...but the kriek is so tasty.
Anyway, I was recently snarked at on IRC for uttering the following sentence:
I.e., you start with the functional spec, you hand it in to the professor, he grades it, then you do whatever the next bit of the process is?
The snarker in question took issue with my use of the word 'he' as the anaphor
, or "pronoun that refers to a previously introduced noun", for "professor". I remarked that in my dialect, 'he' is the commonly accepted third-person singular gender-neutral pronoun. "Oh, complete with gender-neutral penis?" snarked the snarker. I offered to use 'it', and remarked that while 'they' has become more common when the referent of a pronoun is known to be gendered but that gender is unknown, using a plural pronoun plays hell with my sense of number.
Thinking further about the original sentence, it occurred to me that "it grades it" also plays merry hell with my sense of syntax -- in this case, anaphora resolution.
Terminology time! An anaphor
, plural anaphora
, is a pronoun which refers to something. (Why, yes, there can be pronouns which don't refer to anything -- the "weather 'it'" of "It's raining" is one example.) A referent
is the noun to which an anaphor refers. Anaphora resolution
is the process of matching up anaphora and their references in a sentence.
So. In our example sentence, we have three possible referents: you
, the person being addressed; the professor
, a third person animate entity of currently-unknown gender; and the functional spec
, a third person inanimate entity, thus of no (or, neutral) gender (well, at least in English).
We also have a semantic structure which we need to encode: grades(the professor, the functional spec)
. (I've placed this in predicate logic
format. Since both referents are finite, as opposed to "some professor" or "all the functional specs", we don't need to use any of predicate logic's nifty symbols. We also know that both anaphora will be singular, because both our referents are singular.)
I encoded this semantic structure with the phrase "he grades it", which is a complete sentence being used as a phrase. Syntactically, I would encode it as [IP
He ] [I'
[-Pst] ] [VP
grades ] [NP
it ] ] ] ]. (Sorry, not really sure how to do trees on LJ.)
So, let's look at the possible ways to resolve "he grades it", given our current scope
, or "what referents do we have available?" Both 'he' and 'it' are third person pronouns, so that rules out you
. The professor
could be 'it', but that means that the functional spec
would have to be 'he', which isn't possible, because as we already said, the functional spec
is inanimate, and 'he' applies to animate referents. Thus, the functional spec
resolves to 'it', and as we already ruled out you
, the professor
must be 'he'. There is only one syntactically legal resolution for all the anaphora in the sentence.
But some people object to calling the professor
'he' when we don't know whether the professor is male or female, because they argue that the speaker is assuming that only men are smart enough to be professors. WTFever, I'm a chick and you're listening to me school you, so you already know that I know better than that; STFU and keep reading. I'm going to explain why 'he' is a more reasonable anaphor for that position than any alternative that was put forward.
As you'll recall, two options were discussed: 'it' and 'they'. We'll take 'it' first, because it's the general case.
All we really know, when the phrasing is "it grades it", is that whatever 'it' is, it is not grading itself -- otherwise 'itself' would be the second anaphor. We also know that you
can't be the referent either, so we have two possible assignments: grades(the professor, the functional spec)
or grades(the functional spec, the professor)
. Since 'it' can be either animate or inanimate ("Who put the dog in the trash compactor?" "I put it there."), it grades
is an acceptable phrasing (grades
needs an animate ACTOR), so this syntactic coding is acceptable. Thus, the syntax parts of the brain pass a validated parse tree to the semantics parts of the brain to perform anaphora resolution. It is more likely that a professor will grade a functional spec than vice versa; in fact, the latter idea is kind of silly, so that reading is "marked". (In optimality theory terms, we might say that it falls hors du combat
.) Having to determine which reading is more likely is an extra step that the 'he' case does not require.
Now to consider 'they'. Remember, we had three possible referents, all singular. 'They' is a plural pronoun. Syntactically speaking, 'they' does not fit anywhere in the tree, because there is no plural referent for it to refer to. I'll be honest, I'm not quite sure what happens next, because I know very little about how the brain processes language, but my best guess is that 'they' gets downgraded to 'it' (number being the most common difference between 'they' and the possible referents) and and the same process as before occurs. (Of course, now that 'they' is becoming more common as an anaphor for 'singular gendered animate of currently unknown gender', people may be rewriting their own syntax rules.)
Anyway, in the end, this gets me thinking about computational linguistics and how to write language generators that generate correct and non-confusing syntax. In the 'he grades it' case, we created an encoding using anaphora which had only one valid reading upon decoding. In the 'it grades it' case, the encoding has two possible readings and must be further decoded by a different piece of the language mechanism. In the 'they grade it' case, there's actually no
strictly valid reading at first (due to number disagreement), and other encodings have to be tried. It is thus important for a language generator to consider what the most computationally inexpensive-to-decode encoding will be, before it transmits a sentence to a listener.
Either that, or English needs a pronoun which signifies 'singular gendered animate of currently-unknown gender', and I'll let getting that into the language be your problem. Until then, the OED and I will say 'he grades it' until you tell me that your professor is a woman.ETA:
... and of course this is interesting to me as a computer scientist, because it hints at a potentially NP-complete problem embedded in our neurological language framework: "most effective assignment of anaphora". Of course, n
is not particularly large in most cases, but we are talking about encodings that have to be decoded in realtime, and as the number of referents and anaphora in a sentence increase, the number of possible encodings rises as a permutation, which gets very large very fast...