Odd possessive pronouns

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Odd possessive pronouns

Postby tomandlu » Sat Aug 25, 2012 6:52 am UTC

I was wondering if anyone knew why the possessive pronoun of "it" doesn't take an apostrophe (as in "it sharpened its teeth").

Obviously, in addition to avoiding confusion with the contraction "it's", there are other possessive pronouns that don't take an apostrophe, but all the examples that I can think of are distinct words (them -> their, he -> his, she -> her). it -> its is the only one I can think of where there is a simple addition of an s to indicate the possessive case, but no apostrophe. Anyone know what's going on in this case?

Also, the other exceptions also behave oddly. Compare:

It was the dog's house
and
The house was the dog's

vs

It was her house
and
The house was hers

vs

It was his house
and
The house was his
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Re: Odd possessive pronouns

Postby Derek » Sat Aug 25, 2012 8:05 am UTC

tomandlu wrote:I was wondering if anyone knew why the possessive pronoun of "it" doesn't take an apostrophe (as in "it sharpened its teeth").

Because it's not "it" + " 's", it's a distinct form of the pronoun "it". Like "he" -> "his", "she" -> "hers", and "they" -> "theirs", so "it" -> "its". At least, that's the best way to think about it if you want to keep the spelling straight. The actual answer is because "lol language".

It was her house
and
The house was hers

vs

It was his house
and
The house was his

Possessive determiner ("her") versus possessive pronoun ("hers"). Basically one describes a noun, the other is a noun itself. Note also "their" and "theirs".

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Re: Odd possessive pronouns

Postby jaap » Sat Aug 25, 2012 8:48 am UTC

Derek wrote:
tomandlu wrote:It was her house
and
The house was hers

vs

It was his house
and
The house was his

Possessive determiner ("her") versus possessive pronoun ("hers"). Basically one describes a noun, the other is a noun itself. Note also "their" and "theirs".

And "your"/"yours" and "our"/"ours", but then there's the more irregular "my"/"mine" (and the archaic "thy"/"thine").
I find it interesting that "its" doesn't really seem to occur as a possessive pronoun. I don't know whether it is because "its" most often refers to inanimate objects, or because it is too ambiguous in its referent to result in a meaningful sentence.

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Re: Odd possessive pronouns

Postby tomandlu » Sat Aug 25, 2012 10:36 am UTC

jaap wrote:I don't know whether it is because "its" most often refers to inanimate objects, or because it is too ambiguous in its referent to result in a meaningful sentence.


Tell me about. I've recently finished writing an SF novel, and the linguistic hoops I've had to go through to avoid using "it" too often (either because I'm dealing with a species with no gender, or because the main human character is unsure of the gender) were fairly demanding.
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Re: Odd possessive pronouns

Postby rolo91 » Sat Aug 25, 2012 11:49 am UTC

Question: If we were talking about something genderless but sentient (say, a robot, or whatever); would it be right to use constructions like "the house was its"?


Or does being sentient and human-like require being assigned a gender, in the same way that pet dogs can be referred to as he/she?

It may be obvious, I don't know, mind that English is not my first language.

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Re: Odd possessive pronouns

Postby tomandlu » Sat Aug 25, 2012 1:39 pm UTC

rolo91 wrote:Question: If we were talking about something genderless but sentient (say, a robot, or whatever); would it be right to use constructions like "the house was its"?


Or does being sentient and human-like require being assigned a gender, in the same way that pet dogs can be referred to as he/she?

It may be obvious, I don't know, mind that English is not my first language.


"The house was its" is correct, but innately clumsy for pretty much the reason you suggest. However, it's not so much sentient/non-sentient, but animate/inanimate that causes the problem.

In essence, the problem is that there is no gender neutral pronoun that also means "not inanimate".

