C. Faulkner on the Possessive Antecedent Proscription

Arnold Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Thu Jun 5 15:03:40 UTC 2003

margaret lee, asking about rewordings of "Faulkner's writing style
makes him difficult to read":
 >What about "The writing style of Faulkner makes him difficult to

yes.  sorry i left that off the list (with repetition, cataphora, and
non-pronominal definite anaphora).  it's also a marked construction in
most cases, though the alternation between the prenominal possessive
("Mary's picture"), the prepositional possessive ("the picture of
Mary"), and the double possessive ("the picture of Mary's") is very
complex.  sometimes the prepositional possessive and double possessive
can clarify potential ambiguities (out of context): "Mary's picture"
(which could be a picture associated with mary in any number of ways)
vs. "the picture of Mary" (which is one in which mary is depicted)
vs. "the picture of Mary's" (which is one she owns, or painted, or
various other things, but not one she appears in).

sometimes there's no OF alternative to a prenominal possessive.
nominal gerunds are one such case. "Mozart's writing a symphony in
a weekend astonished even him" has no simple rewording with a
prepositional possessive, though the other alternatives on my list
are possible, and a major reworking with an embedded clause is also
possible ("That Mozart had written [or: could write] a symphony in
a weekend astonished even him" or "The fact that Mozart...").

i do think that "The writing style of Faulkner makes him difficult to
read" is distinctly inferior to "Faulkner's writing style makes him
difficult to read".  if i was editing a manuscript in which the first
sentence appeared, unless there was something about the context that
favored this wording, i'd change it to the prenominal possessive.  but
i'm speaking here as a naive word person with almost fifty years of
experience as a writer, journalist, editor, and observer of actual
english usagenot as an authority on school grammar; after all, until a
few weeks ago i'd never even *heard* of the PAP.

arnold (zwicky at csli.stanford.edu)

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