Word of the week

Word of the week: pronoun

A pronoun is, simply, a word that takes the place of a noun. He, she, you, they and it are all pronouns. They (pronouns) can cause trouble. When pronouns come up in conversation (and they do) I usually recall a story I heard Lesley Anne Down tell in the early 1980s on the TV show “Clapperboard”. She was being interviewed about a movie she had made with Sir John Gielgud. IMDB tells me that it (the movie) was called “Sphinx”, and was directed by Franklin J Schaffner (Oscar-winning director of “Patton”).

Ms Down’s story was about Gielgud’s advice for her before the first read-through of the script. “I always find, my dear, that it helps to emphasize the pronouns”. “So,” she said, “I looked up the word pronoun, and marked them all in my script …” At the read-through she emphasized each pronoun, as advised, and at first things seemed to be going well. Everybody seemed happy. There were smiles and laughter. After a while the smiles turned to frowns and the laughter was replaced by silence, and Sir John Gielgud looked rather cross. They took a break and the director suggested that although her mimicry of Sir John been amusing at the start, it was time to stop. She had no idea that she was mimicking him. It was not her intention.

Possessive pronouns (my, your, his, her, its, their) indicate when something (or someone) belongs to something (or someone) else. The English language uses possessive pronouns better than many other languages do.

Many years ago my wife (possessive pronoun there, it suggests that she belongs to me, although she might not feel that way) had a study partner, a student from Brazil. She (my wife) visited her (the Brazilian student) at her (the student’s) place in South London. While we (my wife and I) were catching up that evening she told me that her friend lived “with her brother and her boyfriend”. English pronouns told me what the relationships were without any further explanation. In Spanish the words “his” and “her” are represented by the word “su”. The English phrase “with her brother and her boyfriend” translates into Spanish as “su hermano y su amigo”. It’s not clear what the relationships are. It could mean “with her brother and her boyfriend” or “with her brother and his boyfriend”, which is something else altogether. There is ambiguity about possessive pronouns in Spanish, and in other languages, even though they assign gender to nouns. Cars are masculine (although they’re feminine in French and neuter in German), the sun is masculine and the moon is feminine. But there is no way to distinguish “his”, “her”, or indeed “its”. What the bloody hell is that all about? This bugs me, as you can probably tell.

There is scope for ambiguity with English pronouns too but you can usually work out what’s being referred to. I recently heard the Brotherhood of Man song “Angelo” on the radio and noticed, for the first time, pronoun ambiguity in the chorus. You can listen to the song here (for educational purposes, you know) to check out the story of shepherd boy Angelo (who lived, long ago, high on a mountain in Mexico) and his unnamed, wealthier lover (“Rich was she, came from a very high family…”). Despite the jaunty music (and the smiles on the faces of the singers in the clip) this story has an unhappy ending: “They knew it wasn’t wrong / They found a love so strong / They took their lives at night / And in the morning light / They found them on the sand / They saw them lying there, hand-in-hand”. The first three uses of the word “They” clearly refer to Angelo and his lover. But what about the fourth and fifth instances? Who are “They”? They found them on the sand, they saw them lying there, but we don’t know who they are. You have to be careful with pronouns. I have to be careful with pronouns. We all have to be careful with pronouns.

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