When writing my book, this was particularly problematic, since everyone is using a sort-of galactic esperanto, and the lack of such a pronoun can be rather glaring if you don't take care. However, in general it's possible to rewrite a sentence to hide the deficiency.
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Re: Odd possessive pronouns

Postby gmalivuk » Sat Aug 25, 2012 6:59 pm UTC

You should have just done what pretty much all other writers do, and invented a word for the purpose. Especially when they're not meant to be speak
ing English in the first place.
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Re: Odd possessive pronouns

Postby tomandlu » Sat Aug 25, 2012 7:50 pm UTC

gmalivuk wrote:You should have just done what pretty much all other writers do, and invented a word for the purpose. Especially when they're not meant to be speak
ing English in the first place.


The thought had occurred, but it felt like cheating* (as did the other alternative of using 'he' and 'his' as a psuedo-gender-neutral form). It's not that hard when you get into the habit - one obvious helpful trick is to establish a character's name as quickly as possible.

* essentially, it's a double-edged problem - you're dealing with translated (to English) of direct speech as well as third-person narrative. A made-up word might be tolerable for the former, but would be a stretch for the latter imho.
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Re: Odd possessive pronouns

Postby gmalivuk » Sat Aug 25, 2012 10:06 pm UTC

Is it a stretch in every other science fiction story with made up words?
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Re: Odd possessive pronouns

Postby tomandlu » Sun Aug 26, 2012 5:28 am UTC

gmalivuk wrote:Is it a stretch in every other science fiction story with made up words?


Perhaps "cheating" is a too emotive word. A better way of putting it would be that I made a stylistic choice to avoid fictional words (with one or two critical exceptions when referring to fictional materials - e.g. "cronium").

Essentially, I didn't want to get bogged down in the linguistics - for example, the sole human in the main part of the tale at one point calls another character "a stupid golfball", but the actual phrase he probably used will be something like "stupid small recreational sphere". It was a case of "alien esperanto rendered in natural English, now on with the tale" (the section where the protagonist hears the language before learning it is rendered in rot-13 as a little easter egg for anyone to solve, which should give you an idea of how little emphasis is placed on linguistics).

Basically, I didn't want to write a book about language, but language was still a problem I had to solve. Nor, I hope, do I avoid the issue - when aliens speak in their respective native languages, it's made quite clear that the protagonist cannot understand them (I don't render such sections phonetically - rather I give a brief description of the type of sounds they make:

He once asked Gogol whether the creature was willing to teach him any of the Hastros language. This proved to be a mistake.
 
“Louie wishes to learn Hastros?” hissed Gogol when Louie had made his request.
 
“If you don’t mind,” said Louie. “It’s up to you, though.”
 
In response, Gogol let loose a short scream. It was a terrifying noise, an unearthly mixture of a predatory roar and a slow-motion car-crash. Every single hair on Louie’s body stood on end and he staggered backwards, half wishing to run and half wishing that he had a weapon to meet the attack that the noise must indicate was coming. Gogol merely waited impassively.

“What… what was that?” said Louie when he finally began to calm down.
 
“Hello,” said Gogol. “In Hastros.”
 
“I thought you were going to kill me.”
 
“Yes,” acknowledged Gogol. “Same word in Hastros.”
 
After that, Louie confined his lessons to Taurogian and Laspisican.


Also... http://xkcd.com/483/ :wink:

P.S. you're more than welcome to have a go at reading it - I'm always looking for feedback - just PM me if you'd like a copy...
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Re: Odd possessive pronouns

Postby gmalivuk » Sun Aug 26, 2012 7:18 am UTC

I don't expect anyone to go to Tolkienesque lengths with the languages in their works of fiction. I just imagine that coming up with another pronoun (or using one of many already-suggested pronouns for English) for a genderless animate character wouldn't actually be distracting for most readers. Instead, it would add to the alienness of that species. David Brin does a good job of this with the Traeki in the second Uplift trilogy, with most of the first-person thinking they do rendered in both singular and plural, and third-person descriptions using "er" and "ers".
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Re: Odd possessive pronouns

Postby tomandlu » Sun Aug 26, 2012 8:39 am UTC

gmalivuk wrote:I don't expect anyone to go to Tolkienesque lengths with the languages in their works of fiction. I just imagine that coming up with another pronoun (or using one of many already-suggested pronouns for English) for a genderless animate character wouldn't actually be distracting for most readers. Instead, it would add to the alienness of that species. David Brin does a good job of this with the Traeki in the second Uplift trilogy, with most of the first-person thinking they do rendered in both singular and plural, and third-person descriptions using "er" and "ers".


