Averaging grammatical persons?

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Averaging works for numbers, but maybe not for combining third person and first person to get second person?

Update — The cited mistake was obviously a slip, rather than evidence of ignorance, and I should not have been so unkind as to publicize a joke that implies otherwise.

Kelly Robinson gives it a try — "Dr Seuss 'cancelled'? There’s nothing new about cutting racism from children’s books", The Guardian 3/9/2021 [emphasis added]:

The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series, which debuted in 1927 and 1930 respectively, were originally packed with unflattering portraits of ethnic villains, who were “swarthy”, “hook-nosed”, or “dark, and rather stupid looking”. In The Hardy Boys’ Hidden Harbor Mystery, the criminal exploits are executed by Luke Jones, a Black man who wears stolen diamond rings, speaks in a heavy dialect and refers to himself in the second person: “Luke Jones don’t stand for no nonsense from white folks! Ah pays mah fare, an’ Ah puts mah shoes where Ah please.” Meanwhile, Nancy Drew solved The Mystery at Lilac Inn by means of racial profiling: spotting a “dark-complexioned” girl at an upscale dress shop, Nancy notes: “Surely a girl in her circumstances cannot afford to buy dresses at such a place as this.”

Bob Ladd sent around a link to the story, suggesting that person might be joining passive as a grammatical term used for something loosely associated with its traditional meaning. Credit goes to John Joseph for suggesting the role of averaging. ("One sentence is in the third person, and the other is in the first person, so actually, following typical Guardian logic, that does average out to second person.")

The obligatory screenshot:


  1. David Morris said,

    March 10, 2021 @ 6:55 am

    Referring to myself in the second person, you like this post!

  2. Phil Woodford said,

    March 10, 2021 @ 7:05 am

    Call me old-fashioned, but this is really embarrassing stuff for a paper like The Guardian.

  3. Cervantes said,

    March 10, 2021 @ 7:57 am

    That doesn't seem correct. The first time he refers to himself by his proper name. Is that really third person? If I address an interlocutor by their proper name, that is if anything second person. If I refer to myself by my proper name, by the same logic that would be first person. In "I am Spartacus," Spartacus is not third person. If he said "Luke Jone puts his shoes where he pleases" then "his" would be third person, but he doesn't use any pronouns in the sentence where he refers to himself by his name.

  4. Twill said,

    March 10, 2021 @ 8:21 am

    @Cervantes "Spartacus" is the predicate in "I am Spartacus", so we can't adduce much from it in that respect. We can see from the conjugation of "Luke Jones *puts*…", however, that proper names are indeed (grammatically, if not semantically) third-person.

  5. Guy said,

    March 10, 2021 @ 8:31 am


    Although you might address someone by their name in a manner that would get a vocative case in languages with such cases. I think it would be unusual, fairly marked, to refer to someone that way for a reference that is in, say, subject position or otherwise more syntactically integrated. The argument for calling such references third person is strengthened by observing that third person pronouns are a natural choice for anaphora with such uses:

    “Nobody meets with John Smith without making an appointment with him” seems to me the natural choice of pronoun even if “John Smith” is the speaker or interlocutor.

  6. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 10, 2021 @ 10:19 am

    Anyway, though fiction writers frequently mock people who refer to themselves in the third person, is or was that a stereotype of black people? If not, I don't see it as evidence of racism. It would be racist if a book implied that black people who don't stand for nonsense from white people and who think they have a right to sit where they want are typically criminals, and it seems quite possible that the book does imply that.

  7. Cervantes said,

    March 10, 2021 @ 11:31 am

    @ Guy: Were I John Smith, I would be more likely to say "Nobody meets with John Smith without making an appointment with me." At least, I certainly could say that. Proper names are not declined, so grammatically, I'm not sure the concept of "person" even applies to them. I can refer to a third person, address a second person, or refer to myself, by a proper name.

  8. Cervantes said,

    March 10, 2021 @ 11:37 am

    Or look at it this way, which is the most straightforward. The pronoun that would replace "Luke Jones" in the quotation is "I". QED.

