"What he says and how he says them"

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According to Reid J. Epstein, "Republican debate: 7 attacks on Newt Gingrich to watch", 1210/2011:

“Gov. Romney is much more disciplined in his approach and much more thoughtful about what he says and how he says them,” Iowa state Rep. Renee Schulte said in a Romney campaign press call Friday.

Ms. Schulte may very well have been misquoted or quoted without essential context, but it's not surprising for someone to use a  plural pronoun that co-refers with the referent of a fused relative clause introduced by what. Although "what he says" is morphosyntactically singular, a paraphrase with an overt head is likely to be plural: "the things (that) he says", etc.

Some similar examples:

Much of this comedy is built into Tom's frequent and ignorant fulminations against the colored race, Western civilization, women, and even men's clothing. The comedy is expressed in his actions, no doubt, but it comes out more in what he says and how he says them. [Gautam Kundu, Fitzgerald and the influence of film, 2008]

I began having the opportunity to share Tanya's testimony with others. I shared how, as a child, Tanya never did much to please me. I always found things wrong with what she did and how she did them. [Barbara J. Woodall, Help! I don't like my child, 2008]

This above is a quick summary of how God created the heavens and the earth. God is very specific in detail about what He created and when He created them. [Dwight O. Troyer, Genesis 1-2-3, 2007]

It's true that there's a related construction with a plural noun following what: "… it comes out more in what things he says and how he says them", etc.

It's also true that pronouns can refer to things evoked but not overtly mentioned in the previous discourse.

So are these examples ungrammatical? Perhaps they're just "ill-written and discourteous".


  1. languagehat said,

    December 10, 2011 @ 11:08 am

    I'm inclined to think that these examples are at least ill-written and discourteous, if not actually ungrammatical.

    The "similar examples," perhaps, but the sentence you started off with was off-the-cuff speech and cannot be held to the standards of written communication, let alone formal prose.

    [(myl) Indeed — and it was reported in a news story as well, which means that there's a good chance it was misquoted or quoted out of context, as I observed.

    I should clarify that the "ill-written and discourteous" quote is a phrase that Geoff Pullum used to describe dangling modifiers, in a post where he argued that they are almost certainly not actually ungrammatical. When I read the quotation attributed to Ms. Schulte, I did a double-take, and then tried to figure what my reaction meant.

    Such examples are easy enough to understand, but there still seems to be a problem with them, having to do with uncertainty about number agreement. Unlike the cases of "singular they", these examples of "plural what" don't seem to solve any real problem, and (perhaps for that reason) are not very common, though they certainly do occur; and they probably occur more often in speech than in writing, if only because they're more likely to be edited out of written text.

    In the end, I tentatively added these examples to the list of things that are probably allowed by syntax and semantics, but are perhaps to be avoided in the interests of coherence.]

  2. Mr Fnortner said,

    December 10, 2011 @ 11:54 am

    A slight diversion: From your link you cite the discourteous sentence, "Wants to go out the cat," in sort of Yoda-speak. Not far from this would be the sentence, "She wants to go out, the cat." This is a not uncommon construction, but what name does it have, and are there any grammar or courtesy criticisms of it?

    [(myl) Linguists call this "right dislocation" (perhaps among other things), where "left dislocation" for the same example would be "The cat, she wants to go out".]

  3. Spell Me Jeff said,

    December 10, 2011 @ 12:05 pm

    A possible reading of the Troyer and Kundu passages is that "them" has a kind of dual referent: (1) "what," which is the only referent afforded by SWE; and (2) "fulminations [and the like]" in the case of Kundu and "heavens and the earth [and the like]" in the case of Troyer — referents not afforded SWE.

    Or if that doesn't work, perhaps the items identified as (2) above had some sort of priming effect. The word "things" may likewise have primed Woodall's use of "them."

    I agree the usage is at least discourteous. I'm just wondering how it comes to be.

    What I wonder about more is the faculty that listeners and readers seem to have for understanding the intent of such utterances, just as we are rarely confused by misnegation.

  4. Henning Makholm said,

    December 10, 2011 @ 1:41 pm

    Continuing Fnortner's diversion: There's a grammar to Yoda-speak, and I don't think "Wants to go out the cat" matches it. In particular, I don't think you can choose a topic that that includes the finite verb and front that without leaving something behind. It would be more Yodalike as "Want to go out, the cat does" or even "Go out, the cat wants to" (how's that for a split infinitive?).

    [(myl) "Yoda's syntax the Tribune analyzes; Supply more details I will", 5/18/2005; "Unclear of Yoda's syntax the principles are, if any", 5/20/2005.]

  5. Rod Johnson said,

    December 10, 2011 @ 4:03 pm

    Discourteous, seriously? I read Geoff's earlier discussion and can't understand that point, unless everyone's being tongue in cheek and it's going for my head.

    This feels like a case where the old production vs. competence distinction makes sense. People who, on reflection, would reject the sentence still make this kind of error, and it's interesting to think about why. I think it's kind of a blend with Mark's "what things he says," or maybe "semantic interference" is the right way to think of it–but whatever the explanation, I don't see how it has any connection to manners or (dis)courtesy. Or am I being obtuse?

  6. Rod Johnson said,

    December 10, 2011 @ 5:30 pm

    Er, going OVER my head…

  7. Spell Me Jeff said,

    December 10, 2011 @ 5:35 pm

    @Rod Johnson

    I'll give it a try. Roughly, the distinction is being made between violations of "the rules" that genuinely impede communication and those that do not. Ambiguous pronouns are a good example. When a pronoun is, say, 50-100 words away from its referent, and context otherwise doesn't supply a referent, the listener/reader is likely to be confused. Not just peeved. Communication will fail.

    Then you have circumstances like "dangling participles" that don't confuse anyone. They violate "the rules," but communication is 100% successful. The only dilemma is that people who have been schooled in the rule, and generally follow it themselves, may suffer a very slight pause and feel a hint of annoyance. In such a case, it's maybe better to think of the "violation" as a discourtesy, like failing to say "excuse me" after you sneeze.

    I think Mark is suggesting that any ambiguity generated by the usage of "them" treated in today's post is so trivial that it for most people it doesn't even exist. Communication is successful despite the transgression (if in fact a transgression it is).

  8. Tom Recht said,

    December 10, 2011 @ 6:26 pm

    Not-wholly-unrelatedly, a professor of mine once said the following sentence: "You can code some stuff but not others." To me this is borderline ungrammatical, since stuff is singular; on the other hand, it's conceptually plural (so to speak), and once he'd opted for using stuff (rather than, say, things) his only other choice was the cumbrous repetition …but not other stuff. So there was a good excuse for the failure of concord – if that's what it was; or maybe some speakers simply treat stuff as a plural.

  9. Nathan said,

    December 12, 2011 @ 8:37 am

    Stuff is a mass noun.

  10. G Bell said,

    January 13, 2012 @ 3:06 am

    From the Telegraph, Friday, January 13, 2012:

    “I am not aware of what jurisdiction the Turkish authorities have over the Duchess. At the time, the British government was asked if it would get involved and they refused.”

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