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.
The Timesman fell into a double genitive. The “of” in “close friend of” provided all the attribution the sentence required. Words are precious! Waste them not!
Possessive constructions evidently trouble many writers. Consider these Horrid Examples:
— From the Times: “In-person voter fraud is extremely rare, and there is no evidence of it occurring in Indiana.”
— From a movie review in The Washington Post: “‘The Bucket List’ couldn’t possibly have been made without someone going into a meeting somewhere in Greater LA …”
— From columnist Robert Novak: “McCain’s nomination would result from him being the last man standing …”
— From an editorial in The Washington Post urging sick leave for city employees: “The public would be served by sick people staying home and not spreading illness.”
Those “-ing” words were GERUNDS, for Pete’s sake! They may have looked like verbs, but they were nouns in drag. They should have been treated as such. Thus, “no evidence of ITS occurring,” and “SOMEONE’S going into a meeting,” and “HIS being the last man standing,” and “sick PEOPLE’S staying home.”
A letter comes to hand from Rex Allison in Seattle. He is in a lamentation mode, grieving for the decline of grammar. He cites a passage in a novel, “The Loop,” by Joe Coomer: “He could tell instinctively that Fiona was smarter than him.” Aaarrgh! Reader Allison reasonably asks, “Shouldn’t it be ‘smarter than he’?
Well, of course the construction demands a nominative “he” rather than the objective “him,” but novelist Coomer deserves a word of sympathy: There is no way that his sentence can be made to fall trippingly from the tongue. It should have been scrapped and the idea recast, e.g., “He could tell instinctively that Fiona was a really smart cookie.” Other alternatives will perhaps come more readily to mind.
Grant Shepard, who dwells somewhere in Cyberspace, returns to a battle that defies armistice — the Battle for Relative Pronouns. He expresses ritual obeisance for the “women’s movement” that has worthily striven for political, social and economic equality — but, he complains, “the crazies in the movement have wreaked great harm.” Specifically, feminists have insisted that it is sexist to write that “everyone must do HIS share.” He correctly regards the alternative THEIR share as an abomination He adds:
“Witness a couple of examples from a column by Susan Estrich that appeared in the Medford, Ore., Mail Tribune on Jan. 25: ‘and everyone shakes THEIR heads at these kids …’ and, ‘An actor is just dressing bizarrely … to drum up some interest in THEMSELVES.’ This sorry practice has become well nigh universal, and I suppose it’s too late to try to beat back the tide.”
It’s never too late! But when everyone shakes THEIR heads, and no one flinches, it’s getting on toward syntactical gloom.
(Readers are invited to send dated citations of usage to Mr. Kilpatrick in care of this newspaper. His e-mail address is kilpatjj(at)aol.com.)