The rules for Double Possessives can be confusing and can cause problems if you are not paying careful attention.
Which is correct:
The brother of my supervisor’s is also a good friend of mine.
The brother of my supervisor is also a good friend of mine.
Some would claim that the of my supervisor phrase itself is possessive and that using both the of my supervisor phrase and the apostrophe makes it a double possessive. The question here is this: should the apostrophe -s be written at the end of the word supervisor?
Now, if you reorder the sentence and get rid of the of phrase, using my supervisor’s brother instead, then it is easy.
My supervisor’s brother is also a good friend of mine.
The answer: According to Fowler’s Modern English Usage and other sources, brother of my supervisor’s is correct. Why? Well, consider the ambiguity otherwise, e.g., the king’s photograph. Is the king’s photograph a likeness of the king or is it a photograph belonging to the king? We can use an “of phrase” to help remove the ambiguity.
I don’t know which king is in question here — Elvis? Hank Aaron (the home run king)? Barry Bonds (the steroid king)? Benny Goodman (the king of swing)? Anyway, regardless of which king …
I have a photograph of the king. That is, I have a picture that is a likeness of the king.
I have a photograph of the king’s. That is, I have a picture that belongs to the king.
Of course, there is another (related) ambiguity that caused confusion throughout my childhood. Baseball card collectors tend to talk about Hank Aaron’s baseball card. “Look Mom, I just got Hank Aaron’s baseball card!”
In my vast baseball card collection, I don’t have Hank Aaron’s baseball cards. Presumably he does. I have baseball cards of Hank Aaron.
I went to a baseball card show, and I bought the Queen of England’s baseball card.
That’s different than saying
I went to a baseball card show, and I bought a baseball card of the Queen of England.
I picked up a toy of my chihuahua’s off the floor.
I picked up a toy of my chihuahua off the floor.
(Was the thing I picked up a plastic replica of my chihuahua? I’m not sure what I would do with such a thing. Maybe I could put it on the front porch to scare away erstwhile burglars.)
The double possessive has been around at least since the 1500s. Chaucer used it and Shakespeare used it. The good news is that you can use it too!
Where would we be without commas semicolons colons dashes hyphens question marks periods exclamation marks and parentheses Life would be tough and these sentences while still able to be parsed would not be able to be read as smoothly as they otherwise would be That would not be any fun Oh yes the apostrophe too is something that would be missed along with ellipses
Can you imagine trying to tease apart a sentence like this Last night for dinner I ate my dog Max went for a run and then suffered from massive indigestion Later I dressed to kill my wife made dinner and then we went to the movies
I for one am glad we have commas because it would be messy otherwise Take a look at this sentence
Mom you smell pretty bad flowers would neither help nor hinder
So who is glad that we have punctuation I am A duck waddling in the room said that is okay just put it on my bill
What is wrong with these sentences?
1. Running along the pavement, the mountains provided a glorious scenic background.
2. To eat ice cream in a cone, the ice cream must be somewhat still frozen.
3. At the age of two, my father moved us to Lafayette, Indiana.
4. Out of shape and overweight, the doctor says that Aunt Ruth needs to eat less and exercise more.
5. Spiraling through the air, the quarterback threw a touchdown pass to win the game.
6. Leaping like a gazelle, the crowd watched the halfback evade tacklers all the way to the end zone.
English is a funny language, whether we intend for the sentences we write to be funny (or not). Dangling sentences, where adverbs or adjectives are attached to the wrong things, occur most frequently when those adverbial or adjectival modifiers are at the beginning of the sentence.
Adjectives and adverbs tend to want to be attached to the nearest noun available, and sometimes (if we’re not paying attention) we get it all wrong.
In #1 above, the mountains are not running along the pavement. That would be quite a sight, indeed.
Correction: As we ran along the pavement, the mountains provided a glorious scenic background.
In #2 above, the ice cream is not going to eat ice cream in a cone. That would be kind of weird (and maybe cannibalistic on the ice cream’s part).
Correction: To eat ice cream in a cone, you want the ice cream to be somewhat still frozen. Or maybe even better is this: If you want to eat ice cream in a cone, the ice cream must be somewhat still frozen.
In #3 above, my father was not two years old when he moved us to Lafayette.
Correction: When I was two years old, my father moved us to Lafayette, Indiana.