  9. Morten Jonsson said,

    March 10, 2021 @ 11:42 am

    @Jerry Friedman

    I think the point of having the black character refer to himself in the third person is that he’s doing it to make himself sound important, more dignified. And black people sounding dignified, in the world the book was written in, is inherently comic. So in that way, yes, it’s racist.

  10. Bob Ladd said,

    March 10, 2021 @ 12:04 pm

    @Cervantes: Well, no, the most straightforward way to look at this is that the VERB in the sentence has to be in the third person form. As it happens, the speaker uses don't (presumably unmarked for person in his dialect), but if he had said Luke Jones is going to do what he damn well pleases or Luke Jones is one tough character, he would have used is, not am. Grammatically, this is third person. The fact that he's referring to himself doesn't change that.

  11. Laodamia said,

    March 10, 2021 @ 1:46 pm

    @ Phil Woodford. It is embarrassing for the Guardian, especially since they plead readership and worker loss and want us to pay for the privilege. Can we ask them to put our money towards a proof reader?

  12. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 10, 2021 @ 2:22 pm

    Here's a vintage LL discussion of "Illeism" (i.e. speakers referring to themselves in the third person): http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004762.html

    One challenge here is that the speaker is intended to be speaking a non-prestige dialect, so the fact that he says "Luke Jones don't" rather than "Luke Jones doesn't" does not convey the signal about grammatical person it would if he were assumed to be speaking standard/prestige AmEng.

  13. George Amis said,

    March 10, 2021 @ 2:24 pm

    "You won't have Richard Nixon to kick around any more." 1962

  14. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 10, 2021 @ 2:31 pm

    I see Bob Ladd made the same point about "don't" not being marked for person in the character's presumed dialect, but his suggested "am" wouldn't necessarily have solved the problem because back when that book was published "am" was frequently used with non-first-person subjects in, at a minimum, the language variety you might call Comical Negro Stage Dialect and its novelistic equivalent. This has often been taken to be an example of how the conventions of minstrelsy deviated from an accurate reflection of the dialect in question, but John McWhorter has an interesting article titled "Revisiting Invariant am in Early African American Vernacular English" which claims that "invariant am" (i.e. using "am" as the present tense of "be" outside the first-person-singular context) really was a thing for many AAVE speakers in earlier generations although it went extinct before WW2.

  15. DaveK said,

    March 10, 2021 @ 4:13 pm

    When my niece was a toddler just learning to talk, she got it into her name was “you”, because that was how she was addressed. She’d say things like “You want a drink” or “you sleepy”. I
    That’s the only time I’ve ever heard someone refer to themselves in the second person

  16. Cervantes said,

    March 10, 2021 @ 7:31 pm

    @Bob Ladd. Well that's the problem. Maybe in your dialect you would be inclined to say "doesn't" but in this particular speaker's dialect he says "don't." I don't know whether the verb to do is marked as to person or not, but if you are right, in his dialect, the distinction doesn't exist, so how do you know it's third person? He might also say Luke Jones am . . . for all you know.

    He's referring to himself, using a first person verb, so whether you think it's third person has nothing to do with how the speaker is speaking or what he is intending to convey. I don't think the concept even applies here. You're imposing your grammar on someone who is using different grammar. It's like saying "Se habla español" means "English speaks itself."

  17. DaveK said,

    March 10, 2021 @ 11:46 pm

    @Cervantes. I doubt very much he would say “Luke Jones am” for the reason that no dialect of English I’ve ever heard considers that to be a permissible construction. Using “don’t” in the third person singular, on the other hand, is a feature of a lot of dialects and it’s safe to assume the author of that line of dialogue wanted to represent a common dialect

  18. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 11, 2021 @ 8:04 am

    DaveK: again, one "dialect" of English that *does* consider that a permissible construction is the stylized dialect that black characters (in the U.S.) were frequently depicted as speaking in texts (typically by white authors) from the 1920's and earlier. Random example from 1922 I just googled up: "Anyting dat he am axed ter do he'll do ef he breks a hame-string!" Another from 1911: "He thought I didn't know him, but I knowed him all right, and dat feller am up ter somethin' and I knows it."

