It’s happened to you. Probably just this morning at the local cafe. The courteous server delivered your omelette and cheesy hash browns, reached to top off your coffee and asked, “How is everything?” Everything? Really? Everything?!? You are nonplussed! Does this inquisitive soul want to sit down? This could take quite a while. She’s asked. You’ll oblige. You begin, “Well, I woke up in the middle of the night with a painful charley horse; then, wouldn’t you know it, I couldn’t get back to sleep; I stared at the alarm-clock for hours; worried about my bills–did you know that my health insurance company wants to raise my deductible? Again?!? …” That kindly server wishes desperately for a chance to amend her question, “How is your breakfast?” But you’re only just getting started. “…and I have to go back to that doctor because I’ve got this fungus under my toenails, and…”
The Case of Perturbing Pronouns
In today’s episode our hero has been called upon to clarify proper pronoun and scope agreement. He arrives on scene–at the Cafe de Mot–and is immediately greeted, “And how are we this morning?” Egads! There is no time to waste. This is a job for … Grammar Man!
Words like everything, everybody and we are pronouns. Reminder from your early days in grammar class: pronouns generally stand for a noun or a set of nouns–that’s called the pronoun’s antecedent–whose identity is made clear by the context. Go ahead, read that definition again. It will help.
It is all too commonplace and dangerous form to use a broad pronoun when context is narrow. You can make this scene unfold yourself the next time your breakfast server opens so-wide a door. The toe-fungus usually gets quite a response. It can also be a lot of fun to simply say, “I’ve got a lot of gas this morning.” If you say it loud enough it might even open up a few seats around you.
But it’s also assumed that when a pronoun is substituted for nouns in a sentence, that the hearer will be clever enough to recognize the scope of context. If your server is asking the question, this inquiry likely references the meal set before you. Doh! So who is at fault? Who is in the wrong? What’s a grammarian super hero to do?
With words like everything and everybody the confusion is likely rooted in the first part of the word–every. Every is, by itself, and adjective. Grammarians, all together now: that means it modifies a noun. So every bicycle, every donut, and every last penny means to convey that all are included, and none are excluded. When compounded into a pronoun with the nebulous thing–imagine the possibilities!
We is a different story. That is a personal, plural, first person pronoun. We includes within it, I. This word should never be used as the exampled usage above. Consider this experience from Grammar Man’s past. Once he needed surgery. It was relatively minor, but Grammar Man isn’t a fan of doctors … with scalpels. The scrub nurse asked, “How are we this morning?” Do you see how ridiculous that is? We? Well, we’re just about to pee our pants!
Here’s the conclusion: When it comes to personal pronouns, the offender needs to be schooled. Grammar Man recommends a mild reprimand: “I think you meant to ask ‘How are you doing?'” Methinks that one or more such reminder will be sufficient to cure the offender of the faux pas. Where a thoughtlessly broad pronoun use is introduced into very narrow context–say over breakfast–Grammar Man suggests you accept the fact that so many flawed communicators inhabit our world. Throw your hands in the air. Scratch your head. Then try to be coy in your response, so as to educate. Try perhaps the following: “You’ve just used a very broad pronoun, everything. Interpreting pronouns requires one to consider context to define its antecedent. You’ve just served me eggs. Aha! My breakfast is fine. Thank you.”
On second thought … go with the toe-fungus and gas. And tune in next time when Grammar Man sorts out the difference betwixt every day and everyday.
Seen any glaring grammatical errors lately? Who uses the word betwixt anymore?