English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Usage

The times they are a changin’

Q: I increasingly hear sentences with two nouns competing to be the subject. Some recent examples, all from local newscasts: “Our producer, she is going to New Hampshire” … “My aunt and uncle, they died of diabetes” … “That guy, he can play on Sunday.” I was told years ago by an English professor that this was incorrect. Have the rules changed?

A: In all of those examples, the pronoun duplicates the subject: “our producer, she” … “my aunt and uncle, they” … “that guy, he.”

The pronoun in all these cases isn’t technically necessary. It’s sometimes called a “pleonastic subject pronoun” (pleonastic means redundant or superfluous).

Although such a pleonasm is sometimes used as a literary device in poems and songs, the Oxford English Dictionary says this usage is “now chiefly regional and nonstandard.”

We’d add that speakers of standard English use pleonastic subject pronouns for emphasis in casual conversation, though rarely in prose writing, especially in formal prose.

For centuries, poets and balladeers have used this device to force a pause in the meter of a line and give it a songlike air.

Consider, for example, this line from the 13th-century poem Amis and Amiloun, the Middle English version of an old French legend: “Mine hert, it breketh.” How much duller it would be without that superfluous pronoun!

Modern poets, too, have employed this usage. Here’s a line from A Shropshire Lad (1896), by A. E. Housman: “I tell the tale that I heard told. / Mithridates, he died old.”

The OED has many examples, dating back to Old English. Here’s a sampling: 

“My sister, shee the jewell is” (from an anonymous Elizabethan play, Common Conditions, 1576).

“ ‘Fair and softly,’ John he cried, / But John he cried in vain” (William Cowper, 1782).

“The worms they crept in, and the worms they crept out” (the novelist Matthew Gregory Lewis, 1795).

“The skipper he stood beside the helm” (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1839).

“My wife she cries on the barrack-gate, my kid in the barrack-yard” (Rudyard Kipling, 1892).

“The times they are a changin’ ” (Bob Dylan, 1964).

We’ve found many nonstandard uses of pleonastic subject pronouns in speech or dialogue from the 19th and 20th centuries.

Here’s an example from Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884): “The king he spread his arms, and Mary Jane she jumped for them.”

In recent decades, as you’ve noticed, speakers of standard English have been using the device for emphasis in conversation.

Here’s a quote from Bruce Springsteen in the Feb. 5, 1981, issue of Rolling Stone: “My mother and father, they’ve got a very deep love because they know and understand each other in a very realistic way.”

Is the usage legit? Well, the OED doesn’t consider it standard English. But we see nothing wrong with its emphatic use in casual speech.

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