In #4 above, perhaps the doctor is indeed out of shape and overweight. That’s how it comes across.
Correction: The doctor says that Aunt Ruth, out of shape and overweight, needs to eat less and exercise more.
In #5 above, that would be quite an athlete who could throw a touchdown pass while he is spiraling through the air.
Correction: Spiraling through the air, the quarterback’s touchdown pass won the game.
In #6 above, it is unlikely that the crowd leaped like a gazelle.
Correction: Leaping like a gazelle, the halfback evaded tacklers all the way to the end zone.
Generally, we can probably figure out the meaning of the sentence. Still, we should strive for accuracy. Don’t laugh too loudly at the next dangling error you hear. Your turn is coming.
“While I’m in the time machine, I still can’t get over the fact that we’re doing this,” declared an excited Aunt Ruth. “I know it’s a long ways there, but you know I’m not adverse to travel, and I’m so anxious to speak with Abraham Lincoln that I can almost taste it. All I’m waiting on is for this machine to go as fast as it can go. All right, are we ready to precede? Let’s get on with it. I want to meet Mr. Lincoln; plus, I’m hungry as a bear.”
At that moment, though, I put my hands to my mouth and did perhaps my best grammar police call ever: “One Adam Twelve, One Adam Twelve, we have numerous and severe shreddings of the English language in a time machine located at the corner of Fourteenth and Vine. Be on the lookout for a handsome nephew, accompanied by the perpetrator, a vastly overweight and senile old …”
WHAM! The umbrella came down on my head with a fury that hasn’t been seen since early on in the grammar classic I Laid an Egg on Aunt Ruth’s Head. I definitely deserved it, and I didn’t even complain as a lump on my head began forming.
“I am not old,” croaked Aunt Ruth. “Now, what were the grammatical difficulties that you encountered in my earlier utterance? Are you, indeed, concerned about the following?”
At this point, she began rattling off the following list of grammatical errors:
- Avoid using while instead of although if it can lead to ambiguities. While could mean at the same time, but it also could mean although or whereas. I said that while I am in the time machine, I still can’t get over the fact that I am doing this. Do I mean that if I were not in the time machine, I would be able to get over that fact?
- When referring to distance, one place is a long way from another place, not a long ways.
- When using adverse or averse, remember that adverse means difficult or unfavorable; averse means being opposed or reluctant. I said I am not adverse to travel, but I should have said I am not averse to travel.
- Anxious carries with it the sense of worry or apprehension. Though I may be anxious in the time machine, I was attempting to express that I was eager to get there. Eager would have been better than anxious.
- I said I was waiting on the machine to go as fast as it can go. I should have said I am waiting for the machine. To wait on someone is what a waiter or waitress does. To wait for something is to be ready or in some state of preparedness for something.
- Precede means to come before something; proceed means to continue. I should have used proceed.
- Do not use plus as a conjunction to connect two independent clauses. When I said, “plus, I’m hungry as a bear,” I should have used and or besides or some other appropriate conjunction.
Aunt Ruth had finished her list. I was stunned. “Aunt Ruth, you mean you knew that you were saying those things incorrectly?”
“Well of course, my dear nephew. I’ve been hanging around you a long time … don’t you think I’m going to do some preemptive research so that I can avoid these grammatical stumbling blocks?”
“I suppose so … but how long have you been doing this?”
“Longer than you think,” she said with a wink. “Now, hop in and let’s go. I’m eager to meet perhaps the greatest president of all time. Beside, I want to give him a surprise.”
“Beside? You mean besides, right?”
“Uh, what’s the difference? I figured since it’s forward and not forwards, and it’s backward and not backwards, that it would be beside and not besides.”
“Well, beside means next to; besides means also or in addition to. Anyway, what’s your surprise for Mr. Lincoln?”
Image via Wikipedia
“Oh, I just wanted to give him a copy of the biography that Carl Sandburg wrote about him.”
“You can’t do that, Aunt Ruth.”
“I cannot? Watch me.”
“Okay, I mean you shouldn’t. Of course you can – you are able – but it’s not a good idea. We shouldn’t mess with history.”
“Well, what if Mr. Lincoln read ahead in the book and found out what was going to happen in the future?”
“That could certainly change things, couldn’t it. Okay, you’re right. I won’t mess with history. So I suppose that means that I shouldn’t give him a copy of the picture of me standing at Mount Ruthmore.”
