Thursday, April 27, 2006

Possession is nine-tenths of the whatsit

Some Australians write "girls school". In a couple of places I have worked, it has even been an item in the house style. The writers of the style guides have argued that it is attributive, like "dog" in "dog bowl". But it isn't and it's easy to show why not.

The usage has been born out of an artefact of pronunciaton: the two forms, possessive and plain, are spoken the same way. So people began to drop the apostrophe because, after all, it doesn't affect the way you say it.

But here's the thing. You can have a boys school, a girls school, a ladies toilet and a bucks night but you cannot have a men toilet.

This is nothing new, of course. I daresay Lynne Truss mentions it in her book. But I had cause to think about it because I ran up against another sound-driven change in grammar.

Purists -- of which I sometimes am, sometimes am not one, depending whether I've woken up feeling the world is wonderful or needs putting to rights -- are clinging on to the possession of gerunds, fighting a bitter retreat in the face of a world that doesn't think language needs to be "logical" or sensible (which of course it does not).

I still write "he regretting his taking it" and "I love Leeds' winning". Gerunds are, as any fule kno, nouns, and require possessing by the nouns that they belong to (or with, I suppose). This distinguishes them from participles, which are adjectives.

But the possessive with the gerund sounds a bit awkward. Most speakers of English are not aware that gerunds are not participles. They look like them and are most often used in constructions that do not make it particularly clear that they are nouns to speakers who are not given to analysing what they say (which is most of us). In some cases, what looks like it might be a gerund is not (I looked at my friend baking in the sun"), adding to the confusion, or it is but does not need possessing ("I took him shopping"). In the spoken language, in particular, gerunds are virtually never possessed. "I saw the plane approaching the runway" just doesn't sound wrong. I would say it.

Language loves to simplify where it can. Where there can be no confusion, often speakers will cut the unneeded extra sounds, streamlining language, particularly when speaking fast. The process of losing the "'s" at the end of nouns that possess gerunds has been hastened by the awkwardness of pronouncing some cases. While "They liked my thinking it" sounds a bit stilted but is easily pronounceable, "They liked his thinking it" is harder to get your tongue round than "They liked him thinking it". Because we use "her" for both the "objective" and the possessive of "she", it is easy to consider that "him" parallels it in this construction.

We won't mourn the possession of gerunds. Few people are clear what a gerund is or why, and language has a remarkable resilience, which allows it to be as illogical as it pleases (a good example is Spanish, which gets by with a double negative without confusion, and in English, the use of "never" to create a simple past negative doesn't ever create confusion -- "I never went there" is plainly understood as "I didn't go there"). The cause of my concern was that my author had insisted on possessing his gerunds, contrary to our house style, but when I pointed out the many, many instances in which he had not possessed them, he claimed his rule was to use the possessive with people (my coming, Smith's having, John's thinking) and not things (the door opening, the car coming). This is nonsense, of course, but it is the same kind of special pleading that allows a "rule" that nouns that end in "s" can be attributive and those that do not cannot be. No way. If you write "girls school", you must write "men toilet". And if you possess your gerunds, you possess them all, not just the ones that seem easy to decide on.

But, Dr Zen, I hear you saying. Surely it doesn't matter. Surely we could just disobey these rules because we are still comprehensible, and we could invoke a rule of euphony that didn't permit "men toilet". Well yes, as with much of the pedantry that surrounds English, you can ignore the rules here without doing much harm. But there will be readers, a small number but those you most likely most want to impress, who will know you went astray and will judge you on it, regardless how good your writing is otherwise. This is why I possess my gerunds. Because I'm good enough to, and the cognoscenti, upon reading me, will see that I'm good enough to and tip the hat, and I like that.


Anonymous BusinessLaw said...

I tend to possess my gerunds in writing and very frequently in speech, but have noticed that essentially no one else does--OK, my mother did, but she was an English teacher.

I recently began to wonder whether it was even correct (I also try not to be prescriptivist, but it slips out once in a while) to do so--since no one else does it. But I can't bring myself to say, let alone write, such things as, Him running down the street caused a commotion.

December 8, 2008 at 5:44 AM  

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