Toni Morrison's genius enables HER to ...


Senior Member
English - USA
According to the Oxford Seminars 2009 manual, the following sentence

Toni Morrison's genius enables her to create novels that arise from and express the injustices African Americans have endured.

is grammatically flawed because her refers to Toni Morrison's. Is that accurate? I'm looking for a grammatical / linguistic explanation. Thanks!
  • No, Mellow-Yellow. There is no problem with the grammar in that sentence. Tony Morrison's genius does something to her. It (Toni Morrison's genius) enables her to create novels...

    The writer puts those ideas together in the phrase "Toni Morrison's genius enables her to create novels..."

    Does that make sense to you?
    A rule is sometimes asserted that a possessive cannot serve as the antecedent of a pronoun.

    This isn't a universal grammatical rule (although it is often asserted as one), but it could be considered as a piece of advice about writing style. It can be less clear to have a possessive serving as an antecedent. So it's something to check about when you're writing, and in some standardized tests it is asserted as a grammar rule to watch out for.
    owlman5, you seem to be making the book's point: it refers to Toni Morrison's genius, so her has no antecedent, correct?
    "Her" serves a clear function, Mellow Yellow. It is the object pronoun that comes after "enables". If you stripped it out of that sentence, it wouldn't make any sense: Toni Morrison's genius enables to create novels...???? Surely your book isn't advocating that. Even though the phrase begins with "Toni Morrison's genius" rather than "Toni Morrison", there is a logical connection that allows us to understand who "her" refers to. Right?
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    Just bee-tee-dubs, a quick google of this sentence shows that it is actually rather famous. This sentence was the source of some contention when it appeared on a PSAT test in 2003. There are good discussions of the history of the controversy available online. I particularly like this one:, especially because it does a good job of defining the two "schools of thought" that would define the sentence as right or wrong.

    To define it as "wrong," you would basically rely on a Latin-based grammar in which case agreement is important. However, if you define pronouns topically, then there is no problem.
    According to the Oxford Seminars 2009 manual

    On what grounds does your reference work object to this sentence? What does it suggest as an alternative?

    (edit: obliged to lucas-sp for supplying this)

    Having read the link in lucas-sp's post above, I will only add my personal opinion that Keegan's objection to the validity of the quoted sentence is bizarre, perverse, pedantic and contrary to natural English usage.
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    The alternative would be, according to the people who subscribe to (or claim to subscribe to) this "rule," something like:

    Toni Morrison's genius enables Morrison to...
    The genius of Toni Morrison enables her to...
    Toni Morrison avails herself of all her genius to...
    All those alternatives would work, but they're long-winded and awkward ways to tell us what the original sentence did more efficiently. When I hear "Toni Morrison's genius", "Toni Morrison" already exists as the ghostly subject who possesses that genius.
    Or, to put it back in the disputed form:

    Kevin Keegan's contrary-minded pedantry makes him look as if he believes the whole world is out of step, except for him.