“Right,” I sighed.
We arrived almost instantly. After all, the year 1863 wasn’t all that long ago, relatively. We found ourselves on a train bound from Washington, D.C., to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The president’s security staff were surprised at our arrival initially, but they quickly got over it and allowed us to mingle with the other passengers on board, including the president himself.
As usually happens when I have an opportunity to speak with someone famous, I stumbled with my conversation with Mr. Lincoln. I had thought of all these great questions, questions of tremendous historical import, but when it came right down to it, all I could really talk about was the weather.
Aunt Ruth, on the other hand, somehow turned on her charm, and she spent over an hour with the president, sitting in a corner of the train car, conversing. I watched them closely, mostly to make sure Aunt Ruth wasn’t overstepping her bounds by trying to change history. The president had a solemn, somber look on his face at first, but eventually he was smiling and I thought I even heard him chuckle a time or two.
The train conductor announced our imminent arrival to Gettysburg, and Aunt Ruth approached me. “We best be going back home now, nephew. I’ve done my part.”
As we were getting into the Time Machine, Mr. Lincoln walked up to say good-bye. “Ruth, thank you for your thoughts. Four score and seven … that’s brilliant. I think I’ll use it. And nephew, I enjoyed talking with you. I share your fascination with the weather. Good-bye, my friends.”
With a push of a button, we were off, back to real life so that we could fight the good fight for the preservation of grammar in the free world. What adventures lay before us? I had no idea, but I knew that any adventure with Aunt Ruth, the indomitable one, was worth it.
I like parentheses (really, I do). Most of you know (I hope so, anyway) that a sentence inside parentheses that is part of a larger (broader) sentence does not have a period at its end, but rather the period goes at the end of the larger sentence.
My dog (Max was his name) could speak Latin.
Even though “Max was his name” is a complete sentence, there’s no period after “name.”
That being said, if the parenthetical clause is a standalone (all by itself) kind of sentence, then indeed the period goes inside.
(Here is an example of a standalone, all by itself, kind of sentence.)
This is for periods and parentheses. The same applies to periods and dashes.
I remember his words clearly – “I wouldn’t cross your Aunt Lucille if I were you” – to this day.
There is no period in the sentence that is remembered clearly.
But … what about question marks and exclamation marks? This is another story.
When sentences ending in question marks or exclamation marks are inside larger sentences, those punctuation marks remain.
Aunt Ruth’s words echoed in my mind (“Hopefully we won’t be late!”) and it was as grating as a block of mozzarella cheese being shredded for pizza.
Aunt Hilda’s question (“Did your wool blanket just move by itself?”) gave me nightmares.
Finally, if a title (e.g., of a play) ends in a question mark or exclamation mark, and if the title is at the end of a sentence, do not add an extra period. Use the punctuation that is part of the title.
I’m going to see the musical Alma, Where Do You Live?
Get it? Got it. Good.
Ring! Ring! Ring!
My telephone, which happened to be one of those big old clunkers with enough oomf that if it fell off the nightstand it would break a toe, was crying out incessantly for someone to answer. That would be I.
“Hello?” I sleepily answered. I looked at the clock. It was three o’clock in the morning.
“Good morning, darling nephew. Do you remember the fruitcake which I gave you last Christmas?” The voice was unmistakably Aunt Ruth’s.
“That you gave me?” I said, correcting her.
“Right. The one which I gave you,” echoed Aunt Ruth.
“No, Aunt Ruth. Not which, but that,” I sighed. Hadn’t we gone over this before?
“Wait. Why is it that and not which?” she asked.
“Boy am I glad you asked,” I said with a smile. “I think it’s time for a short grammar lesson.”
“You want to give me a grammar lesson? It’s three o’clock in the morning.”
“Well, you called me at this early hour to ask me about a fruitcake.”
“Oh, right,” she muttered. “I guess I deserve to be punished. Couldn’t we try bamboo shoots under my nails or something else that might be a notch or two more civilized than your grammar lessons?”
Nonplussed, I continued. “It’s like this. If the information in the clause is essential to the meaning or intent of the sentence, use that. If it’s not, use which. I guess the other way to remember it is this: the which clause goes inside commas, and the that clause does not go inside commas.”
“I think I need some examples,” she sighed.
