Motherhood and stupid PAP

Starting around the 9th, making the rounds on Facebook, a Daily Mail (U.K.) story from 2016, with a disturbing video under the heading (H):

This mother took her children’s phones and shot them to teach them a lesson!

 
(#1) You can watch the video here

(H) presents a series of complexities in interpretation, having to do with the reference of the two anaphoric pronouns them, with respect to two potential antecedent NPs: the determiner NP her children (marked as possessive) and the argument NP her children’s phones (here serving as the direct object argument of the verb took).

Pronouns and their antecedents. Call the two relevant NPs α (the determiner) and β (the direct object argument). Then (H) can be annotated as follows:

 
(#2) where α is doubly underlined, β singly underlined; and them-1 is the direct object of shot, them-2 the indirect object of teach

Now, about pronominal reference. An NP indirect object of teach normally refers to a sentient being, usually a human being — you can teach someone a lesson, but normally you can’t teach an inanimate object a lesson — so that real-world plausibility tells us that

(a) the antecedent of them-2 is α (and not β)

Next, α and β are in parallel syntactic positions (immediately following their verbs), which would (other things being equal) incline readers to take them to have the same referent, α rather than β; and that interpretation accords with the fact that a direct oject of shoot is at least prototypically a living thing (though that effect is considerably weaker than the effect with teach); we’re more likely to shoot people rather than inanimate objects (though people have been known to shoot television sets and computers). So if you haven’t actually looked at the video, then:

(b) the antecedent of them-1 is probably α (and not β)

On my first reading of (H), I took them-1 as well as them-2 to be referring to the woman’s children. A truly extreme punishment for using cellphones. (I might have been encouraged in this interpretation by the very common professorial fantasy of killing students whose phones ring during class.) But the video, though alarming, isn’t that alarming: the mother shoots the phones (β), not the kids (α).

In any case, I quickly saw that for me, (H) is ambiguous between the kid-shooting and the phone-shooting interpretations.

The Daily Mail story. On 4/9/16 by Anneta Konstantinides, beginning:

“‘I hereby denounce the effects social media have on my children’: Hilarious moment”

Southern mom SHOOTS her ‘disobedient’ children’s iPhones to smithereens…then pounds them with a sledgehammer to finish the job

– The mother perches the phone on a tree trunk, and nails it on her first shot

– It explodes to bits and sends pieces flying into the grass

– The camera then shows her three children, one of whom flips a double bird

– Mother gives speech about how she is stopping them from ‘contacting people they don’t know’ and getting into ‘drama’ and trouble at school

(Yes, the full Crazy Redneck Woman treatment.)

The video. The immediate source of the video is Jukin Media. From Wikipedia:

Jukin Media, Inc. is an entertainment company that operates by identifying shareable or otherwise compelling user-generated videos, negotiating with the video owners, and then licensing the videos for third-party use and/or featuring the videos in its own productions. The company was founded in 2009 by Jonathan Skogmo, Aldo Carrascoso and Josh Entman and is headquartered in Los Angeles, California.

… it aggregate[s] and monetize[s] digital clips that appeared on YouTube and other online video platforms

(Some of its hits: “Jared Frank kicked in the head”, “Hero Cat”, “Pizza Rat”, “Chewbacca Mom”.)

I don’t know where Jukin Media got it from.

Ambiguity: shoot the kids, or shoot the phones? The ambiguity is available in some simpler phrasings than the one in (H). From the 11th, from a posting, with the video, by the DJ Kobi on the Radio Now 98.9 site (WNRW, serving the Louisville KY area; WNRW is a Top 40 (CHR) — Contemporary Hit Radio — station):

Redneck Parenting Tip 102: Ur Kids Won’t Put Down Their Phones? Shoot Em!

(Here, the NP referring to the children is a subject argument and the NP referring to the phones is a direct object argument.)

The PAP. Kobi’s heading is straightforwardly ambiguous between kid-shooting and phone-shooting. But there are misguided folks around (some of them people of reputation and influence) who maintain that with respect to the reference of them-1 in (H), only the phone-shooting (β) interpretation is available; and that in fact them-2 in (H) cannot have the teaching kids a lesson (α) interpretation — only the preposterous teaching phones a lesson (β) interpretation. That is, they insist that as it stands, (H) is flatly ungrammatical.

From my 10/11/09 posting “Just In: NYT Violates PAP!”, about the headline example Astor’s Son is Convicted of Stealing From Her (where her must be understood as referring to [Brooke] Astor):

The Possessive Antecedent Proscription (PAP) [is] a fictitious principle of English usage/grammar that bars possessive-marked nouns [like Astor’s] as antecedents for personal pronouns

… 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…

[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.

There’s now a Page on Possessive antecedents on this blog. The earliest postings linked to there are mostly about an example from an American PSAT (Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test): Toni Morrison’s genius enables her to create novels that arise from and express the injustices African Americans have endured. Toni Morrison’s genius enables her to… is formally parallel to Astor’s Son is Convicted of Stealing From Her and in fact to …took her children’s phones … to teach them a lesson.

All, I maintain, impeccable, despite their violating the PAP.

The title of this posting. A little play on the idiom motherhood and apple pie. From the HOT Idioms site, vol. 2, issue 4, on this idiom [and the variant mom and apple pie]:

Basic principles or values with which everyone agrees … A “motherhood and apple pie” issue is an issue which is universally agreed upon just as no one would disparage “motherhood” and everyone likes apple pie.

Also, can mean something that is very “American”, [as in] “As American as baseball, hotdogs, motherhood and apple pie”.

3 Responses to “Motherhood and stupid PAP”

  1. astraya Says:

    I had previously read Geoffrey Pullum’s article about the PSAT test question: http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/000027.html. The teacher in that case and Louis Menand’s take on the sentence in question here would presumably be that ‘them’ cannot possibly refer to the children and can only possibly refer to the phones, in which case there is no possible ambiguity.

  2. astraya Says:

    Sorry, on re-reading I’ve noticed that there are two ‘them’s, in the sentence, both of which presumably refer to the phones! That’ll teach them a lesson!!

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Yes, I say that: the second them would have to be refer to the phones, on the Menand view — but it doesn’t, so the Menand view would treat the whole sentence as ungrammatical.

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