Pronoun ‘bending’ in English Conversation


Pronoun Switching.

In an article by Gary Mason in the Globe and Mail (Saturday, April 13th, , 2013, p. S1) Christy Clark , the premier of British Columbia, is quoted as saying: “Leadership changes people…One thing is enduring all the criticisms. I think that’s made me more resilient and forced me to dig deep and tether myself to my principles and what I believe in. You can’t endure all the barbs that have been thrown at me without really knowing where you stand and what you believe in and be firm about it.” [my emphasis]

Now, this is not a comment on the content of Clark’s statements. My observation here is not about what Clark says but about how she says it. Furthermore, I’m not contending that Clark is special in any way by the way she makes her statement. The linguistic pattern Clark employs here is pervasive. We call it pronoun switching or pronoun bending. Here’s another example:

“A Reuters article by Michael Perry in Sydney, Australia reported on the high suicide rate among farmers in Australia following years of drought. He quotes a farmer ‘Mick’ who wrote a book about his experiences. In this book he writes: “I just want some cloud and some rain…The stress is just so constant and long and it’s like someone grabbing at me by the throat and slowly choking you a bit more each day.” (Comox Valley Record Daily, Thursday June 9, 2005) [my italics]

Now, why would Clark switch in mid-sentence between using you then me and then going back to you in the rest of the sentence? She could just have easily said: “ I can’t endure all the barbs that have been thrown at me without really knowing where I stand and what I believe in and be firm about it.” So, what’s the difference between these two constructions, hers and mine? Well, for one thing, mine is more consistent. It uses the same level of personal pronoun consistently throughout the sentence. The focus is on I and me. Clark, meanwhile, moves from the first person pronouns I and me to the indefinite (in this case) pronoun, you.

Same goes for the article by Michael Perry. Why would ‘Mick’ not say: “The stress is just so constant and long and it’s like someone grabbing at me by the throat and slowly choking me a bit more each day.” Why switch to you? It doesn’t make any sense to say it chokes ‘you’ in this case. It had nothing to do with me.

There isn’t a lot of scholarship on this topic. I’ve done library and internet searches (as have some of my students) and come up with a number of sources, but only two that address directly the use of what they call the indefinite you. That was a few years ago, but I doubt if things have changed much in the last six years.

Hyman approaches the subject from the perspective of English and what I came to understand as pragmatics (although he doesn’t use the word) while Senger is a psychiatrist. He concludes that the use of the indefinite you is an ‘ego defense mechanism.’ We’ll come back to that in my next post. Hyman argues that the use of the indefinite you is ‘youbiquitous.’ In other words, it’s pervasive in English speakers all over the world. An analysis of interviews on the CBC program ‘Q’ has established this fact at least in this context, but I’ve paid a lot of attention to this phenomenon over the last few years and it’s absolutely pervasive. Now that you know that people use ‘you’ not pointing to one person or a group of people present in a particular place, that is, in the indexical, vocative-deixic sense, but in an indefinite sense meaning people in general, you won’t be able to stop yourself from hearing it everywhere.

[This is the first in a series of posts on this topic. The next one explores the Senger analysis of the use of the indefinite you and will include a paper some students wrote in 2006 on the subject. Later I will post the results of an analysis (by some of my students in 2010 and me) of a number of CBC Q interviews by Jian Gomeshi that highlight the use of the indefinite you.]

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