The Right Word in the Right Place at the Right Time: Wit and Wisdom from the Popular "On Language" Column in The New York Times Magazine

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The author of No Uncertain Terms and Words of Wisdom presents a wealth of humorous new investigations into language, usage, words, speech, and writing. 25,000 first printing.

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About the Author:

William Safire is a senior columnist for The New York Times.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction

We will come to sodomy in a moment. To stagger together through today's column about grammatical possessiveness, you and I must agree on the difference between a gerund and a participle.

Take the word dancing. It starts out as a form of a verb: "Look, Ma, I'm dancing!" When that word is used as an adjective to modify a noun -- "look at that dancing bear!" -- it's called a participle.

But when the same word is used as a noun -- "I see the bear, and its dancing isn't so hot" -- then the word is classified as a gerund. (From the Latin gerundum, rooted in gerere, "to bear, to carry," because the gerund, though a noun, seems to bear the action of a verb.)

We give the same word these different names to tell us what it's doing and what its grammatical needs are. Two great grammarians had a titanic spat in the 1920s over the use of the possessive in this sentence: "Women having the vote reduces men's political power." H. W. Fowler derided what he called "the fused participle" as "grammatically indefensible" and said it should be "Women's having"; Otto Jespersen cited famous usages, urged dropping the possessive and called Fowler a "grammatical moralizer."

Comes now Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia with the latest manifestation of this struggle. An Associated Press account of his stinging dissent in Lawrence v. Texas, in which the Court struck down that state's anti-sodomy law, quoted Scalia out of context as writing, "I have nothing against homosexuals," which seemed condescending. His entire sentence, though, was not: "I have nothing against homosexuals, or any other group, promoting their agenda through normal democratic means."

Note the lack of apostrophes after homosexuals and group to indicate possession; Fowler would have condemned that as a "fused participle." Such loosey-goosey usage from the conservative Scalia, of all people?

"When I composed the passage in question," the justice informs me, "I pondered for some time whether I should be perfectly grammatical and write 'I have nothing against homosexuals', or any other group's, promoting their agenda,' etc. The object of the preposition 'against,' after all, is not 'homosexuals who are promoting,' but rather 'the promoting of (in the sense of by) homosexuals.'

"I have tried to be rigorously consistent in using the possessive before the participle," Scalia notes, "when it is the action, rather than the actor, that is the object of the verb or preposition (or, for that matter, the subject of the sentence)."

But what about his passage in Lawrence, in which he failed to follow Fowler and fused the participle?

"I concluded that because of the intervening phrase 'or any other group,' writing 'homosexuals' " -- with the apostrophe indicating possession -- "(and hence 'any other group's') would violate what is perhaps the first rule of English usage: that no construction should call attention to its own grammatical correctness. Finding no other formulation that could make the point in quite the way I wanted, I decided to be ungrammatical instead of pedantic."

But his attempt to be a regular guy backfired. In a jocular tone, Scalia observes: "God -- whom I believe to be a strict grammarian as well as an Englishman -- has punished me. The misquotation would have been more difficult to engineer had there been an apostrophe after 'homosexuals.' I am convinced that in this instance the AP has been (unwittingly, I am sure) the flagellum Dei to recall me from my populist, illiterate wandering. (You will note that I did not say 'from me wandering.')"

My does beat me before that gerund wandering. Robert Burchfield, editor of the third edition of Fowler's Modern English Usage, writes, "The possessive with gerund is on the retreat, but its use with proper names and personal nouns and pronouns persists in good writing."

Now let's parse Scalia's self-parsing. In his refusal to say "from me wandering," wandering is a gerund. When a personal pronoun comes in front of a gerund, the possessive form is called for: say my, not me. This avoidance of a fused participle makes sense: you say about the above-mentioned bear "I like his dancing," not "I like him dancing," because you want to stress not the bear but his action in prancing about.

In Scalia's dissent in the Texas sodomy case, promoting is a gerund, the object of the preposition against. His strict-construction alternative, using apostrophes to indicate possession -- "against homosexuals', or any other group's, promoting" -- is correct but clunky. He was right to avoid it, and is wrong to castigate himself for eschewing clunkiness.

There would have been another choice, however: put the gerund ahead of the possessors. Try this: "I have nothing against the promoting of their agenda by homosexuals, or by any other group, through normal democratic means." That would not only avoid the confusing apostrophes, but follows "I have nothing against" with its true object, the gerund promoting -- and would make it impossible for any reporter to pull out a condescending "I have nothing against homosexuals."


Regarding your proposed solution to my gerundial problem (to wit, "I have nothing against the promoting of their agenda by homosexuals, or by any other group, through normal democratic means"): It is so obvious that of course I considered it. Two problems. (1) I do not like to have a relative pronoun preceding its antecedent, as in "the promoting of their agenda by homosexuals." (2) More importantly, English remains a language in which emphasis is largely conveyed by word order, and the emphasis in my sentence was upon homosexuals' promoting, not upon (where your alternative places it) the promoting by homosexuals. Surely you can sense the difference.

Justice Antonin Scalia
Supreme Court of the United States
Washington, D.C.

Copyright © 2004 by The Cobbett Corporation

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