'im or 'em?

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It's often impossible to tell the difference between reduced him and reduced them. In particular, I can't tell whether John Edwards said "I just voted for him on Tuesday, so…" — meaning Barack Obama — or "I just voted for them on Tuesday, so…" — i.e. sex-neutral them, meaning either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, he's not saying which.

Mark Halperin can't tell either, but he asks the question ("Did Edwards Tip His Hand?", 5/9/2008). You should listen to the whole Q&A before you decide for yourself.

Mika Brzezinski interviewed John Edwards this morning, on the MSBC talk show Morning Joe (video for the full interview is here). This passage near the start of the interview sets the context:

Mika Brzezinski : I- no I- you know, I'm going to tell you, you- you talk to Matt Lauer, and he said to you, did you vote?, and you said I did vote, and I'll keep that with me. So who you voted for is who you'll endorse?
John Edwards: Uh, I'd say highly likely, yes.
Mika Brzezinski : Uh huh! I'm closer! I'm closer! {general laughter} Guys!
Joe Scarborough(?): Who'd you vote for, and # who're you going to endorse?
Mika Brzezinski : {interrupting} Who'd you vote for? You can tell me.
John Edwards: For now, to myself; just for now, just for now.
Mika Brzezinski : {interrupting} Why? Why?
John Edwards: Well, just because I- it- it just feels like the right thing to do. Uh, I mean I think that what- I said this to- to Matt this morning, I don't think- I think that m- people like ((c-)) you, and people on television, uh act like these endorsements are a big deal. I may have missed something I think Barack Obama's doing pretty well # without my endorsement.
Mika Brzezinski : {interrupting} I think an endorsement from you *is* a big deal, I mean you were in the race, and everyone's kind of watching and listening. I mean ((they- I mean you know)) some endorsements we probably don't care about — yours we do!
John Edwards: Well, m- maybe *you* do, I don't think (( ))
Mika Brzezinski : {interrupting} {general laughter} I- let me ask you this, let me ask you this, all right, hold on, ((??)). Did you and your wife vote for the same person?
John Edwards: No, I'm not answering that.
Mika Brzezinski : Oh, ((that's ?)) {general laughter} that would- that would put the puzzle together for me.
John Edwards: I know. You're working the edges of this, I got it. Yeah. I'm not- I'll let you ask *her* that.

After several minutes of good-natured badgering on this and other topics, we get the critical passage:

Mika Brzezinski : I'm just wondering, I mean- it- it seems you *have* made your decision, you voted for a candidate, and you're saying that this candidate you voted for will be the candidate you potentially will endorse; that ((it)) looks "highly likely", if I can use your words,
John Edwards: I'd say that ((it's)) "very likely" …
Mika Brzezinski : OK, well I'm close, I just got to find out who Elizabeth voted for-
John Edwards: {interrupting} I just voted- I just voted for ??m on Tuesday, so ((I couldn't))
Mika Brzezinski : {interrupting} I know. I'm calling Elizabeth. {Everyone talks and laughs at once for a while}

My current theory about that "??m" is that it's the bare Indo-European masculine/feminine accusative case marker.

Seriously, this seems to me like a clear case of "singular they" with an indefinite antecedent: "… you voted for a candidate, and … this candidate you voted for will be the candidate you … will endorse.." — "(OK, but don't rush me,) I just voted for them on Tuesday." For discussion, see e.g. "They are a prophet" (10/21/2004), "Singular they: God said it, I believe it, that settles it" (9/13/2006); "Drivers and kings: a model answer" (11/16/2007).

[Michal M. Grynbaum at the NYT ("Obama Pulls Even With Clinton in Superdelegates", 5/10/2008) attributes the ambiguity to Edward's regional accent:

Appearing on MSNBC this morning, John Edwards said he was “very likely” to endorse the candidate he voted for in the North Carolina primary on Tuesday. But, the anchors asked, which candidate was it?

In his demurral, Mr. Edwards may have slipped: “I just voted — I just voted for him on Tuesday,” he said. But given Mr. Edwards’s Southern accent, that pesky pronoun may have been plural, albeit in a shortened form: “I just voted for ’em on Tuesday.”

David Schuster, an MSNBC host, attempted to ferret out the truth. “So it was a him or a her that you voted for?” he asked, interrupting the former senator. Mr. Edwards then backpedaled, saying, “No, no,” and laughing.

I'm skeptical, since I have exactly the same merger of reduced forms of "them" and "him", and I'm from rural eastern Connecticut.]


