Monthly Archives: November 2012

Double Genitive: It Only Sounds Dirty

Sarah squeezed John’s hand with enough force that, were it coal, she might have produced a diamond, but John scarcely noticed. The delivery room dissolved into a white and grey void where all that existed was his child, entering the world in a feat of biological wonder that, though he didn’t know it at the time, would leave him to forever marvel at his wife’s—and all women’s—capacity to create life.

The doctor held the newborn, so small, so vulnerable. Was it a boy, John wondered, or a girl? The doctor met John’s eyes. Something was wrong! “Oh, no,” the doctor said.

“What is it?” Sarah asked, again bearing down on John’s hand.

“Your child . . .” the doctor started.

“What? Tell us,” John blurted.

The doctor’s face went pale. “Your child has a double genitive!”


Anyone who’s seen the twin girls in Stanley Kubrick’s film version of Stephen King’s The Shining knows how disturbing doubles can be. Perhaps part of the blame lies in the inordinate number of times we’ve been told that no two snowflakes are alike, or maybe it’s just that our single points of consciousness reject the notion of a duplicate, but whatever the case, people feel a little frisson of horror at the appearance of a doppelganger.

The sensation many people experience when they come upon a double genitive might not approach actual horror, but at the very least it can be described as unsettling.

A double genitive, also called a double possessive, occurs when possession is indicated both by the preposition of and the possessive form of a noun or pronoun (for example, the baby of John’s).

The double genitive serves a dual purpose of making otherwise surefooted readers question themselves. It’s the kind of construction that one might pass over a thousand times and never give a second thought, until one day it’s looked at in a slightly different light and the reader says to him- or herself: That can’t be right!

There are in fact grammatical purists who will insist that it isn’t right, largely owing to its not having a corresponding construction (a literary doppelganger?) in Latin. The construction has been around for centuries, however, and is perfectly acceptable in all but the most formal writing.


This week’s reading list:

The Double by Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Double by Jose Saramago


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Easy (Writing) Like a Sunday Morning

The writer sat before his typewriter and prepared to write. He laced his fingers together, turned his palms outward, and stretched his arms. I’m ready, he thought, and felt a comforting hand on his back as Easy took a seat beside him.

Where to begin? pondered the writer. Easy smiled and reached into his sack, pulling from it a string of words. “Try these,” Easy offered.

The writer placed them on the page. The words were recognizable, and they seemed a likely place to start. “A few more,” said Easy, again reaching into his sack. “These should follow nicely.” And indeed they did.

I’m writing! thought the writer. As the writer brought his hands together, excited enough to clap, Easy placed more words between them, and the writer couldn’t resist.

The page filled nicely, and the writer began another page, and another. Easy reached again and again into his sack, but the bag looked as full as ever. The writer wondered where the language came from and whose thoughts it represented, but the ease of putting words on the page overcame any misgivings.

I’m writing, thought the writer, but he no longer believed it.

* * *

George Orwell attacked “easy” writing in his essay “Politics and the English Language.” In it, Orwell writes, “Modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.”

Orwell marks easy writing by staleness of imagery and a lack of precision. He says that easy writing consists of ready-made phrases that will fall together on the page, forming your sentences for you and thereby forming your thoughts as well.

His essay is directed primarily at political writing, but his advice applies to any language we commit to the page. I think we all recognize what he means, and, even if it’s hard to acknowledge, we can see it in our own writing. Perhaps such language is inevitable in our first draft, but when we begin rewriting, we can ask ourselves the questions that Orwell suggests:

  1. What am I trying to say?
  2. What words will express it?
  3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
  4. Is the image fresh enough to have an effect?

Orwell then recommends two further questions:

  1. Could I put it more shortly?
  2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

Writing without ready-made phrases is difficult, even painful, but as has been so often said, writing is rewriting. When the words pour from us and fill out the pages we want so badly to look at our work and feel it’s perfect that there’s a barrier we find difficult to breach. The urge to send a piece out and have others affirm our high opinion of it is almost irresistible. It’s a struggle to go sentence by sentence and question our language, to ask whether we could use stronger, more effective nouns and verbs. Perhaps when we do so we find we haven’t said much of anything at all and have to dig back into our work. And perhaps in the process we open up our writing to new possibilities. Perhaps our language becomes more precise. Perhaps our readers reap greater rewards from the text they are kind enough to dedicate their time to reading.

Orwell goes on to discuss stale metaphors, pretentious diction, and meaningless words. I haven’t done the essay justice, but I strongly believe that it should be required reading for any writer.

Final thought:

Lionel Richie’s “Easy” is a great song (though I’m partial to the Faith No More rendition), but Easy is not your friend. Writing is a solitary endeavor and should hurt a bit. I’m telling this to the only person I have any right to say it to, myself, but you might want to say it as well:

Easy, my old friend, take a hike.

