relevant indeed

Geoffrey Nunberg nunberg at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Thu Jun 26 22:46:25 UTC 2003

Nicely told and retold. One interesting sidelight of Bolinger's
remarks is that old-fashioned prescriptivists steeped in the
tradition of Latin grammar would not have been tempted to describe
the genitive as an adjective, which after alll would be inconsistent
with the notion of its being an inflection of the noun. That may help
to explain why this particular rule didn't surface until recent
times, when the critical tradition was becoming increasingly thin and


>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
>   himself:
>     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
>   relativity.
>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

More information about the Ads-l mailing list