Flawed PSAT grammar question

According to this story on CNN, there is a flaw in the sentence * “Toni Morrison’s genius enables her to create novels that arise from and express the injustices African Americans have endured.”* The error is that . . . *the pronoun in the sentence – “her” – was used improperly. Keegan said the pronoun refers to an adjective instead of a noun, as it should. *

I am getting completely whooshed on this one. It looks correct to me. Are they saying that “Toni Morrison” is acting as an adjective, so the pronoun is inappropriate? Or is there some other problem I’m not seeing? What would be a good, grammatically-correct restatement of the sentence?



“Toni Morrison’s” is the adjective phrase

“genius” is technically the antecedent to “her”

I think it’s generally understandable, though.

Perhaps a “correct” rephrase would be:

Her genius enables Toni Morrison to …

I’ll say, it’s generally understandable * to a native speaker of English *. A speaker of a language where nouns have gender and the equivilent of “her” can refer to a noun such as “genius” could concievably have difficulty with this sentence. <shrug>

IANAGrammar Maven, but…
Yes, the possessive is acting as an adjective in that sentence. The sentence could be rephrased as “The genius of Toni Morrison enables her to create…” or “Toni Morrison applies her genius to create…” without causing this problem, I think. It’s a silly, nitpicky thing that seldom has any impact on actual communication, but it’s part of The Rules.

NO NO NO NO! Goddamnit, I can’t believe a mistake like that appears on a fucking PSAT.

The possessive (genitive) CASE of a noun is still a NOUN. It’s not an adjective, damn it!

The sentence is grammatically correct as written.

Amen, Nametag.

No native speaker of English would ever interpret “her” as referring to the genius. Ever. The sentence is perfectly grammatical in the linguistic sense, and in all but the most pissant literary senses (the kind where the rules are all arbitrarily based on Latin, and even then genitive nouns are still freakin’ nouns).

The PSAT is a pile of crap anyways.

According to the College Board’s explanation here, they had to remove it because “some usage manuals” consider it incorrect.

What I want to know is, what usage manuals are these? Can I publish the collected works of the Paignton Zoo Monkey House as a “usage manual” and nullify all the questions on the PSAT?

When, if ever, was this not normal usage (or at what point did someone declare it not to be)? I think that as long as English has been around, “Claire’s mother told her to eat brains,” would never have been incorrect.

At least their math mistake was unambiguously incorrect.

(Although I can’t knock the PSAT on the whole; I got a lot of money from my scholarship).

<i>“Claire’s mother told her to eat brains”</i>

Or, more akin to the original example: “Fred’s unusually long tongue enabled him to lick his elbow”.

This topic is also being discussed in IMHO. I’m too lazy to link the the thread. I have nothing to contribute here except a high five to Nametag.

At least their math mistake was unambiguously incorrect.

Sidetrack: I suppose so… To me, mathematical convention for variable names strongly implies “j” and “k” are integers, but I guess the question had to be rigorous.


As I said, it’s a silly, nitpicky thing that has no basis in common usage. Yes, the possessive acts as an adjective; that doesn’t automatically make the pronoun referent unclear. The original wording is perfectly acceptable to anyone who doesn’t have too much time on his hands (or more likely, who has a pet student who missed out by one point). Eventually, the manuals that pick this particular nit will go away, despite any effort by pedantic twits to keep them alive.

Clarity should come first, elegance second, and arbitrary rules a poor third (if they’re even in the race).

Okay, I just don’t understand the “mistake”. Not to brag credentials, but … well, I’m going to. I’ve taken courses in Syntax and in Semantics, I nearly have a B.A. in Linguistics … the sentence seems fine to me.

Okay, the verb is “enables”, the subject is “Toni Morrison’s genius”, and the direct object is “her”. This makes sense to me.

“Her” is a pronoun, and should refer to something already mentioned in the sentence. [It doesn’t have to, though – “I killed her” is certainly grammatical.] This still makes sense to me.

“Toni Morrison’s” is acting as the adjective phrase, according to aktep, the second poster in this thread. This makes sense to me. But within that adjective phrase is a noun phrase – “Toni Morrison”.* Right? Why can’t “her” refer to “Toni Morrison”? Why does it have to refer to “Toni Morrison’s”? This is the part that doesn’t make sense to me.

Can someone explain this to me? And to everyone else? Thanks. :slight_smile:
[sub]*I can draw the sentence tree for this, as I see it, if anybody wants. In I` format and everything. Really.[/sub]

They had the PSAT guy on Talk of the Nation last week (or maybe the week before) to talk about this incident. He said that the PSAT people had thought that the sentence was correct–the original answer was “no errors”. A teacher complained and said that it was grammatically incorrect for “her” to refer to “Toni Morrison”. Apparently, some older grammar textbooks did call this sort of construction incorrect, and, in this day of school budget crunches, some students may have been taught out of those old textbooks, so they decided to throw the question out. Apparently, when they reviewed the answers students gave on the question, a higher number of students than average left the question blank (there is more penalty for guessing wrong on the PSAT than for skipping the question all together) indicating that many were confused by the question.

So, it wasn’t a matter of the teacher catching the PSAT people in a blatant mistake the way the CNN article makes it sound. Instead, the answer was rather ambiguous–some grammarians thought that the sentence was correct, and some did not . Because some students may have been taught this outdated rule, they decided to throw the question out.

So let me get this straight. From the point of view of those protesting the question, the sentence would be more properly written thus:

“Toni Morrison’s genius enables it to create novels that arise from and express the injustices African Americans have endured.”

Is that what they’re saying?

Nametag is correct. aktep is mistaken.

Toni Morrison’s is not an “adjective phrase.” (Of Toni Morrison, [preposition] + [noun as preposition’s object], would be an adjective phrase.) It is a proper name, a noun, in the possessive case. As Balance points out, “the possessive acts as an adjective,” in the sense that it describes another noun (genius) as would an actual adjective. But Toni Morrison’s is still a noun, and is perfectly capable of being a pronoun’s antecedent. The antecedent of her, which is a pronoun in the objective case, is Toni Morrison’s–which, in the subjective or objective case, would be simply Toni Morrison–not genius.

No. They are saying that the sentence should be rewritten as Balance suggests: “The genius of Toni Morrison enables her to create novels that arise from and express the injustices African Americans have endured.”

Or, maintaining the original sentence structure: “Toni Morrison’s genius enables Morrison to create…”.

I’m a sub-editor and I think this is nonsense.

Yeah – the first story I read on this made me think that the PSAT board was smoking crack. If, however, they’ve thrown the answer out to protect people whose teachers taught them an old and frowned-upon construction, then I can respect that.

A side note: if “Toni Morrison’s” is an adjective, then every word listed as an adjective in the dictionary should also be listed as an adverb.

For example, red can be an adverb, as in the sentence, “The red dog’s tongue laps water from a bowl.” In this sentence, red modifies dog’s.

If dog’s is a noun, then red is necessarily an adjective – only adjectives modify nouns.

However, if dog’s is an adjective, then red is necessarily an adverb – only adverbs modify adjectives.

For similar reasons, “dog’s” may sometimes be an adverb: “The red dog’s owner’s house is very messy.”

Balderdash! Tommyrot! “Dog’s,” “owner’s,” and “Toni Morrison’s” are nouns in the possessive case.


PS The IMHO thread on this subject is here

Excellent points, DanielWithrow.