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Say, what’s the rumpus? I ain’t going back to the big house, see? I’ll fill ya full of lead, copper! I’ll fit you for a Chicago overcoat, see?

Too many ellipses on a page and the text begins to look as though a 1930s-era gangster had strafed it with a tommy gun. Rat-a-tat-tat! Ellipses represent omitted text and are also used in dialogue to indicate pauses and trailing off. (Judge me if you will, but I’ll also cop to using them excessively in e-mail and when chatting.)

The presentation of ellipses, however, is the cause of much disagreement. Should you use spaces between the periods? Should you use a nonbreaking ellipsis character? Why do you sometimes see four periods?

The Chicago Manual of Style, my go-to reference, recommends using three spaced periods with a space before the first period and a space after the third (“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning . . . he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”) This is my preference. My eyes flow easily from period to period, and I’m reminded of a stone skipping across water.

For a quotation, Chicago recommends using the terminal punctuation followed by the ellipsis when the omitted text follows the end of a complete sentence (“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. . . .”). There we have the four periods, which aren’t a four-period ellipsis at all but a period followed by an ellipsis. Note that there is no space between the last word of the sentence and the terminal period.

To some eyes, three spaced periods are not as attractive as a formatted ellipsis character or simply three typed periods with no spaces in between. Holding the periods in such a tight little bundle seems too cramped to me, like people standing shoulder to shoulder in an elevator, but some styles call for this, and doing so keeps ellipses from breaking across lines. You would never want to see two periods at the end of a line with the third stranded at the beginning of the next line.

Some styles even call for no spaces to either side of the ellipsis (“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning…he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”) I would think this would leave the periods feeling as hemmed in as the characters in the trash-compactor scene in Star Wars, but, as editors, we must comply with the style our clients specify.

Complicating matters further is that some styles call for the ellipsis (no matter how it’s formatted) to come before terminal punctuation if the omitted material comes before the end of the sentence (As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning . . . .). This practice makes it perfectly understandable why people could get the impression there is such a thing as a four-period ellipsis, but there is not, and understanding this makes it easier to adhere to whatever style you’re following.

One of the publishers for whom I proof favors the ellipsis at the end of promotional copy for the purposes of dramatic trailing off. The copy might read along these lines:

     The desperadoes thought their reign of terror would last forever,
but Johnny Gunhammer had other plans . . .

The problem is that sometimes the publisher, for no apparent reason, insists on using four periods in this construction. I suspect there might be the thought that if three periods are dramatic, four would be really dramatic. It’s enough to make you want to reach for a tommy gun.



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I Come to Bury Verbs, Not to Praise Them

Mourners of the soon-to-be-buried verb looked on as the coffin descended into the open grave. The question mark hunched over in grief. The exclamation point stood bolt upright, its posture a salute to its good friend’s passing. Three periods stood side by side, a single space between them. They looked off into the distance, elliptical expressions only hinting at the emotions roiling within.

As a pair of quotation marks prepared to say something profound, a single, overriding concern passed among the congregants: Why, cruel Fate? Why?

Every day, all across the land, people are burying verbs. The practice undoubtedly seems like something that happens elsewhere, something that happens to other people, in other neighborhoods. The truth, however, is that it occurs closer to home than most would care to think.

A buried verb, also referred to as a smothered verb or nominalization, results when a verb is hidden within a noun phrase. If a person says “She made an agreement” instead of “She agreed,” then that person has buried the verb.

The following are a few other examples of buried verbs:

  • take a look (instead of “look”)
  • make a recommendation (instead of “recommend”)
  • make the argument (instead of “argue”)

One consequence of using buried verbs is that the writer is unnecessarily adding words. Another is that the writer is obscuring meaning. By their nature, nouns are less active than verbs, so employing a noun to do the heavy lifting for a sentence deadens the language.

The verb is the engine that makes the sentence run, and people can always improve their writing by using stronger verbs. For the same reason, as Stephen King recommended in his fantastic book On Writing, people should not use adverbs to cover up weak verbs.

This does not mean that people should never use buried verbs or adverbs, but a careful writer is aware of their potentially adverse effect on a sentence. When editing your work, these are two more things to keep your eye on. And honestly, considering the doleful expressions in the scene above, burying a verb may not be worth the guilt that is sure to follow.

Note: In the first paragraph, I used the phrase “side by side.” This phrase is not hyphenated when used as an adverb, as above, but it is hyphenated when used as an adjective (“side-by-side periods”). A similar expression, “face-to-face,” is hyphenated as both an adverb and an adjective. No wonder people have such a difficult time with hyphenation!

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