    Which features of this stylized literary-conventional dialect did and did not reflect the actual speech of actual American blacks of the time (versus being an inaccurate stereotype propagated by clueless-or-worse whites) is debated, with the McWhorter article I referenced above specifically addressing the use of "am" with third-person subjects If anything, perhaps it's noteworthy that the "Luke Jones" character is depicted with an idiolect notably less distant from the white prestige norm than many other black characters of the day were?

  19. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 11, 2021 @ 8:11 am

    Here, by the way, is a mention of (and extended quotation from) what may be the best-known American novel written entirely in the *actual* second person (McInherney's _Bright Lights, Big City_). "Because of its limitations and the annoying onus it places on the reader it is very seldom used for any longer texts or stories."


  20. David44 said,

    March 11, 2021 @ 11:40 am

    It's not relevant to the 1st/2nd/3rd person question, but I should point out that the Guardian's ability to understand the intricate complexities of a Nancy Drew mystery also leaves something to be desired. The book does indeed have a number of incidental racial slurs that make one cringe nowadays, but Ms. (or Miss?) Drew does NOT solve the mystery by racially profiling. The reason that she thinks the villainess (Mary Mason) is out of place in the expensive store is because she has already come to her house seeking employment as a maid, when she has claimed to be homeless. In other words, she is profiled because of her claimed poverty, not because of her race.

    It is true that in the initial sketch of her she was described as "dark-complexioned" – which apparently does not mean she's Black, since she is implicitly contrasted with the "colored woman" who has a bad interview with Miss (or Ms.?) Drew in the previous chapter. But that aspect of her is not mentioned when she is seen in the store.

    You can read the book online (if you are so inclined – I wouldn't STRONGLY recommend it …) at https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.268875/page/n23/mode/2up ; the relevant passages are on pp. 16-19 and 76-77.

  21. Gregory Kusnick said,

    March 11, 2021 @ 11:43 pm

    People do sometimes address themselves in the second person ("Come on, you can do this!" and the like).

    There's also the generic "you" of "And then one day you find/Ten years have got behind you", where the speaker is generalizing from their own experience, and not that of the person being addressed.

  22. Visit said,

    March 12, 2021 @ 10:52 am

    He's referring to himself, using a first-person verb, so whether you think it's the third person has nothing to do with how the speaker is speaking or what he is intending to convey. I don't think the concept even applies here. You're imposing your grammar on someone who is using different grammar. It's like saying "Se Habla español" means "English speaks itself."

  23. Graeme said,

    March 12, 2021 @ 5:22 pm

    I just want to know is it crazier to refer to yourself in the third person or the second person?

  24. stephen said,

    March 13, 2021 @ 5:12 pm


    Wikipedia has an interesting discussion on whether we can have the "clusive you", clusivity in the second person.

  25. Kelly said,

    March 14, 2021 @ 1:34 pm

    I'm the author if this piece and a regular reader of this blog. Imagine my embarrassment to see this come up in my reader feed, and to discover such an egregious error in a piece I was thrilled to write, especially with it being my first ever for a big outlet. I do know the difference. It was a mistake. I feel like hurling myself off of a cliff.

  26. Kelly said,

    March 14, 2021 @ 1:41 pm

    …and of course I made a typo in my comment, so I will incur further ridicule. I'm just a struggling and depressed freelancer here, unemployed since the pandemic, and trying to eat.

  27. Josh R said,

    March 14, 2021 @ 7:49 pm

    Ms. Robinson,

    Please don't take it too hard. I think most of us here have some experience in writing something for publication, having it looked at by an editor and/or copy editor and/or proofreaders, and STILL having errors or typos get into the published product.

    What fault there is does lie more in the Guardian staff who are paid to catch those errors before they go to print.

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