February 12, 2008

The liturgy of lost causes

On 2/6/2008, I tried to calm the genitive anxiety of reader SS, who unwittingly echoed a 1993 James Kilpatrick column on double genitives like "a friend of Bill's". Now, by coincidence, Mr. Kilpatrick opens his column of 2/10/2008 with the very same subject ("Bobby Fisher's What?"):

Bobby Fischer, the Chicago-born chess master, died in Iceland three weeks ago. The New York Times informed its readers:

"The death was confirmed by Gardar Sverrisson, a close friend of Mr. Fischer's."

How's that again? What's that hanging possessive doing there? A critical reader is bound to inquire, Mr. Fischer's what? Mr. Fischer's brother? His mother? His dog? We're talking grammar today. The topic ranks with economics as a deadly science, but grammar has to be a constant concern of every writer.

Mr. Kilpatrick's topic, now as in 1993, is not really grammar, unless by "grammar" we mean "Why Almost Everyone's Usage is Wrong". He goes on to castigate the NYT, the Washington Post, and Robert Novak for failing to use genitives in gerund-participial clauses (not "no evidence of it occurring in Indiana" but rather "no evidence of ITS occurring in Indiana"; not "without someone going into a meeting" but "without SOMEONE'S going into a meeting"; not "would result from him being the last man standing" but rather "would result from HIS being the last man standing"). And he closes with a medley of other golden oldies, likewise accompanied by citations of high-profile sinners: "smarter than he", not "smarter than HIM"; "everyone shakes his head", not "everyone shakes THEIR HEADS".

The citations are new, but the "mistakes" are old ones, drawn from a familiar set of linguistic used-to-bes and never-weres. (The prescription against double genitives is one of the never-weres -- Shakespeare used them, and so did Jane Austen.) The liturgical core of peevology is the ritual lamentation of lost causes.

We all have our favorite lost causes -- I tend to carry on about journalists' misquotations, for example -- but grammatical hopelessness seems to be especially popular. Email from Michael Chen pointed out to me that Kilpatrick's 2/10/2008 column made it to the top of Yahoo's "most viewed" list for a while, just ahead of "Bride dies during marriage's first dance".

[Update -- Bruce Rusk writes:

I happened to be on Lexis-Nexis when your most recent LL post appeared, and it inspired me to do a quick check of James J. Kilpatrick's own corpus. Turns out he is as consistent as most peevologists: in the last two paragraphs of an August 1998 column, he defends the phrase "friend of mine" as part of a class of "benign or forgivable redundancies."

In the cited column, Mr. Kilpatrick complains about the needless words in phrases like "free gift" and "past experience", and then observes that

Opposed to such hairy redundancies are the benign or forgivable redundancies. A reader in Carmel, Calif., objects to the "on" in "Singles match play resumes on Sunday." I would leave it in. A gentleman in Tyler, Texas, complains that "of mine" is redundant in, "the senator is a friend of mine." A year ago the AP reported on the suicide of White House lawyer Vince Foster: "Starr's review came to the exact same conclusion reached by three prior investigations." What does "exact" add to "same"?

As an editor, I would not object seriously to any of these. It seems to me that even patently unnecessary words sometimes may serve a purpose. They contribute to clarity or to cadence. I retreated four years ago on "nape of the neck," and I may yet condone "sworn affidavit." Not everyone can define a reprise or locate the nape, and not everyone knows that an affidavit must be sworn. The words may be redundant, but they are words that tell.

In this context, K's concern is whether "of mine" is redundant, not whether it's grammatical. And mine is distinguished from my, in modern English at least, as occupying the position of a nominal head, whereas his (or Fisher's) can also be a possessive determiner. This ambiguity might lead K. to permit "his dog is larger than mine" and "he is a friend of mine", while forbidding "my dog is larger than his" and "I am a friend of his". Then again, it's not clear from his writings on the subject whether he's tried to work out a consistent analysis of the grammatical structures involved in such examples.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 12, 2008 08:32 AM