October 23, 2003

In Search of the Fimpossant

Yesterday my weekly expedition into the pages of The New Yorker (October 27, 2003), in search of specimens of that threatened species the first-mention possessive antecedent ("fimpossant" for short), was a spectacular success, with three healthy specimens sighted during a mere fifteen minutes of reading. A catch of this size might not come again; I fear that the editors of the magazine, faced with the results of my previous expeditions, will step up their wrong-headed campaign to expunge this graceful and useful creature from their domain. Any day now they will install an army of fimpossant checkers, to augment their celebrated army of fact checkers, and the fimpossant will be doomed.

I urge them to protect and treasure the fimpossant, but they inexplicably persist in viewing it as an invasive species from the wrong side of the literary tracks. Why, I ask you, would anyone object to the presence of the three beauties below in their neighborhood?

First, a rare instance of the Showy Fimpossant, at the very beginning of a piece of writing. It can be viewed on page 58, where Judith Thurman starts her "In Fashion" piece with

Elsa Schiaparelli's signature color was a violent magenta that she admired, she said, because it was...

Now, a hypercritical person might object that the two occurrences of she here have as their antecedent, not the Elsa Schiaparelli that appears in its possessive form at the beginning of the piece, but the Elsa Schiaparelli that appears in the subtitle of Thurman's article. But surely Thurman wrote the article before someone attached a title and subtitle to it, and anyway, if an occurrence of Elsa Schiaparelli in the subtitle were enough to establish Schiaparelli as the topic of the piece, then Thurman could have used a possessive pronoun at its beginning -- Her signature color was a violent magenta that she admired, she said, because it was... -- but that wouldn't have done at all.

Actually, all this fussy argumentation is beside the point, because the occurrence of Elsa Schiaparelli in the subtitle is itself in its possessive form:

Elsa Schiaparelli's seminal clothes are on display in Philadelphia

So much for the Showy Fimpossant. The other two examples are of the more inconspicuous subspecies the Presumed Fimpossant. You can find the first on page 41, towards the end of Ben McGrath's Talk of the Town report from Staten Island, on the ferry wreck:

By Thursday afternoon, as the investigation into the pilot's bizarre behavior continued--after the crash, he'd rushed home, slit his wrists, and shot himself with a pellet gun--a steely cynicism had returned with the daily grind.

This is the first, and only, mention of the pilot in the piece. But of course given a ferry we can infer a pilot, and in any case readers can be expected to know already that the ferry's pilot plays a significant role in the story, so there's no problem in referring to this pilot via a definite description, the pilot, in this case in its possessive form. And then once the pilot has been introduced into the story, McGrath can refer to him with pronouns, in particular the pronoun he.

Finally, on page 98, in John Lanchester's review of Jonathan Bate's life of poor (in several senses) John Clare, you can observe the following specimen:

... but there is no denying that Clare's struggles with poverty were all-encompassing and lifelong. He was born in 1793, the son of Parker Clare, who was a casual farm laborer in Northamptonshire, a pretty but unspectacular patch of countryside in the Midlands. The family's key asset was an apple tree outside their cottage which produced enough fruit to support them when Parker's rheumatism prohibited steady work.

This is the first, and only, mention of Clare's family, as a unit, in the piece. We presume that everyone has a family, and this presumption is reinforced by the mention of Clare's father, so there's no problem in referring to this family via a definite description, the family, once again, as it happens, in its possessive form. Once the family has been explicitly mentioned, Lanchester can refer to them with pronouns, in particular the pronoun them.

That's it. One gorgeous Showy Fimpossant and two specimens of the gentle Presumed Fimpossant. Why should anyone want to eliminate these useful and ornamental creatures from our environment?

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at October 23, 2003 11:20 AM