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.


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.

Unknown 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.

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."

The D 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?"

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"?)

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.