relevant indeed

Arnold Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Thu Jun 26 21:13:17 UTC 2003

my advice to re-read bolinger's Language: The Loaded Weapon
turns out to be relevant indeed.  in chapter 14 ("School for
shamans"), bolinger, having dismissed some of the shamans
(steve pinker's "mavens"), considers jacques barzun, whose
Simple and Direct bolinger views as mostly good and helpful
advice about writing.  still, bolinger argues, barzun would have
benefited from knowing more about language and from taking the
advice of linguists.  a case in point:

    A rather common fault among shamans is to let the grammatical
  tail wag the usage dog.  [this is what i call being Blinded By
  The Rules.]  A rule - learned too well from a sixth- or seventh-
  grade grammar lesson - gets stuck in the head and influences
  judgments of right and wrong.  Take the following, which Barzun
  identifies as the problem of the possessive case of a proper name
  serving as antecedent of a pronoun:

    'Wellington's victory at Waterloo made him the greatest name
    in Europe' is all askew, because there is in fact no person
    named for the _him_ to refer to.  _Wellington's_ is not a noun
    but an adjective; it corresponds to 'the _Wellingtonian_
    (victory)' and the only subject word is that same _victory_,
    with which _him_ obviously doesn't go.[fn 8]

  Assume that Barzun is right, and the example sentence is a bad
  one.  Is it bad because _Wellington's_ is an 'adjective'?
  Barzun himself identifies it earlier as the possessive case of
  a proper NAME, which makes it the possessive case of a NOUN.
  If it is a noun, it can readily enough serve as antecedent of
  a pronoun.  One of the two grammatical tags applied to
  _Wellington's_ has been allowed to DEFINE the sentence as wrong.
  If it is wrong, the main trouble lies elsewhere, and is too
  tedious to unravel here.  The reader may consider whether the
  following sound better, and try to work out the problem for

    This is delicious - I would say your _mother's_ pies are
      the things _she_ does best.
    The _carpet's_ deep pile is what makes _it_ pleasant to
      walk on. [fn 9, about barzun's odd restriction of the PAP
      to proper names]
    _Wellington's_ victory at Waterloo make _him_ the most
      famous man in Europe.  [note shift of "greatest name" to
      "most famous man".]

  (One might also ask if _The victory of Wellington at Waterloo
  made him the greatest name in Europe_ is not just as bad as
  the original.)

    PRESCRIPTION [to the shaman]  A lesson on discourse analysis,
  to find out about topics and comments, subjects and predicates,
  and their relations.  Also a lesson on comparative grammar, to
  get a better appreciation of grammatical categories and their

so, once again, i'm following up on dwight from long ago (1980, in
this case).  there is a sweet sadness in all this.  dwight and i
carried on friendly disputes for decades, and now, increasingly, i
find that i'm taking up his themes, and even his specific examples.
not always consciously, or with attribution.  surely i read his
critique of the Possessive Antecedent Proscription at least twice, but
i didn't consciously recall it and was startled indeed to come across
it during today's re-reading.

(dwight's been much in my mind these days, because he was the
second of the four people whose hands i've held on a death watch,
my partner jacques being the most recent.)

on a less personal note, dwight's work is remarkable because he was
simultaneously an incisive critic of evasive and deceptive language
and also a passionate defender of the intrinsic virtues (brevity,
clarity, regularity, politeness, and all that) of the language of
everyday life, including casual, innovative, and nonstandard

arnold (zwicky at

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