Monday, July 2, 2012

I Am Not a Hypocrite

Sometimes, I am afraid of being thought of as the Rush Limbaugh of grammar. You know what I mean:  Rush spoke out against drugs and then got arrested for drug use whereas I speak out against grammar errors and then occasionally (okay, maybe more than occasionally) commit them myself. 

Lest you consider me a hypocrite, I’d like to take this moment to remind you that I am not promoting grammar perfection; I am promoting grammar awareness. In addition to making errors myself, I certainly don’t know every single grammar rule. In fact, I am totally unsure about the grammar pet peeve expressed in this review I just read on Good Reads:  

Like everyone else, I've got personal pet peeves when it comes to grammar. Here’s an example of something that makes me cringe: He poured himself a cup of coffee. Arrrrgh! That and countless other variations of it make their way into writing every day. In actuality, he didn't pour himself; he poured a cup of coffee for himself. Do I understand the meaning of the first version? Sure I do, but the writer might just as well write: Throw me down the stairs my shoes.

Here’s the thing: He poured himself a coffee doesn’t seem incorrect to me. 

After I read the review, I decided to investigate. My first stop: reflexive pronouns (i.e., himself, herself, myself). We use reflexive pronouns to refer back to the subject of the sentence. The following two examples were provided as the correct way to use reflexive pronouns:

Bob is going to buy himself one of those new cell phones.

Mary sent herself a copy.

If the person who wrote the review is correct, then wouldn’t these examples be incorrect? 

By the reviewer’s logic, Bob’s not buying himself; he’s buying a cell phone for himself. Mary didn’t send herself; she sent a copy to herself. 

The reviewer seems so certain it’s making me insecure.

What do you guys think?


Jemi Fraser said...

I'm with you! I don't see anything wrong with 'poured himself...'. The other ways sound formal and that's not my style. :)

Shelly said...

I think the reviewer is trying to gild the lilly in being so persnickety. One of the lingering beauties of grammar is the allowable diversity of styles. I'm with you.

Holly Vance said...

My pet peeve: "Arrrrgh"

Stephen T. McCarthy said...

Well, I am no grammar expert, that's fer damn sure! (Hell, I never even went to college. And I'm glad I didn't because, as it was, it took me two decades to unlearn all the bullshit I was taught in high school.)

But, I am fairly sure that, technically speaking, "He poured himself a cup of coffee" is NOT bad grammar.

Why not? Because one could legitimately ask the question, "Could he have poured a cup of coffee for someone OTHER THAN himself?" And obviously the answer is YES.

Would the following examples be grammatically correct?...

He poured Bob a cup of coffee.
He poured his wife a cup of coffee.
He poured his mother-in-law a cup of coffee (and added some Drano).

If those are all grammatically correct, then why would "He poured himself a cup of coffee" be incorrect?

The sentence is merely clarifying who received the cup of coffee.

Now, I might agree that it would be better if phrased "He poured a cup of coffee for himself" (or, "...for Bob"; "...for his wife"; "...for his mother-in-law (and added some Drano)". But I don't believe that it's grammatically incorrect to say "He poured himself a cup of coffee".

But then again, I never pour myself a cup of coffee (I prefer 80 proof tequila), and I barely graduated from high school, so you should take my opinion with a shaker of salt.

And now, if you don't mind, I'm going to pour myself a margarita.

~ D-FensDogg
'Loyal American Underground'

DiscConnected said...

You had me thinkin' on this one, just because of all the misuse of reflexive pronouns I hear these days, but I think I agree with Stephen T.

What makes 'himself" a reflexive pronoun is the fact that it is preceded by the noun to which it refers in the same clause ("he poured himself a shot of 80 proof tequila")

However, while Stephen can drink that shot all by himself, he can never go to the bar and drink one with myself.

And not simply because I loathe tequila!


Mark said...

I didn't think it was wrong either. I can see what the reviewer meant, but even for me it sounds like it's just too far grammar Nazi-ism. If the suggestions of reflexive pronouns are right, then the reviewer is wrong.

Jessica Bell said...

LOL. I think the reviewer is an idiot. Sorry, but we teach that structure in English Language Teaching books all the time. Wow.

Terra Shield said...

I have no idea, really (my grammar is lousy - kinda wish I had a teacher who'd give interesting examples like you)

It sounds right, though...

Dylan Fitzgerald said...

I'm with you on this one. It's not incorrect-- it's a simple grammatical elision: the reflexive pronoun absorbs the preposition in colloquial usage. The meaning is completely clear.

And not to totally geek out (not that I EVER do that), but it's almost as though the English noun has sort of formed its own dative/ablative to streamline the spoken sentence.

