Presidential pronoun watch

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Early last week, Hillary Clinton had a bit of pronoun trouble, as Daffy Duck would say. The AP reported:

“All the kitchen table issues that everybody talks to me about are ones that the next president can actually do something about,” Clinton said Sunday night, “if he actually cares about it.”

The word hung in the air only for a moment.

“More likely, if she cares about it,” she added.

Tonight after her overwhelming victory in the Kentucky primary, Clinton made sure she didn’t repeat her mistake. She told supporters:

And that’s why I’m going to keep making our case until we have a nominee, whoever she may be.

It’s a clever turn to use the feminine pronoun she with the antecedent whoever, making clear that, in Clinton’s mind at least, the indefinite determiner actually has a definite referent, i.e., HER. She could have used “he or she,” perhaps with exaggerated emphasis on she, but that wouldn’t have been as elegant. And using singular they (as discussed by Geoff Pullum in “The next president and their pronoun gender“), while more idiomatic, would have been completely beside the point.

Of course, Senator Obama might have a thing or two to say about Clinton’s choice of pronouns. For now, though, I think he’d keep quiet about it out of a sense of noblesse oblige, since the possibility of a female referent for “(Democratic) nominee” is appearing more and more, shall we say, notional.



11 Comments

  1. Richard Hershberger said,

    May 21, 2008 @ 11:51 am

    It does rather put the lie to the notion that “he” is not gender-specific. Not that we didn’t already know this…

  2. Eric said,

    May 21, 2008 @ 2:49 pm

    On the “whoever” pronoun in question:

    “And that’s why I’m going to keep making our case until we have a nominee, whoever she may be.”

    It is tricky but it seems to me that “whoever” is the object of the clause. Testing that, which sounds right: replacing “whoever” with “she” or “her?” I lean to “her” as sounding more proper (but still awkward).

    If so she messed up again and the word should have been “whomever.”

  3. marie-lucie said,

    May 21, 2008 @ 5:03 pm

    No, “whoever” is not the object of the verb “have”, it is the subject of the verbal sequence “may be”. The clause “whoever she may be” is an adjunct (I think this is the right term) to the noun phrase “the nominee” which is the object of “have”. The pronoun “she” refers to “a nominee”: a paraphrase would be “whoever the nominee may be”. Would you ever ask “Whom is the nominee?” No, because the WH- pronoun here is the subject of “is”, and only “Who” will do here. The fact that a pronoun refers to a noun phrase which is the object of a verb in a different sentence does not affect its form in the sentence where it is found: “I vote for Hillary/for her. She should be the nominee” (not “Her should be …”). “Whomever” would only be acceptable in a sentence like “Whomever they choose” where it would be the object, the subject being “they”.

    Until a few years ago, “whomever” sounded extremely archaic, and you saw it sometimes in writing or might hear it in a lecture but never heard it in conversation, but nowadays many people are using it (and also “whom”) apparently in the mistaken belief that it is a fancier or “more grammatically correct” (says Who?) version of “who(ever)”. Does it mean that some English teachers are pushing this form on their students? surely they don’t have too many examples of this use in classical or even modern English literature.

  4. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    May 21, 2008 @ 5:16 pm

    What marie-lucie said. Geoff Pullum analyzed a similar case in his post “I really don’t care whom.”

    (Of course, fans of The Office know that whomever is a made-up word used to trick students…)

  5. marie-lucie said,

    May 22, 2008 @ 4:51 pm

    I remember reading Geoff Pullum’s post, but his examples were slightly different from this one. There are slight differences in the use(s) of “whom” and “whomever” (not that I tried to be comprehensive).

  6. Ellen K. said,

    May 22, 2008 @ 6:02 pm

    Both “whomever” and “she” are subjects of the same verb?

  7. Ellen K. said,

    May 22, 2008 @ 6:02 pm

    (that is, “whoever” and “she”)

  8. Arnold Zwicky said,

    May 22, 2008 @ 8:20 pm

    This one is subtler than it first appears. In “who(m)ever she may be”, the WH-ever word is a fronted *predicative*, not the subject; “she” is the subject. That introduces the old problem of the case of predicative pronouns: the “It is I/me” issue. For personal pronouns, the accusative forms are in fact standard, and have been so for a long time, though for certain formulas, sticklers armed with theoretical hypotheses about case insist on nominatives. But outside of these formulas, nominatives are bizarre: “she/the nominee may be I” (rather than “me”) won’t do at all.

    *But*… personal pronouns and WH pronouns aren’t marked for case in the same way; I’ve commented on this in Language Log postings (these are well-known facts, not discoveries of mine). The big generalization is that for the personal pronouns, accusatives are the default, while for the WH pronouns, nominatives are the default. That would predict “whoever she may be”, and that’s the version that sounds right to me. But the matter could be open to variation.

  9. Martyn Cornell said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 6:25 pm

    “Wh-ever” is surely, in the sentence, the object of “she may be”, so just as one would say “It may be her”, one would say “it may be whomever”, and thus “whomever it/she may be”.

    Or do I not know what I’m talking about?

  10. Arnold Zwicky said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 6:47 pm

    To Martyn Cornell: BE doesn’t take objects, but predicatives. If the WH-ever word were a direct object of a verb, there would be no issue: “whomever you saw” in the older standard, “whoever you saw” in the more recent standard (parallel to “whom you saw” vs. “who you saw”); but only “you saw her”, not “she”. The complexity comes in the combination of a WH word (rather than a personal pronoun) with predicative function.

  11. David Marjanović said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 5:22 pm

    In English, it’s like in French: the oblique (dative/accusative) forms are used for emphasis in places where, according to the rest of the rule system, the nominative forms would belong, and this emphasis is obligatory in many contexts. This is how “it may be her” comes to be.

    Then came the prescriptivists, noted that English was unlike Latin by having this rule, managed to overlook the fact that this is a rule and not somehow chaotic, and tried to undo it. The result is confusion, all the way to hypercorrectivisms like the above “it may be whomever”.

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