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October 19, 2003


Gerunds, Participles, Scalia, and Sodomy

scaliaIn this week's "On Language" column, William Safire explains how Antonin Scalia's poor grammar got him in political hot water. In his dissent in Lawrence v. Texas, the case allowing sodomy in Texas, Scalia wrote, "I have nothing against homosexuals, or any other group, promoting their agenda through normal democratic means." But when the AP described Scalia's dissent, they left out everything after the word "homosexuals" and so he was quoted as writing "I have nothing against homosexuals," which sounds condescending and a bit offensive, and completely changes the meaning of what he wrote.

So what does this have to do with grammar? Well, as you can see, the word "promoting" is a gerund -- a verb being used as a noun. Therefore, "homosexuals" should properly have an apostrophe after the "s", indicating that Scalia has "nothing against" homosexuals' promoting. Scalia says he left out the apostrophe because of his insertion of the phrase "or any other group." To be grammatically correct, he would have had to have written "...nothing against homosexuals', or any other group's, promoting..." He decided writing it like that that would be too unwieldy, so he abandoned the apostrophe. Of course, had he left the apostrophe in, it would have made it much more difficult for the AP to abridge his quotation and change its meaning.

fowlerThe grammatical point that Safire is making here is one that people seem to be forgetting lately: it is incorrect to write "I'm not sure what to think of the girl dancing." Instead, you should write "I'm not sure what to think of the girl's dancing." But according to Robert Burchfield, the editor of the new edition of Fowler's Modern English Usage, using the possessive form of a common noun with a gerund (as in the previous sentence) is on the way out, but he still supports it when using personal pronouns or proper nouns. "The possessive with gerund is on the retreat, but its use with proper names and personal nouns and pronouns persists in good writing," he says. It seems to me that what he's saying is that you should write "I'm not sure what to think of Amy's dancing" -- because "Amy" is a proper noun -- but then you should also write "I'm not sure what to think of the girl dancing." Does that many any sense? I don't think so. I think Burchfield's position is confusing and contradictory. Safire doesn't get into why Burchfield feels this way, so we're left to assume that Burchfield doesn't want to be pedantic and is ceding ground to sloppy writers.

dfwI don't think David Foster Wallace would be happy with this turn of events at all. You may remember Dave's lengthy disquisition on the state of contemporary grammar a couple years ago in Harper's in which he declared himself to be a "snoot," a person who is unwilling to yield on matters of grammar. In the essay, he delves into the most recent edition of Fowler's and some guides to American usage, and determines that there is a sort of war going on between snoods and non-snoods, and the non-snoods are winning. When even the editor of the grammar and usage bible Fowler's is surrendering on the issue of possessives before gerunds, I have to think he's right.

categories: Culture
posted by adm at 2:31 PM | #


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