for their outstanding thesis projects. They are recipients of the 2016 Firestone Medal for Excellence in Undergraduate Research, the Robert M. Golden Medal for Excellence in Humanities and Creative Arts; and the David M. Kennedy Honors Thesis Prize.

The prizewinners represent 24 academic departments and all three schools with undergraduate programs

Among the eight Goldens was

Tyler Lemon, “An Examination of the Distribution and Variation of Non-Coordinated Pronoun Case Forms in English,” linguistics, advised by Tom Wasow (linguistics).

(I helped out).

Graduation was a month ago, and the final version of the thesis had to be submitted a month before that. On May 27th, Tyler gave a departmental presentation on his thesis (yes, the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, but he still got a decent audience). Below, material from the handout for that presentation, with some alterations and comments (in square brackets) from me.

Abstract: This thesis examines the case variation in English exhibited by non-coordinated pronouns in a number of different environments including in isolation; after not; with following NP, PP, or NumP modifiers; in than and as comparatives; and as the focus of it-clefts. The thesis discusses the results of an acceptability judgment experiment in which participants were asked to rate pronouns of different case and person/number combinations on a 7-point Likert scale and the results of a corpus study done on many of the same environments in an attempt to measure the influence of prescriptivism on pronoun case in English. Participants in the experiment generally preferred accusative pronouns in isolation, after not, in than and as comparatives, and as the focus of it-clefts. With following NP, PP, or NumP modifiers, the preferred case matched the structural case being assigned to the pronoun (in subject or object position). The corpus study largely corroborated these findings, but the use of nominative pronouns in environments subject to prescriptive pressure increased markedly in more formal genres (spoken, newspaper, magazine, fiction, and academic), especially academic writing. Taking all of these findings into account, I propose structural analyses of all the environments studied and develop an Optimality Theory] grammar [a framework that weights various conditions on a construction to predict the observed range of resolutions of conflicts between those conditrions] that models the competition between structural case, default case, and prescriptivism in multi-word [NP]s in subject and object position and explains in part the relative acceptability of pronouns of different cases in the same environments.

[First, examples, beginning with coordination — not the topic of the thesis, but nevertheless important because of the difference between lone pronouns and coordinated pronouns.]

Coordination: (1) a. {She/Her} and Sandy went to the store yesterday. b. {She/*Her} went to the store yesterday.
(2) a. This one is for you and {I/me}. b. This one is for {*I/me}.

[Then the crucial sorts of examples.]

Cardinal number modifier: (3) We/Us} three have to be leaving now.

Prepositional phrase (PP) modifier: (4) How much would {?we/us} with insurance have to pay?

Nominal (NP) modifier: (5) {We/Us} linguists are a crazy bunch.

It-clefts: (6) a. It was {?she/her} that won the contest. b. It was {?she/her} that John saw.

Than comparative: (7) Sarah is taller than {?I/me}.

As comparative: (8) Sarah is as tall as {?I/me}.

After not: (9) Who took the cookies? – Not {?I/me}.

[After discussion of these cases and a presentation of the judgment data and the OT analysis, there’s a concluding section on an important generalization. From the text of the thesis itself:]

The major generalization to emerge from the work done in this thesis is that the case forms of pronouns in the language can display high variability, but only when the [NP] is complex, which I am defining here as having more than one terminal node. In laymen’s terms, this could be defined as a [NP] that consists of more than one word. This generalization was first noticed to my knowledge by Arnold Zwicky and discussed in … posts on his blog and on Language Log concerning the intricacies of pronoun case in English [an inventory of many of these postings can be found on a Page in this blog], so I believe that it is appropriate to give him credit. The formalization given [below], however, is in my terms.

(166)   Zwicky’s Generalization
Case assignment/checking in English does not reliably penetrate [NP]s with more than one terminal node.

[I’m quite sure that Tyler’s) (166) is not original with me, but I can’t put my finger on my own source (nor could Tom Wasow, Tyler’s adviser), and Tyler didn’t find a better source, so he gave me credit faute de mieux.]

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