Whats in a Pronoun?
Mrs. Hockstad, my seventh-grade English teacher at Ypsilanti High School, taught me a lot of rules. If youre already picturing a stern, prune-faced old gal with greying hair in a bun, its because the term English teacher still conjures negative stereotypes. She was in fact a very pretty young woman with raven-black hair and music in her voice, a recent graduate of the University of Michigan in nearby Ann Arbor.
I adored her. She was sweet and cheerful, her laughter tinkling as merrily as reindeer bells, with the notable exception of the day when the whole class flunked a quiz on prepositions. None of us had done our homework, and we felt the full blast of her wrath. Have you ever seen an angel in fury? Once is enough for a lifetime.
From then on I was determined never to let her down, and I never did. To this day I follow the rules of propriety in English usage she taught me, plus any other rules that seem to me in her spirit. Her teaching is part of my nervous system. I can still see her diagramming sentences on the blackboard.
When I was in college Dr. Potter taught me that the old rules werent really binding; they had more to do with etiquette than with grammar, the study of which had been revolutionized by Noam Chomsky. To me it all came as a shock, like Vatican II telling us we could eat meat on Friday.
But I loved Dr. Potter too. Since college I have rubbed some pretty important elbows those of popes, presidents, movie stars, grammarians, and other celebrities but I have never met a man more dignified than he was. His poise was equally striking in his looks, dress, manners, and speech. But his perfect self-possession never made him stuffy; he was also kind and witty. To this day I regret not taking his legendary Chaucer course.
The funny thing is that Dr. Potter himself meticulously abided by the old rules Mrs. Hockstad had promulgated. You could have hired a private detective to follow him for months without catching him so much as splitting an infinitive.
One of Mrs. Hockstads rules was that the verb to be required a pronoun in the nominative case It is I, for example, rather than It is me. Not that I dont slip up at times. After a couple of beers with the guys Ive been known to say, Its only me instead of Its only I, but even then I feel a pang of conscience. I try to avoid preciosity; dont get me wrongly. But once youve given your heart to Mrs. Hockstad, youre never quite the same man again. And thereby hangs a tale.
The other night I was brooding, as usual, on the Shakespeare authorship question, and I remembered the famous inscription on the tombstone of the supposed author in Stratford upon Avon:
Then I remembered another famous curse: Macbeths last words:
Macbeths words had always jarred me a bit, but Id never stopped to reflect on why. Id more or less assumed that a man who would murder Macduffs children wouldnt be too scrupulous about using his pronouns in the nominative case when appropriate.
Now, at last, I saw: the Stratford man couldnt have written these plays, simply because his grammar was too good. Mrs. Hockstads rule, old-fashioned though it might be, had furnished a solution to the mystery of Shakespeares authorship.
And Mrs. Hockstad, if youre out there, and if these words somehow reach you, I want you to know Ive never stopped loving you.
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