Tuesday May 29, 2012
By FADZILAH AMIN
How do you use the pronouns ‘they’, ‘whose’ and ‘which’?
Scene: a classroom in Malaysia
Teacher: What are these red chairs doing in this room? They need to be moved to the classroom next door where they belong.
Student: Teacher, why do you use “they” for chairs? Shouldn’t “they” be used for people only, like mereka in BM?
Teacher: Ah! The pronoun “they” in English has a wider area of meaning than mereka. It can stand for animals, plants and non-living things as well.
Indeed, it can. The teacher was me some years ago, teaching a group of very bright Malay school-leavers. The scene above was clearly a case of first language interference when learning a second language.
I had been puzzled before that as to why the students I taught avoided using the pronoun “they”, “them” and “their” for non-humans. They opted instead for repetitions of nouns, like: “I bought some books at the bookshop last month. The books were so interesting that I don’t regret spending my money on the books.”
Another word that is mistakenly thought to have reference only to people is “whose”. We are familiar with sentences like “The man whose car was stolen has to take a bus to work now.” But a sentence like the following is also correct: “The house whose roof was blown away by very strong winds has been vacated by its occupants.”
But what part of speech is “whose” in the above contexts? It is sometimes classified as a relative pronoun because it begins a relative clause, but some dictionaries classify it as a determiner and others as an adjective. Bas Aarts in Oxford Modern English Grammar (2011) calls it a genitive (indicating possession or close association) relative pronoun functioning as a determiner. “Whose” must also be followed by a noun or noun group.
Let us see what “whose” replaces in the two sentences I quoted before. In order to eliminate “whose”, the first sentence will have to be rewritten as “The man the car of whom was stolen, has to take a bus to work now.” The second sentence will have to be rewritten as “The house, the roof of which was blown away by very strong winds, has been vacated by its occupants.”
Both sentences are clumsy, right? “Whose” takes away the clumsiness and is used in place of “the” before the noun and “of whom” or “of which” after the noun. Again, does it matter what part of speech it is, as long as we can use it correctly? It is such a neat little word to use in a relative clause.
Perhaps some people avoid using “whose” because it is erroneously thought to refer only to people due to its close association with “who”.
Speaking of “who”, some Malaysian students I have taught didn’t realise that as a relative pronoun, “who” can stand only for a person or people, “which” only for non-humans, but “that” can be used for both, except in a non-identifying clause (see my article in MOE on May 22). In a non-identifying clause, only “who” can be used for a person or people.
Thus we can use either “who” or “that” in a sentence like: “The person who/that brought her up is her grandmother.”, because “who/that brought her up” is an identifying relative clause. But we can only use “who” in a sentence like “Her grandmother, who is very kind, brought her up.” because “who is very kind” is a non-identifying relative clause giving us only additional information about her grandmother.
I have also noticed students using “ourself” instead of “ourselves” in essays, and also “themself” instead of “themselves”. These forms are not really acceptable in ordinary modern English.
A reigning monarch like Queen Elizabeth II may use the royal “we” to refer to herself, and when she needs to use a reflexive form of that, she may say “ourself”, since she would be referring only to herself. I am not sure, though, whether she ever uses the royal “we”.
Shakespeare’s kings certainly do, most of the time. King Claudius in Hamlet, for example, says this to his courtier’s son, Laertes: “I loved your father, and we love ourself;”. Strangely, however, he refers to himself as “I”, as well as “we” and “ourself”.
The Macmillan Dictionary online says that “ourself” is “sometimes used instead of “ourselves” when referring to a group that you belong to”, but it goes on to say that “many people consider that this is not correct”.
As for “themself”, the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary states that it is used fairly often instead of “himself or herself to refer to a person whose sex is not mentioned or not known.”
An example of its usage is given: “Does anyone here consider themself a good cook?” The Concise Oxford Dictionary, however, says that the standard form in such a sentence is “themselves”. Just as “they” is often used now as a singular pronoun instead of “he or she”, “themselves” is here used as a singular reflexive pronoun to refer to “anyone”.
I can’t end this article without mentioning that bugbear of English teachers, which is the misuse of “it’s” to mean “its”. “It’s” is a contraction of “it is”, while “its” is the possessive form of “it”. I see this misuse now even among native speakers, when I read comments after articles in respected online British newspapers like The Guardian.
Those who use “it’s” might think of the analogy with “cat’s” or “man’s” and other possessive forms of nouns. But the analogy is really with “his”, which is the possessive form of the pronoun “he”.
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