  1. Nassira Nicola said,

    May 9, 2008 @ 2:05 pm

    I've played it several times now, and … I think it *sounds* like "'em," but I'm not convinced that Edwards is a sex-neutral "them"-user. I'm only barely resisting the temptation to dig up a lot of old Edwards clips and compare them, maybe run them through Praat. Perhaps someone with slightly less self-control – or, er, slightly more Dedication To The Cause – would find that a worthwhile endeavor, though.

    In any event, if there's one thing I appreciate about this primary season, it's the demonstration of the utility of singular "they." My grandmother, as adamant an anti-"they" prescriptivist as ever you'll find, tried for weeks to keep her choice of candidate a secret from the rest of us. Finally, however, she snapped in exasperation, "All I'll say is that I picked who I picked because I thought she'd do the best job in office! But for the last time, I won't tell you who she was, so stop asking!"

    Well, needless to say, nobody ever asked again.

  2. vlorbik said,

    May 9, 2008 @ 3:03 pm

    wow … comment in LL! great!

    anyhow, both are glaringly wrong
    until the backquote is replaced
    by a righteous opening-apostrophe.

    yes, it's a long-standing pet peeve;
    it also happens to be dead right.

    [myl: Blame it on WordPress and its rather stupid and literal-minded ideas about what I believe are sometimes mis-named "smart" quotes — the rule seems to be something like "if it follows a space and precedes a letter, it must be the start of a quoted passage, so tilt it to the left…". What I wrote was the straight up-and-down single quote — that's even what's in the text in the mysql database — and the backquote-looking thing that you see is a decision that WordPress makes, somewhere internally, at presentation time. If I had time, I'd figure out how to hack the code to make it stop… [update: it's here. I'll install it at some point, after consulting my colleagues…] ]

    punctuation and human freedom forever!

    [Um, how about freedom of punctuation? Or would that be going too far?]

  3. Meesher said,

    May 9, 2008 @ 4:28 pm

    I don't think "them" would be singular if that is indeed the word Edwards used. Instead I would read that as meaning he voted for *both* of the candidates, ie. he voted in the election both were participating in. It's a tricky dance but not incorrect to my ear.

  4. Karen said,

    May 9, 2008 @ 4:37 pm

    As someone from Edwards's neck of the woods, I'd bet it was um – which is indistinguishable in masculine or plural. It's what almost everyone says when "him" or "them" is unstressed. Which he meant? Who can say? And I realize this isn't much help…

    [myl: I don't think that things are any different in *my* neck of the woods, which was rural eastern Connecticut.]

  5. Greg Morrow said,

    May 9, 2008 @ 5:27 pm

    For a southerner with "short" i/e merger before nasals, as Edwards likely has, will there be a detectable difference between 'imand 'em? For me, at least, them and him have the same vowel in most speech acts.

    [Good question. I don't know whether Edwards merges e.g. "Jim" and "gem". But we're talking about a different case here, since either "him" or "them" would be reduced to the point that the vowel is probably some kind of schwa regardless, even for someone like me who is way outside the geographical area of the "pin"/"pen" merger.]

  6. Steve Harris said,

    May 9, 2008 @ 7:00 pm

    Backquotes in math:

    The common mark-up language in which all math (and physics?) articles are written these days is TeX. The TeX client does such wondrous things as turning the input $\alpha$ into a very pretty alpha on output, and it also spaces things as math compositors have learned, over the centuries, is advisable for ease of reading equations and the like.

    TeX lets you put your open-quotes and close-quotes wherever you like; the signal for close-quote is " (by which I mean the standard quotation-mark key on a keyboard), and the signal for open-quote is " (by which I mean two back-quotes). If you carelessly use " for both open- and close-quotes, you get a funky-looking output, with clearly defined close-quotes on both front and back of each quotation.

    So why not just take care and use the " as needed? Because sometimes I'm writing an email to a colleague or journal editor, only a small fraction of my text is in technical type, and I don't know whether my reader will take the time to view my letter in a TeX client, or will just read it straight-up as plaintext. So when I quote some relevant passage from somewhere and put it in quotation marks, do I do the TeX thing and use " at front and " at the back, which makes the email look jarringly weird? Or use " at both places, preserving the beauty of the email, but making things a bit funky on the TeX output?

    At least I know what I'm getting, in either event.

    [The problem here is not math (or other text) in LaTex, or characters in plain text, but the way that WordPress pseudo-helpfully remaps both single and double quotes when it creates html from plain text in its database. Specifically, it turns many instances of plain single quote (ascii 047, in octal) into a unicode character entity written &#8216 (SINGLE LEFT QUOTATION MARK), wherever some crude pattern recognizes a situation that might be the opening of a quotation.

