Wednesday, November 22, 2006

A Conclusion of Mine

The double possessive is a matter of some controversy. Some insist that constructions like "a colleague of Gates's" are redundant and therefore should be avoided. Others see "an old pal of mine" and extrapolate that, because you'd never say "an old pal of me," you also must reject "a friend of Bill."

I say trust your ear over either dogma. "A friend of Bill's" probably is better, except in the Clinton-era coinage, but it's not a must. The following over-the-cliff application of the principle, which appeared recently on the front page of my newspaper, shows what can happen if you treat it as mandatory:
Lanier has long been a favorite of Ramsey's, who gave her key patrol commands and later put her in charge of the bomb squad, SWAT team and other special units.
Extra credit if you spot the other problem in that sentence. Extra extra credit if you also spot the thing that people who are wrong about such things would wrongly call a problem.


but_seriously said...

"SWAT team" is arguably redundant. SWAT was originally an acronym for Special Weapons Assault Team, but is now sometimes meant to stand for Special Weapons and Tactics. In the latter, the "A" standing in for "and" is questionable.

Bill said...

Hmm -- I've always heard "special weapons and tactics." Anyway, that's not what I had in mind on either count.

Ashok said...

What do you think of the rule found in H. W. Fowler's book that says that the double possessive is allowed when thing possessed is one of many such things, e.g. a friend of mine (assuming there are many friends), but not that nose of his.

Bill said...

Fowler says "that nose of his" is unacceptable?

kostia said...

One extra-credit answer is that "who" can't refer back to "Ramsey's," which isn't a noun. I want desperately to know what the other extra credit answer is.

Percy said...

I ain't no grammar expert :) but the place which appears to have the problem is after the possessive is used. You have "favourite of Ramsey's" and then "who gave her key patrol commands..." . Isn't what the "who" refers to incorrect? In this sentence, it seems like it refers to "Ramsey's" and not "Ramsey".

Or is this the thing that people who are wrong would say?

Bill said...

I guess I'm not as lucid as I like to think. The "Ramsey's who" thing is the whole point of this post, not either of the extra-credit answers.

Mark said...

I'm going to say the missing serial comma is the thing people wrongly flag as wrong, but I can't spot a second mistake.

Bill said...

Oh, good point. I hadn't thought of the serial comma -- but what I was looking for as a wrongly flagged error was very similar.

JonBob said...

Well, the phrase "who gave her key patrol commands" can be parsed a few ways, and seems awkward. The object could be "commands" or "patrol commands" or "key patrol commands," depending in how you read it.

Bill said...

Parallel construction! So, he put her in charge of the bomb squad. Check. He put her in charge of other special units. Check. He put her in charge of SWAT team? Who wrote this? Borat?

The other way a series like that can work is for the the to apply to each item. OK, so he put her in charge of the bomb squad. Check. He put her in charge of the SWAT team. Check. He put her in charge of the other special units? That sounds fine in isolation, but what other special units? The article hasn't mentioned any, and clearly the writer meant that he put her in charge of other special units.

All that's missing is a the in front of SWAT team. That fixes everything.

The other thing I was referring to was probably too obscure to even mention, but I've written before about editors who misunderstand the "toast, juice, and ham and eggs" rule (how we non-serial-comma-using journalists are supposed to use the serial comma when one item in a series contains "and") and apply it when there are only two items in a so-called series. So I was thinking that such editors might be tempted to put a comma before "and later."

ReluctantLeftist said...

Speaking of possessives:

(1) Over at the Comics Curmudgeon, people found much amusement in the fact that yesterday's Mark Trail contains the exclamation "You stole a friend of mine's pet bear!" This reminds me a little of constructions like "The guy whose lawn I used to mow's dog". These occur in conversation, but in formal writing, you'd probably just rework the sentence.

