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 What’s in a Pronoun? 

December 8, 2005 
Mrs. Hockstad, my seventh-grade English teacher at Ypsilanti High School, taught me a lot of rules. If you’re already picturing a stern, prune-faced old gal with greying hair in a bun, it’s 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, Today's column is "What's in a Pronoun?" -- Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.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 weren’t 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.

[Breaker quote for What's in a Pronoun?: Mrs. Hockstad's rule]One of Mrs. Hockstad’s 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 don’t slip up at times. After a couple of beers with the guys I’ve been known to say, “It’s only me” instead of “It’s only I,” but even then I feel a pang of conscience. I try to avoid preciosity; don’t get me wrongly. But once you’ve given your heart to Mrs. Hockstad, you’re 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:

Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.

Somehow these couplets don’t sound much like the verse of the man who had recently written Prospero’s renunciation of magic, I always say, but this time I noticed something else: the phrase “curst be he.” That’s the way Mrs. Hockstad taught us. Apparently they’d taught the same rule in the Stratford grammar school. Be goes with he.

Then I remembered another famous curse: Macbeth’s last words:

Lay on, Macduff,
And damn’d be him that first cries, Hold, enough!
A thrill ran through me! Why had I never seen it before? “Damn’d be him”! Mrs. Hockstad would have insisted on “damn’d be he.

Macbeth’s words had always jarred me a bit, but I’d never stopped to reflect on why. I’d more or less assumed that a man who would murder Macduff’s children wouldn’t be too scrupulous about using his pronouns in the nominative case when appropriate.

Now, at last, I saw: the Stratford man couldn’t have written these plays, simply because his grammar was too good. Mrs. Hockstad’s rule, old-fashioned though it might be, had furnished a solution to the mystery of Shakespeare’s authorship.

And Mrs. Hockstad, if you’re out there, and if these words somehow reach you, I want you to know I’ve never stopped loving you.

Joseph Sobran

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