  7. Steve Harris said,

    May 9, 2008 @ 7:05 pm

    As an example of not knowing what I'm getting: For the comment above, I typed two backquotes, when trying to produce the Tex open-quote signal; but instead of getting that, I now see that I got an open smart-quote instead. That is to say, I typed something like ` `, but it produced " instead–thus negating the effect I wanted to call attention to, which is that the double backquote ` ` looks really weird when embedded in an email.

    [OK, but let's discuss some other time the many programs that remap character codes in sometimes-annoying ways that are intended to be helpful.]

  8. rob said,

    May 9, 2008 @ 7:22 pm

    On occasion, I've noted that I pronounce the shortened "him" as "eem". I also sometimes pronounce it "em". While I sometimes pronounce "them" as "em", I never pronounce "them" as "eem". Surely I'm not the only one who sometimes uses long e "eem" for "him". I'm from the south (Arkansas) and if it's the case that others do say "eem" sometimes for "him" but not for "them" then maybe that strengthens the case for the "singular 'they' with an indefinite antecedent".

  9. Josh Millard said,

    May 9, 2008 @ 8:49 pm

    Pragmatic note: there are a number of WP plugins that address this in one fashion or another; it looks like WP-untexturize, for example, zaps specifically and only the single- and double-quote behavior and works with the 2.5.x branch.

    We can end Rogue Smart Quote Syndrome in our lifetime.

    [myl: Thanks! I've installed wpuntexturize, and the annoying quote-mangling is gone.]

  10. Martyn Cornell said,

    May 10, 2008 @ 6:02 am

    A kludge-around for eliminating rogue smart quote syndrome which works in typesetting progams such as InDesign and Quark Xpress that are set up to give smart quotes automatically is to type two single quotes in front of the word (say 'em) that you want a backward quote in front of. Then, when the program has made its conversion of the quotes into "smart" forward-and-backwards ones, go back and eliminate the first, forward quote mark. In WordPress I guess you'd have to put the single quote marks in the editing box, then save the text, and go back and take the unwanted forward quote mark. But if you've got a program patch that now eliminates the problem, then rock 'n' roll …

  11. Jeremy Hawker said,

    May 10, 2008 @ 8:36 am

    1. About Edwards. Does anyone seriously think he voted for Hilary?

    2. About " 'im". When I lived in Germany I learnt the acc/dat. ihm by associating it with cockney 'im: ich gab es ihm>I gave it to 'im. I've always assumed they are in fact the same word, but I've never had that confirmed.

  12. Jena said,

    May 10, 2008 @ 11:21 am

    Nobody seems to be making much of the following line: "I may have missed something I think Barack Obama's doing pretty well # without my endorsement."

    To me, that line presupposes – and fairly strongly – that it's Obama he'd be endorsing …


  13. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    May 10, 2008 @ 11:40 am

    This is pretty off topic, but I wanted to respond to what Rob said because I just started noticing that pronunciation [im] recently in Robert Patrick's pronunciation (from later seasons of the X-files). Apparently he's from Marietta, GA, a suburb of Atlanta, and yet growing up in Atlanta it's not a pronunciation I ever remember noting.

  14. Rachael said,

    May 12, 2008 @ 8:48 am

    I don't know anything about Edwards' idiolect, so I could be mistaken here, but I think he said "him" for the following reason:

    Singular "they"/"them" is marked. Even though I consider it grammatically acceptable, I never use it by default – I use "he" or "she" unless I don't know the person's sex or I want to avoid specifying it (as, it is being argued, Edwards might have done here). But because it's marked, I wouldn't pronounce it "em" – I would be concentrating on the words I was using (either because I was trying to keep some information secret or because I didn't know it) and so I would enunciate "them" in full. Whereas plural "them" is unmarked, so I wouldn't be concentrating on the words I was using, and would pronounce it "em"; and "him" is unmarked, so I would probably pronounce it "im".

    How common is it in speech corpora for people to pronounce *singular* "them" as "em"?

  15. Ollock said,

    May 15, 2008 @ 4:58 pm

    Pronunciation is certainly ambiguous. I'm with it being a reduction of *them* — but in a different way. Using singular *they* here would be a little uncommon, I think (rather weird for me), but it could be something like "I just voted for [one of] them" — using a little different definition of "voted for" that doesn't require the object to be precisely the person you supported with your vote, but rather all the choices presented. I could see someone extending it from something like "I just voted for President".

    Of course, after typing all that, maybe singular *they* is really the simpler explanation. Or maybe your "bare accusative marker" sort of works as a compromise.

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