So basically the other grammar reviewer can put that in his/her pipe and smoke it.

anthony stemke said...

Not incorrect to me. I threw mama from the train. A kiss.

Bethany Elizabeth said...

I don't know if the person is correct or not, but if his grammar pet peeve is something so commonly accepted as correct, I do not envy him (or her). My understanding of grammar is pretty solid for most common situations, but I make a ton of mistakes. Thankfully, people are generally forgiving and patient about it. :D

the late phoenix said...

i voted for you, pretty lady, if you were Nixon instead of Nixon being Nixon, i'd believe all your lies and i will vote for you for the fifth time, screw the term limits.

i like, "Bob bought himself a cell phone for Bob," but that's just me...

Crystal Pistol said...

I had a cousin who didn't speak much English. He used to wail,

"Mary threw me with a rock!"

What he actually wanted to say was,

"Mary threw a rock at me!"

That story doesn't really make sense here but I wanted to share it anyway.

Mary Aalgaard, Play off the Page said...

Can the "to" or "for" be implied in this sentences? Is it a word order thing? Maybe we like Yoda talk could switch?

Play off the Page

Jack said...

Wow girl, you talk wayyy too much, but still you seem cool. you're awesome, take care.

Theresa Milstein said...

I think those kind of sentences have more to do with voice. She poured coffee vs. she poured herself some coffee have a different sound.

But what do I know. I come here for answers. I guess if the goal is to spare words, the first one is better, but not necessarily more correct.

Allen Garvin said...

"He poured himself a cup of coffee."

That's totally grammatical, and has been for centuries. In Anglo Saxon, there was an explicit dative case inflection that would have indicated the object and recipient, but as English lost its inflections around the 12th and 13th centuries, sentence positioning took over its role. Thus, basically, in , noun2 is the object and noun1 is the recipient. I don't think the person is objecting to the reflexive pronoun; they seem to be willfully trying to impose some imagined, extragrammatical rule on the sentence.

It's possible they're not a native speaker of English. German speakers, for instance, expect a dative inflection. Any native speaker of English should have no problems at all with the sentence.

Most of the time, letting one's ear be the guide is the most reliable method of what's grammatical. For formal writing, of course, additional rules are required, but informally you almost never hear native speakers making any real grammatical mistakes.

Allen Garvin said...

oops, I enclosed my examples in less-than and greater-than symbols, which the commenting system took to be html tags. I meant that in the case -transitive verb- -noun1- -noun2-, noun2 is the object and noun1 the recipient. This has been a grammatically correct construction since since Chaucer.

Anonymous said...

I think that reviewer has the case of the erroneous "for". This was a pet peeve of a college English teacher of mine. The rule always was if the sentence makes sense without the word for- remove it from the sentence- it does not add anything hence it is erroneous.

Jo-Ann said...

My sense is that it's not strictly correct. "Pouring himself" literally reads as if he has been somehow liquefied and is able to position himself into a bottle and tip himself out (which is kind of a neat trick and what a genie might do). But it's not the way most people would understand the term.

Rules of grammar exist so we can communicate in a standardised manner, and reduce ambiguities/ misunderstandings. But, as I said, most people understand "pouring himself" to mean "pouring for himself". And the former is smoother and less clunky than the latter... so it's serving its purpose.

So what if it's not how a purist might construct it? Language evolves, new words appear in the dictionary every year, old ones are taken out. I believe that the same should apply to grammar. If it communicates the same message to all who read/ hear it, then it is doing its job. It's correct.

I'll bet the reviewer still sighs at split infinitives. And I aim to boldly split infinitives that no one has split before....

Allen Garvin said...

Here's a little longer discussion of the form:

Standard English has two forms which are essentially the same: the double object construction (he poured himself a cup of coffee) and the prepositional object construction (he poured a cup of coffee for himself). The latter is a little more flexible, as regards placement within a sentence, but the meaning for both is the same.

You can find an exhaustive discussion on the former, including the rare ambiguities and some dialectal variants, in Larson's 1988 paper on the subject, handily available here:

Lynda R Young said...

The thing with language is that it's an evolving monster and common useage tends to end up being the rule... even if it starts out incorrect.

Talli Roland said...

I always feel certain until I'm confronted by someone who seems equally certain they're right!It's similar to staring at a certain word for too long: you start to question if it's *really* spelled like that.

James Garcia Jr. said...

My dear friend, I have had too much wine tonight to second-guess my captain on this deal. Hell, I wouldn't second-guess you while completely sober. You've probably forgotten more rules than I ever learned!
Have a great week!