I certainly wouldn't dream of criticising another writer's use of that option - as I've said, in the end it's a stylistic choice, rather than a mandated one. I think the only mandatory aspect is a reasonable level of consistency. On the whole, I found that it was possible to reduce the number of genderless pronouns without any obvious clumsiness or creating inherant confusion, and where they are demanded, judicious use of <name>, creature, alien, native, it, they, etc. more than sufficed (imho).

Once again, I am more than happy to make a copy available to you if you want to assess how successful my efforts have been.

Anyway, this thread has been rather derailed, so to put it a bit back on topic, does anyone have any idea how prevalent this problem (lack of genderless but animate pronouns) in other languages? French for example (and afaik) always asigns gender, but I've no idea whether this complicates or helps with the problem (if the former, does this add an extra burden when translating SF books where the issue is encountered?).

English has further inconsistencies, particularily where animals and gender are concerned. Dog is a pefectly acceptable for both sexes, even though bitch can also be used for a female (dog-breeders might well disagree) - likwise with horse/mare. Cat has no distinction at all, and sheep for example seems to me to have a stronger emphasis on distinguishing between sheep and ram. However, this may all be very subjective, at both a cultural and personal level. A lot of, I assume, will probably depend on how easy it is to identify the gender, as well as how significant identifying the gender is.

In the end, as Derek put it, "lol language."
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Re: Odd possessive pronouns

Postby Derek » Sun Aug 26, 2012 4:13 pm UTC

tomandlu wrote:English has further inconsistencies, particularily where animals and gender are concerned. Dog is a pefectly acceptable for both sexes, even though bitch can also be used for a female (dog-breeders might well disagree) - likwise with horse/mare. Cat has no distinction at all, and sheep for example seems to me to have a stronger emphasis on distinguishing between sheep and ram. However, this may all be very subjective, at both a cultural and personal level. A lot of, I assume, will probably depend on how easy it is to identify the gender, as well as how significant identifying the gender is.

I think pretty much all common animals have male/female distinctions, though most people may not know them. For example, a male cat is called a "tom" or "tomcat", and a female is called a "molly" (I had to look the last one up).

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Re: Odd possessive pronouns

Postby gmalivuk » Sun Aug 26, 2012 8:53 pm UTC

Yeah, while sometimes the word for one gender may in general practice work for both (dog, cow) or there may be a non-gendered word in common usage (sheep), the (other) genders probably also have words, used by breeders at the very least (bitch, bull, ram/ewe).
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Re: Odd possessive pronouns

Postby tomandlu » Mon Aug 27, 2012 4:23 am UTC

gmalivuk wrote:Yeah, while sometimes the word for one gender may in general practice work for both (dog, cow) or there may be a non-gendered word in common usage (sheep), the (other) genders probably also have words, used by breeders at the very least (bitch, bull, ram/ewe).


You're almost certainly correct - any mice* and/or goldfish** breeders on these fora?

:wink:

[edit]
* buck/doe
** male/female - although apparently a pregnant goldfish is called a 'twit', which I shall resist commenting on...
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Re: Odd possessive pronouns

Postby steewi » Mon Aug 27, 2012 5:45 am UTC

If you're after a usable written non-gender that doesn't sound inanimate, but don't fancy using the zie/hir or made up pronouns, make a deal that you write animate non-gender-specific pronouns with a capital letter (It,Its) and inanimate ones with a miniscule letter (it, its). Precedent is Modern Chinese that makes a male-female (and previously, animate/inanimate, but rarely used now) third-person distinction in writing, but not in speech.

