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My (Oops! I Mean, the Author's) Fight for Pronouns

Tuesday, February 28, 2012 - 11:49 AM

The aim of the language of Newspeak in George Orwell’s "Nineteen Eighty-Four" was to eliminate any words that could promote free thought. While I don’t want to be alarmist, a similar trend is emerging in New York City public schools at this very moment. I refer to the simmering war on pronouns.

Tim Clifford

The first salvo in this war on words, at least at my own school, was fired several years ago when teachers were advised that we should have students steer clear of using pronouns in their writing. Despite 20-plus years of hearing dubious dictates from the Department of Education, I nevertheless assumed that writing teachers were being told to make sure students avoided the overuse of pronouns.

I was wrong. Or, as the pronoun police would have me say it, the author of this essay was in error.

While the prohibition against pronouns isn't part of official school policy in New York, the increased emphasis on academic writing has caused pronoun-phobia to run amok. My own high school-aged daughter, whom I thought I had raised properly, forced me to help her rewrite a science lab because her teacher threatened to reject papers that contained pronouns. The war was on.

Being the good literary soldier that I am, I decided to persuade my students of the noble place of pronouns in literature. After writing the first line of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s immortal sonnet on the board, I challenged students to create a lyrical version of “How do I love thee?” without using pronouns.

The best they could come up with was “How does the narrator of this poem love the subject of this poem?” Hardly a great literary achievement, I assured them.

While many concurred regarding the inelegance of this pronoun-free construction, others insisted that my example applied only to poetry, and that writing in the sciences and social studies benefited greatly from reducing the parts of speech from eight to seven.

To demonstrate that great writing in history and the sciences would suffer without pronouns, I put the following examples on the board:

“We, the people....” -- the U.S. Constitution

“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” -- Carl Sagan

Some great discussion ensued, and my students reluctantly agreed that pronouns could bring a world of meaning to a piece of writing. And that’s when the real truth behind the axing of pronouns came out.

“But Mr. Clifford,” insisted one of my brightest students, “we were told that we’ll lose points on the state tests if we use pronouns in our essays!”

I could almost hear the curriculum narrowing as the words left her lips.

High stakes testing has changed the way almost everything is taught in New York City, and, I suspect, across the nation. Teachers are often asked to justify the lessons they teach by explaining how said lessons will enhance scores on standardized tests. As a result, most teachers, myself included, have winnowed down much of what we teach into two categories: that which will be on the test, and that which will not be on the test. We teach a great deal of the former, and not a whole lot of the latter.

Where will it all stop? Should we rid student writing of adverbs because most kids don’t use those very effectively? Should we also jettison interjections, as they’re rarely used in formal writing? Conjunctions shouldn’t feel too sanguine, either, as sentences are simpler without them. Next thing you know, if we allow this Orwellian contraction of the language for the sake of testing to continue, we’ll be asked to grade essays as ungood, good or doubleplusgood.

I will likely lose the battle, as I want my students to score as highly as possible on their state exams. In the long run, however, I hope to win the war on pronouns. It won’t be easy, but I’ve got some strong allies on my side.

Me, myself and I.

I hope you join us.

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