v13: sin

This week, pronouns. ‘Grammar‘ lessons told us that pronouns “substitute for a noun”. Which is only part of the story: pronouns are anaphors; they both substitute for and refer to a noun, but which noun? Working out which noun is called ‘anaphor resolution’. Consider these sentences, and ask yourself: whose girlfriend?:

1 Erik is dancing with his girlfriend.
2 Lars saw Erik dancing with his girlfriend.
3 Lars is upset because Erik is dancing with his girlfriend.
4 Erik and his girlfriend are dancing.

I suggest: 1 Erik’s; 2 ambiguous; 3 Lars’; 4 Erik’s. But you can see how both 1 and 4 could refer to a girlfriend other than Erik’s, given the appropriate context. That is, anaphor resolution is not straightforward.

In Swedish, we find the 3rd person reflexive possessive pronouns sin/sitt/sina (common/neuter/plural). Quick check: why only 3rd person? Just seeing if you’re awake! These pronouns refer back to the subject of the sentence and, at least in theory, should help in anaphor resolution. Look here:

5 Erik dansar med sin flickvän.
6 Erik dansar med hans flickvän.

Both of these are translated as Erik is dancing with his girlfriend (by the way, isn’t flickvän a lovely word!), but in 5, sin refers to Erik, whereas in 6, hans refers to someone other than Erik (possibly, Lars). So, does this solve the anaphor resolution problem? Well, no. You’ll note I said that the reflexive possessive pronouns refer back to the subject of the sentence; they can’t themselves act as the subject, so:

7 Erik och hans flickvän dansar.
*8 Erik och sin flickvän dansar.

7 is ambiguous again, just as in English, while 8 is ungrammatical (hence the *). What else? Well, analyse these, as they say:

9 Lars såg Erik dansa med sin flickvän.
10 Lars såg Erik dansa med hans flickvän.

Both translate to Lars saw Erik dancing with his girlfriend, but a quick “whose girlfriend?” poll of some Swedish colleagues revealed the following interpretations:

Sentence 9: Erik=3; Lars=1; unsure or ambiguous=2
Sentence 10: Erik=2; Lars=3; unsure or ambiguous=1

My Swedish teacher agreed with the majority in each case, but it does show that context may be important in interpreting sentences such as these, and that a belief that there are hard and fast rules about ‘grammar’ may sometimes be misguided, if it gets in the way of having your words understood.

Glad Påsk!
Happy Easter!

Published in: on April 1, 2010 at 08:48  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I love these. Very helpful!

  2. Sir,

    I humbly and respectfully suggest that 3 might also be termed “ambiguous”. Might Lars not be upset because he had invited Erik out for a night of mutual inebriation and soul-searching, and here is Erik off dancing with his (i.e. Erik’s) girlfriend, leaving Lars to gradually slide off his bar stool onto the floor unaccompanied? This, after all, is something that has happened to all of us at one time or another.

    In my day job, I have found that “it” seems to be by far the most difficult word in the English language.

    • Of course! One can also imagine something along the lines of “Gunnar is Lars’ best friend. Lars is upset because Erik is dancing with his girlfriend.” But can you imagine a language which makes a grammatical distinction between three different types of ‘his’? It would be like inanimate nouns having three different possible genders.

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