11

I was speaking to a college-educated American woman in her 80s, born and raised in the metropolitan east coast of the United States.

We were on a new topic, and without any preceding context, she said:

Her accountant told Janet that she really ought to diversify her portfolio.


It's a very efficient construction, but I have never heard a native English speaker introduce a pronoun prior to its antecedent. For the first few words of her sentence, I was in some suspense, wondering what she was referring to.

I know that some other languages can introduce placeholders which get filled in later in the sentence, but I'm not aware of anything equivalent in English.

Is this a known construction among any segment of the English-speaking population?

  • 3
    Your example with "her" before coreferent Janet is perfectly okay in English -- in all dialects, so far as I know. – Greg Lee May 31 '19 at 18:36
  • 1
    You might be interested in government and binding theory (specifically, principles A, B, and C), which cover this sort of thing. – anomaly Jun 1 '19 at 13:49
17

Yes, it's been extensively studied; perhaps the first paper was Ron Langacker's 1966 "On Pronominalization and the Chain of Command". The major generalization seems to be statable as

  • A pronoun may not both precede and command its antecedent.

In the following examples Marilyn('s) and her are meant to be co-referential:

  1. I talked to Marilyn before her operation. (Pronoun does not command or precede antecedent)
  2. Before her operation I talked to Marilyn. (Pronoun precedes but does not command)
  3. Before Marilyn's operation I talked to her. (Pronoun commands but does not precede)
  4. *I talked to her before Marilyn's operation. (Pronoun precedes and commands - ungrammatical)

"Command" (sometimes called "C-Command") is a technical relation between constituents in syntax; "A commands B" essentially means "A is in a higher clause than B". The reason (4) is ungrammatical is that the antecedent is in a subordinate clause while the pronoun is in the main clause, and the pronoun comes before the antecedent. You can do one or the other -- or neither -- but not both.

  • I don't think Command and C-command have become synonyms. Command concerns only clause structure. – Greg Lee May 31 '19 at 18:33
  • 1
    A further note: the fact that "her" in the example can precede its antecedent "Janet" is a fact of English independent of any linguist's description of it. So "yes" really answers the question. – Greg Lee May 31 '19 at 18:53
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    #4 is actually grammatical, but it must mean that "Marilyn" and "her" refer to different people. There is no way for them to be co-referential. – CJ Dennis Jun 1 '19 at 0:06
  • 1
    @GregLee- do you really think that "His dog bit John", without context, suffices to tell us that it is John's dog? – amI Jun 1 '19 at 4:51

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