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Re: Odd possessive pronouns

Postby dudiobugtron » Wed Aug 29, 2012 8:17 pm UTC

"its" usually implies something more akin to 'non-human' than 'non-animate' (eg: the cat licked its paw).
I think we should just use 'it' and 'its' for everyone now, to pre-empt the whole human vs 'not really human' prejudice that we'll inevitably see if/when AIs/clones/aliens etc start becoming more relevant. This would also prevent the current use of "it" to dehumanize people (eg: it rubs the lotion on its skin) or peoples.

Oh how cute, you brought a robot friend? It can stay, but don't let it inside; I just had the carpet cleaned.
That... thing... doesn't even have a belly-button. Get it out of my sight.

Why do we need a pronoun we can use to say someone isn't as human as someone else?
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Re: Odd possessive pronouns

Postby Felis cattus diabolicus » Wed Aug 29, 2012 8:39 pm UTC

dudiobugtron wrote:"its" usually implies something more akin to 'non-human' than 'non-animate' (eg: the cat licked its paw).
I think we should just use 'it' and 'its' for everyone now, to pre-empt the whole human vs 'not really human' prejudice that we'll inevitably see if/when AIs/clones/aliens etc start becoming more relevant. This would also prevent the current use of "it" to dehumanize people (eg: it rubs the lotion on its skin) or peoples.

But you know: to do that, one would need to force the given manner of speaking among the people.
What if they just wouldn't like to speak like that?

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Re: Odd possessive pronouns

Postby dudiobugtron » Thu Aug 30, 2012 12:24 am UTC

That's true, but the same goes for anything else we want people to start doing as well. I'm just suggesting that people who are pushing for a gender neutral pronoun should choose 'it', so if it does catch on, we don't have to have the same argument again in however many years' time.
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Re: Odd possessive pronouns

Postby tomandlu » Thu Aug 30, 2012 12:31 pm UTC

I'd rather see a new or suitably re-appropriated word - 'it' will probably carry a dehumanising aspect over to any re-use. How about 'neuter' or 'neut'?

All a bit moot - I doubt it will get sorted until necessity requires it...
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Re: Odd possessive pronouns

Postby gmalivuk » Thu Aug 30, 2012 1:34 pm UTC

tomandlu wrote:How about 'neuter' or 'neut'?
Using an adjective as a noun (or pronoun) for a person generally has negative/dehumanizing connotations. "A black", "a gay", "a Jap(anese)".

All a bit moot - I doubt it will get sorted until necessity requires it...
Right. There's really no historical reason to expect to be able to push a new function word on a group of people who mostly don't have any need for it.
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Re: Odd possessive pronouns

Postby willaaaaaa » Thu Aug 30, 2012 6:31 pm UTC

tomandlu wrote:All a bit moot - I doubt it will get sorted until necessity requires it...


What about present-day people who don't identify as either male or female (i.e. "third gender")? I'm sure they run into the pronoun issue a lot. What term do most of them prefer?
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Re: Odd possessive pronouns

Postby skullturf » Thu Aug 30, 2012 7:03 pm UTC

Have we really made it this far into the discussion without anybody mentioning singular "they"?

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Re: Odd possessive pronouns

Postby tomandlu » Fri Aug 31, 2012 7:33 am UTC

skullturf wrote:Have we really made it this far into the discussion without anybody mentioning singular "they"?


'They' is often so ambiguous that it's worse than useless (if there are more than two beings in the scene).

From my own experience (and from something I was writing last night), adjectives are a good way of avoiding too many "its". Compare:

“Your story? You mean where you come from?” said Vyn, making no attempt to hide its concern and confusion.


to:

“Your story? You mean where you come from?” said Vyn, making no attempt to hide a growing concern and confusion.
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