naturalness poll results
Check each of the following which sound so natural to you that you might say them yourself sometimes.450 blog visitors responded. Here are the results:
I was surprised that the last test sentence received the most number (308) of votes since it uses a generic "he" which many English speakers no longer use. I suspect, but cannot prove without further testing, that visitors to this blog are linguistically more conservative than the general public. Linguistically conservative speakers tend to maintain for a longer period of time the speech patterns which they learned as a child. Many visitors to this blog learned to use the generic "he" rather than other generic English forms such as the singular "they."
There is an increasing number of English speakers who no longer use the objective form of pronouns after a preposition. That's what the first sentence was testing. 85 respondents answered that "for Ruth and I" sounded natural to them. As with the last sentence, this small percentage also demonstrates to me that many visitors to this blog retain conservative linguistic speech patterns for some syntactic constructions.
The very low results (7) for the second second sentence reflect the fact that no one has been taught to use "whom," the objective form of the relative pronoun "who," as the subject of a sentence. A higher number found sentence #3, with its more difficult syntax, natural. Prescriptive grammarians would say that the proper pronoun for #3 is "who" not "whom," since the relative pronoun is serving as the syntactic subject of the embedded sentence "(someone) hit you."
Interestingly, although the results for the last sentence show that visitors to this blog consider generic "he" to sound natural in some contexts, the results for the fourth sentence indicate that almost exactly 50% of respondents also find singular "they" to sound natural, at least when it has the indefinite pronoun "anyone" as its antecedent. It would be instructive to test for differences among speakers for if they would consider singular "they" more natural when "anyone" is its antecedent than when the indefinite pronoun "no one" of the last sentence is its antecedent.
55% of respondents felt that the fifth sentence, "Who did you hit?" is natural. That differs from what what prescriptive grammarians have taught, since "who" serves as the object of the verb "hit" and, therefor, requiring the objective form of this relative pronoun, "whom." But a large number of English speakers have lost that rule when the relative pronoun appears first in a sentence. For them when this relative pronoun occurs sentence-initially, it always takes the form "who." It is a new grammatical rule for English. Only 20% of respondents preferred the form objective form, "whom" (sentence #6), when this relative pronoun is sentence-initial with all other sentence elements and semantic relations remaining the same as in sentence #5.
A bit less than half (48%) of respondents felt that "Who mailed that book to Peter and me?" sounded natural. According to prescriptive grammarians, it is perfectly grammatical. Perhaps there was something else in the sentence, other than the question of "who" vs. "whom" which made the sentence not sound as natural as some of the other sentences. It may be that the greater length and complexity of this sentence created processing difficulties for many speakers, causing them to question its grammaticality or naturalness.
#8 is an example of a cleft sentence. People generally do not learn to compose cleft sentences until several years after their initial early childhood language years. Probably many speakers never utter cleft sentences. So #8 may have had a relatively low score because of its cleft sentence syntax. It also uses the subjective form of "who" when this relative pronoun is actually functioning as the object of its relative clause. So the results for #8 may reflect both problems for respondents. I do utter cleft sentences and I also have the newer rule which calls for use of "who" at the beginning of a sentence (or clause). So #8 sounds natural to me.
#9, "Whom did he speak about?" is perfectly grammatical, according to prescriptive grammarians. But because it uses the newer rule which drops the "who"/"whom" alternation at the beginning of a sentence only 25% of respondents felt that it sounded natural.
These results are interesting. I believe that they are directly relevant to what kind of English we should use in Bible translations for current English speakers. I would suggest that these results call for English Bible translators to continue to use objective forms of pronouns, such as "whom," "me," "him," "her," and "them" following prepositions and verbs of which they are objects. I believe that Bible versions today should, however, probably not use the objective form of pronouns when they occur at the beginning of sentence or clauses, regardless of whether they are syntactic subjects of objects.
With respect to use of generic "he" or singular "they" in new English versions, respondents to this poll demonstrate that they understand both forms and consider both forms natural in different contexts. My prediction is that the poll results would be more heavily in favor of singular "they" if this survey were conducted in a more neutral public environment such as a shopping center parking lot. Although use of singular "they" in the TNIV has caused great consternation to those Bible users who prefer generic "he," results of this poll as well as other polls and observations from current speech and writing show that singular "they" is widely understood and used today. It is not, apparently, as claimed by TNIV opponents, considered to be plural by those who use it. It is syntactically plural but sounds semantically singular, or at least semantically indefinite, which is not exactly singular or plural, to millions of English speakers today.
If you are curious how I voted, the following sentences in the poll sound so natural to me that I would write or say them myself: #4, 5, 7, 8. The last sentence, with its generic "he," used to sound natural to me but it no longer does. In some situations I still write it when I do not want to offend someone who strongly believes that "he" is the only correct generic pronoun to use in English.
This poll will now be moved to my webpage of other surveys and polls where other Internet visitors can answer it.