Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Wonders, Wishes and Sighs

So I read the book (Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss) when I was...*thinks* ten years old. And was quite delighted, since I'd noticed a lot of punctuation errors like the ones documented, and was beginning to despair of anyone (including my parents) ever seeing the grammatical light. That, however, was an age at which I was accustomed to accept any opinon, so long as it was stated firmly enough, as correct.


Having come across it and immediately thought of the delight it gave me during that 2004 trip to Shimla, I picked it up again a few days ago. And was immediately surprised at what seemed to be my new assertive avatar.

For one:

It is time to confess that I have for many years struggled with one of the lesser rules of the apostrophe. I refer to the "double possessive", which is evidently a perfectly respectable grammatical construction, but simply jars with me, and perhaps always will. We see it all the time in newspapers:

"Elton John, a friend of the footballer's, said last night . . ."
"Elton John, a friend of the couple's, said last night . . ."
"Elton John, a friend of the Beckhams', said last night . . ."

Well, pass me the oxygen, Elton, and for heaven's sake, stop banging on about your glitzy mates for a minute while I think. A friend of the footballer's? Why isn't it, "a friend of the footballer"? Doesn't the construction "of the" do away with the need for another possessive? I mean to say, why do those sweet little Beckhams need to possess Elton John twice? Or is that a silly question?

At this, I was stunned to find myself thinking, Yes, goddamn it, it IS a silly question; if this bothers you, why are you writing a book about punctuation at all? Of course, that was an exaggeration, because the rest of the book is very nice indeed, but why in the world would the so-called double possessive bother anyone with an instinct for the language?

The second:

Some historians of grammar claim, incidentally, that the original possessive use of the apostrophe signified a contraction of the historic “his”; and personally, I believed this attractive theory for many years, simply on the basis of knowing Ben Jonson’s play 'Sejanus, his Fall', and reas­oning that this was self-evidently halfway to “Sejanus’s Fall”. But blow me, if there aren’t differ­ences of opinion. There are other historians of grammar who say this Love-His-Labour-Is-Lost explanation is ignorant conjecture and should be forgotten as soon as heard.
Certainly the Henry-His-Wives (Henry’s Wives) rationalisation falls down noticeably when applied to female possessives, because “Elizabeth Her Reign” would have ended up logically as “Elizabeth’r Reign”, which would have had the regrettable result ofmaking people sound a) a bit stupid, b) a bit drunk, or c) a bit from the West Country.

Now wait a minute. I appreciate the author's sentiments, but even as an ardent feminist myself, I'm not blind to the chauvinism displayed by people in general. Even now. And particularly in the said seventeenth century. Why, since ancient times the entire world has been oriented toward saying 'mankind' to describe the human race, and 'He' to refer to God, and 'Fortune knocks once at every man's door'. (And, pray, what about the women?)
And so, when they decided to apply the so-called Love-His-Labour-Is-Lost theory when it came to possessives, why shouldn't they have thought it an excellent idea to tack on an 's' to feminine possessives as well, hence 'Elizabeth's Reign'? I may be appallingly cynical, but who's to say it didn't happen like that?

Chauvinism everywhere. Even in punctuation. Well, can't say the world isn't going to the dogs now. Eh.

I mean, Oh dear, we can't just leave these ladies without possessives or they'll start agitating again! Where will it end? The abolition of the monarchy? A woman as Prime Minister? Let's just give them their possessive and be done with it, eh?...Oh certainly, sir, whatever you say; can't have that lot getting above themselves, can we, sir?