(2) I'm also reminded of what Arnold Zwicky at Language Log called the "Coordinated Pronoun Problem". How should I refer to a car that I share with my friend John? Is it "John's and my car"? "John and I's car"? "Me and John's car"? Logic and parallelism would seem to imply that the first option is most "correct", but they all sound awkward, so again, perhaps the best way out is to restructure things ("the car belonging to John and me", say). But if you can say "John's car" and "my car", it seems odd to say you can't "and-ify" them together.

Dylan said...

I knew it was parallel construction. Now that my antennae are up, I find that error all the time, including in my paper. Drives me batty.

Kstieffel said...

Do I get extra extra extra credit for knowing that some copy editors would wrongly change "has long been" to "long has been?"

Stephen Jones said...

You can have a nominative or accusative pronoun referring to a genitive antecedent
(the famous SAT sentence "Toni Morrison's genius enables her to create novels..." being but one of many examples) but not when the nominative or accusative pronoun comes directly after the genitive as here.

I disagree with your point about the parallel construction being wrong. We are quite capable of accepting that the initial 'the' applies to 'SWAT team' but not to 'other units'. A second 'the' would make the construction more apparent, but is not mandatory.

And seeing somebody has brought up the matter of 'SWAT team' involving a redundancy may I say that in such cases as 'RAM memory', NT technology, and ATM machine, the millions of users are right, and the near totality of copy editors who agree with Bill's books on this matter wrong. Acronyms are originally used by a certain elite, who know the meaning behnd the letters. However when these acronyms become everyday words they are opaque to the majority of users who are not aware that the word they use to make clear what they are talking about is already in the initialism.

Bill said...

There's a point in there somewhere (it's similar to the reason I don't think "Rio Grande River" and "Sahara Desert" are redundant), but who the hell doesn't know what an ATM is? (Or, at least, who would be confused by "ATM" but not by "ATM machine"?)

Stephen Jones said...

but who the hell doesn't know what an ATM is? (Or, at least, who would be confused by "ATM" but not by "ATM machine"?)

I suspect that now most people do understand what ATM is -- after all there are large signs with ATM on it everywhere -- but the point I am making is that the initialism is opaque. That is, people do not know what the letters ATM represent, and therefore say 'ATM machine', just as they say 'cash machine'.

Your comment about Rio Grande or Sahara is spot on. For people who don't know Spanish or Arabic the words are opaque, and the same is true of the initialisms in RAM or ATM or NT even the V in HIV.

Obviously as more people become aware of what the initials stand for the redundancy disappears; I am pretty sure that the relative frequency of the phrase 'RAM memory' to that of 'RAM' has declined in recent years as people become more computer literate.

By the way, in telecommunications and networking, ATM stands for Asynchronous Transfer Mode, and was a very common type of campus networking until about four years ago when gigabit ethernet drove it from the market. If you google ATM you will see that both meanings figure in equal proportion, though the number one hit is for the Association of Teachers of Mathematics.

AndrewMahoney said...

BTK Killer. Gets me every time.

TootsNYC said...

in "BTK," the K doesn't stand for "Killer"

a "Kill" Killer is sort of funny, but it's not quite the same.

Richard Cosgrove said...

The acronym "SWAT" does standard for "Special Weapons and Tactics".

When the first SWAT unit was set up by the LAPD, Daryl Gates suggested it should be called the "Special Weapons Assault Team". Gates' boss overruled him, and decided on the less aggressive name "Special Weapons and Tactics".

So, the term "SWAT team" isn't tautological.

As for Stephen Jones' comment "Acronyms are originally used by a certain elite, who know the meaning behind the letters":

The house style on every publication I've worked has required that when unfamiliar acronyms are first used they must be written in full, followed by the acronym in brackets.

E.g. "The PC's random access memory (RAM) stores data temporarily."

From second usage onwards, the acronym is used by itself.

Acronyms in common use are never written in full (ATM, DVD, CD, SCUBA etc).

This works well. Unless the reader has the memory of a goldfish, or doesn't know how to use a dictionary.