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.

Thursday, April 6, 2006

Converted to good usage

Someone I know -- I won't link it because the aim is not to embarrass but to discuss -- asked her readership whether one proselytises "to" someone else. One doesn't. You proselytise people. The reason she was confused was almost certainly because she shares a common misconception about the word.

"Proselytise" does not mean "preach with the aim of converting". It simply means "convert". By extension, we can use it to mean "act with the intention of converting". It can be intransitive, so that if I say "he is proselytising", I mean "he is trying to convert people".

A "proselyte", a Bible scholar will tell you, was a convert to Judaism. It means "stranger, incomer". The sense of being a convert has been extended to other religions, so that you might call all new converts "proselytes". When you know this, it becomes apparent that "proselytise" means simply "make a proselyte" in the same way that "politicise" means "make political" or "regularise" means "make regular".

What does this show? It shows that knowing what a word means is not always a simple matter of knowing what the dictionary says it means, or thinking you know what it would say if you looked it up, but can include knowing why it means. Having that greater knowledge helps the writer understand the words he or she uses and use them correctly, without stumbling. And it means that I know that if I want to talk about missionaries' converting tribespeople in the Sudan, I will write that they are "proselytising Africans" and not that they are "proselytising to Africans", which would be nonsense.

A gap closes

A thousand years from today, evolution will be like gravity, so commonplace as not to raise a murmur. Often, when science has met dogmatism, science has won. It is almost inevitable that it will: science largely rests on evidence, facts, observations (not always, of course; it is practised by humans, after all).

Those who want to believe that God "designed" animals the way they currently are find themselves considerably embarrassed by the existence of fossils of animals that are no longer with us. They weaselled out of that by suggesting that God created all sorts of life but did not expect or want it all to last forever. What he did not do, they insist, is allow it to evolve. Quite why they can't simply adapt their dogma to include evolution, I don't know. It would be a smart designer indeed who used evolution as his or her means to create abundant life.

A prop for the creationists has always been that the fossil record is patchy and has "gaps". These are an artefact of its being so unlikely for a fossil to survive, given the need for particular conditions at the time of the organism's death and for the fossil to survive for millions of years in a world that suffers upheaval and change.

The discovery of the "fishapod" closes one of those gaps. Here is one of those "transitional" fossils that the creationists demand, claiming that their lack is proof that evolution does not happen.

But it does. Fish walked out from the sea and became land animals. Tiktaalik roseae is a snapshot: one creature in that chain of creatures -- at one end fish, at the other tetrapods. Tiktaalik is neither one nor the other, precisely. It is a creature in transition. Of course, in its day, it was the end of the line. (We forget that about evolution, particularly when we write articles titled "Is Man Still Evolving?" Evolution is not a process with an endpoint, and we are not finished in any sense that T. roseae was not.)

It gives me a small thrill to realise that T. roseae might be an ancestor of mine (some would say the resemblance to a crocodile proves it). Our lives are meagre, insubstantial, soon forgotten, but the chain of being that we are part of stretches back billions of years to a molecule in a warm pond and will, if our genes are lucky and we don't manage to exterminate ourselves and all other life at some point, stretch into a future as deep as the past that was home to T. roseae.