[DWJ] A grammar realization - Where are we from?

Colin Fine colin at kindness.demon.co.uk
Fri Apr 13 19:39:09 EDT 2007

Minnow wrote:
> Colin was wilfully provocative:
>> I can't imagine how you can live without being
>> able to tell whether 'your books' refers to one or many possessors.
> Medievalists don't have that problem: it's either "thy books" or "your books".
> But then, medievalists often don't have to deal with any punctuation at
> all, and there's glory for you!  This might explain why many medievalists
> of my acquaintance cleave to punctuation so strongly, and get almost
> unreasonable when people try to wrest it from them.  (Cleave being one of
> those lovely words in English that means the opposite of itself as well.)
Yes, isn't it wonderful. 'Clip' is another. I think they have been 
dubbed 'autantonyms'.

> In any case I'm not sure why 'your books' should be thought to be a
> problem: one must presume that the reader or readers will know whether he
> or she or it or they is or are singular or plural, surely?  Second person
> writing carries that with it as a given.
My point is that because we don't have a writing convention that 
distinguishes in that case, people don't appear to get very upset at the 
ambiguity - indeed, don't normally notice it is there. I claim that 
actual, significant ambiguity in 'the girls books' is vanishingly rare, 
and it is only the damned hook that prompts people to make a fuss - and, 
further, that nine times out of ten (at a conservative estimate) their 
response is not 'huh?' but 'that's wrong' - which indicates that it was 
certainly not ambiguous because they knew perfectly well what it meant.

> I know perfectly well what is going on here, by the way: you got as far as
> about half-way through the first chapter of Lynne Truss's *Eats, Shoots and
> Leaves*, having fumed your way through the introduction, before you threw
> it from you in fury because she irritated you so much, and that chapter is
> called "The Tractable Apostrophe"; you're still suffering from a desperate
> and unfulfilled desire to clonk her with the book, and since you can't do
> that, any mention of the apostrophe reminds you of that frustration, and
> causes your fists to clench and steam to come out of your ears in a series
> of short puffs which when interpreted by a Native American expert in
> smoke-signals clearly read "I'll get that snooty cow if it's the last thing
> I do!", and you launch yourself at surrogate Lynne Trusses wherever you
> perceive them.  This seems a little unfair on those of us who are quite
> fond of the harmless necessary apostrophe, but we still wuv oo weally.
> Almost all the time we do.  It makes us want to ruffle your hair and murmur
> soothing things like "There, there, wozzums a diddums wozzums den?" and
> then run like the blazes or in my case dive behind impenetrable waterweed
> with loud cries of "paxpaxpax!"
No, I've waged war on the thing long before I read Ms Truss. Indeed, I 
put off reading her book for several months, because I expected to get 
annoyed with it; but when I did, I found that once she got past her 
infatuation with the otiose little creature it was quite a reasonable book.

Incidentally, have you read David Crystal's "The Battle for English: How 
the Pundits Ate, Shot and Left". Highly recommended.

Oo. Sorry miss. That naughty Minnow keeps poking me back, so I have to 
show her what's what, don't I miss?


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