All your questions about pronoun deletion and the inexorable death of the universe, answered.

Why Do We Delete the Initial Pronoun From Our Sentences? Glad You Asked.

Why Do We Delete the Initial Pronoun From Our Sentences? Glad You Asked.

Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language
May 4 2016 9:00 AM

Why Do We Delete the Initial Pronoun From Our Sentences? Glad You Asked.

521111850-the-morning-sun-tries-to-break-through-cloud-above-the
The initial pronouns are sand, washed away by caprice and intuition.

Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Something has been mysteriously absent from many of my recent emails: me. Hope all is well with you, I write, conveniently erasing myself as the subject of the sentence. Agree with Bob’s critiques. Would love to read a post on this. Can do in an hour. Look forward to reading.

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer.

Wherefore the shyness, the equivocation? Was I too busy to report for duty as a grammatical element in these statements? Was I pretending to a kind of universal authority by recusing myself? The eternal star systems in their metagalactic repose look forward to reading. And what of the messages in which I dropped the second person? Want to email the publicist? Did I hope not to symbolically conscript the recipient of the message into emailing the publicist, even though I really did need him to email the publicist? (He emailed the publicist; it was fine.) Or was I attempting to seem less grandiose, more briskly no-frills, more collaborative? Omitting the opening pronoun is not unlike leaving off an assertion’s end punctuation, as if to humbly suggest that your thoughts don’t rise to the level of a complete sentence.

Advertisement

Linguists, who call the axing of pronouns from the start of a statement “conversational deletion,” classify it as an expedient form of ellipsis, or the scraping away of words that are nevertheless understood in context. For them, it’s a matter of convenience, but also destiny. To read theoretical accounts of deletion is to confront a natural or geologic history of language. In his dissertation Shouldn’t Ignore These Strings: A Study of Conversational Deletion, Randolph H. Thrasher Jr. conjures a kind of ecological precariousness, explaining that “whatever is exposed (in sentence initial position) can be swept away. If erosion of the first element exposes another vulnerable element, this too may be eroded. The process continues until a hard (non-vulnerable) element is encountered.” The nonvulnerable words here—the verbs, the proper nouns—are rocks, crucial to making the sentence express what it wants to express. The initial pronouns are sand, washed away by caprice and intuition. The natural laws of language demand no more than that statements discard their superfluous elements, especially in informal speech. But on a rainy or otherwise melancholy morning, one can dream on the wastes of millennia and hear, beneath the patter of dropped I's and you's, a more Sebaldian tale of recorded meaning under siege from a coldly entropic universe: “To set one’s name to a work gives no one a title to be remembered, for who knows how many of the best of men have gone without a trace? The iniquity of oblivion blindly scatters her poppyseed and when wretchedness falls upon us one summer’s day like snow, all we wish for is to be forgotten.”

With deletion, the subject of the sentence is rarely forgotten (or mistaken), just submerged. In a lot of languages, you don’t need to include her because she is revealed by how you conjugate the verb. This holds far less true in English, but we can still often figure out the grammatical agent from context, and razor away the needless words. Eliminating any remaining ambiguity is one reason Brits frequently “tag” their subjectless sentences with clarifying end-clauses: “Fooled you, did he?” “Arsed it up, didn’t I?”

In a 2012 paper for the journal English Language and Linguistics, Andrew Weir finds that conversational deletion (he terms it “left-edge deletion”) shows up disproportionately in “certain registers of written English,” such as diaries. “Walked the dog,” we’ll scribble in a journal, notating the melody of our days rather than attempting to score for full orchestra. The first entry in Helen Fielding’s novel Bridget Jones’s Diary includes the lament: “Cannot quite believe I am once again starting the year in a single bed in my parents’ house.”

Tossing out pronouns helped Fielding approximate the rhythms of diary keeping, a practice at once informal, staccato, and impressionistic. The device also has a comic effect, sparking the efficiency of truncated expression against the unruliness of Bridget’s life and feelings. For George H.W. Bush, delivering his “Thousand Points of Light” speech at the 1988 convention, deletion burnished his everyman persona. “We moved to west Texas 40 years ago,” he said, in an address penned by Peggy Noonan. “The war was over, and we wanted to get out and make it on our own. Those were exciting days. Lived in a little shotgun house, one room for the three of us. Worked in the oil business, started my own.”

Advertisement

Bush comes off as plainspoken and straight-shooting, possessed of the political elixir of authenticity. If deletion means disavowing the unnecessary, he’s the kind of simple and succinct talker who won’t waste your time with verbal ornament; also, by not specifying the pronoun, he allows listeners to imagine themselves into the sentence and experience his past as universal. But here, ellipsis also gently reveals its deceptive potential. At what point does the “we” implied by “lived in a little shotgun house” transform into the “I” who “worked in the oil business”—much less the far more rare “I” who “started my own”? How painlessly Bush’s communal subject—“all three of us”—slips into an individual set of circumstances, incentives, and desires. (Story of politics.)

What’s the sum-total effect of such omissions on communication? The tonal after-image of deletion can be tough to bring into focus. Does leaving out the first-person subject combat an “I” statement’s egoism, or is it more egoistic to assume that a reader will automatically attribute unspecified actions to the writer? When a friend responds to my margarita overture with “would like,” is she so unenthused she can’t bring herself to type the pronoun, or reaffirming our closeness with a casual—and thus “authentic”—yes? The co-worker who replies “not sure what you mean” to a DM: Is he softening his skepticism by keeping things conversational, or giving it fangs by universalizing it?

Then there is the Twitter fashion of festooning images of the latest bandana’d puppy or baroquely appointed burger with a disembodied “crave” or “want.” Perhaps these tags—“verbs from nowhere,” one colleague calls them—tap into the generic desires of the human species; perhaps the users are simply managing their limited character count; perhaps they’re just angling for a retweet. (On reblogging and reposting platforms, missives that aren’t tied to individuals get the most social play.)

Still more studies discover conversational deletion in children’s talk: “Want blankie!” “Going potty.” And the tic, participating in a kind of linguistic skeuomorphism, revives a shorthand familiar from telegraphs, walkie-talkies, and other forms of technological communication. This lends it a retro charm.

Given all this, I can’t bring myself to rage against the cashiering of pronouns, even if their extinction, per Sebald, is of a piece with the world’s slow slide into death. (Probably not the tone your boss was going for with her cheery “Glad to hear it!”) As we grow older, we pare away all but the glowing pith of life. Language has to age too. And it’s nice to see the “nonvulnerable elements”—the actions and places and objects around us—lingering, grammatically at least, after we’ve gone.