“Coming right up,” I said cheerily. “Take a look at this. I have two stuffed pterodactyls. One was given to me by my aunt and the other by my uncle. The stuffed pterodactyl that my uncle gave me moved last night.”
There was silence on the other end of the phone. Then I heard her clearing her throat. “So … the ‘that my uncle gave me’ is essential to the meaning of the sentence, so you used that instead of which.”
“You got that right, Babe,” I replied, “and now listen to this one. The pterodactyl, which is my favorite dinosaur, could fly.”
Again, silence, followed by a throat clearing. “This time, the expression – which is my favorite dinosaur – is not essential to the meaning of the sentence, so you used which.”
“You got it.”
“Good,” she sighed. “Anything else?”
“Just a general note that which gets used way too often. Unless it’s essential to the sentence, use that. Now, about the fruitcake …”
“Oh yeah, the fruitcake. I was calling to see if you still had it.”
“Edna’s birthday is tomorrow and I don’t have time to bake her a fruitcake this year.”
“The fruitcake I have is the one that you gave Edna last year.”
There was a long pause. “How, uh, did you know that?” she asked.
“You crossed her name off the label and wrote mine over the top, but you also included the birthday card.”
“Oh dear, how careless of me.”
“And this fruitcake also happened to be the one that you gave me two years ago for Christmas,” I said, triumphantly.
“I did? Did I leave the Christmas card on it?”
“You did. I suspect this cake has been in existence since, oh, 1936, and that it’s gone around the world a few times by now.”
“I didn’t learn to make fruitcakes until 1937.”
“How many have you given as gifts?”
“I think the count is at forty-one.”
“How many have you actually baked?”
“So each of the forty-one has its origin as one of the three?”
“You got that right, Babe.”
“I think it’s time to bake another one.”
“I was afraid you were going to say that,” sighed Aunt Ruth.
“I’m sure this fruitcake, which will be your fourth, will be the best yet.”
“I hope so. It will be the fruitcake that you get next year, too.”
“Say good night, Aunt Ruth.”
“Good night, Aunt Ruth.”
Are you credulous or credible?
Suppose someone comes to you and says, “Hey, did you know that the word ‘gullible’ isn’t in the dictionary?” If you believe that person – or perhaps you try to look the word up in the dictionary – you may be credulous. You may have credulity. That is, you may be gullible.
On the other hand, if someone comes to you and says, “Hey, I need some advice on a grammar question,” then perhaps you are credible. You may have credibility. That is, you may be trusted or believed.
Sometime I think that I have a credulous look about me, somehow, that makes me an easy prey for door to door salespeople. Not that I believe everything, but when someone is trying to sell me something, I try hard to find something good in what he or she is offering. Years ago, we purchased an entire gallon of spot remover from a gentleman who couldn’t pronounce linoleum and whose only explanation for why the spot remover worked so well was the single word enzymes. Fortunately (or not) the spot remover worked so well that it ate through the plastic bottle in which it came.
Interestingly enough, we might use incredulous more often than credulous. Incredulous tends to be used as a synonym for skeptical. Betty gave me an incredulous smile when I told her that I was going to appear on the next episode of Dancing with the Grammarians; Denise gave me an incredulous glance when I told her that the tuba could play a beautiful melody.
The word incredible – not believable – is way overused, in my ever so humble opinion. We use it for amazing, wonderful, great, and awesome, but we don’t use it for not believable.
“Martha,” began Werner, “do you like the hamburger I grilled for you?”
“It’s incredible!” exclaimed Martha.
Was Martha amazed at the quality of the hamburger? Did she like it? Or does she really not believe something about the hamburger? Did the hamburger say something cheesy to her? “Nice buns you’ve got there, Martha.”
“Martha,” said Werner, glancing out the back window, “A thousand chihuahuas just fell out of the sky and landed in Mrs. Plumquist’s bed of geraniums.”
“That’s incredible!” exclaimed Martha.
Martha is surprised, certainly. Is she amazed or does she not believe what Werner is saying?
Of course, it may be even worse if Martha responds with the redundant, “That’s too incredible to believe.”
My parents raised me with the admonition that I shouldn’t try to be anything beyond what I could spell. For years, therefore, I couldn’t be naive, arrogant, or presumptuous. I also couldn’t be mischievous.
I don’t know why it is, but it seems that every kid in America wants to spell the word mischievious and pronounce it mis-CHEE-vee-us. In fact, the word should be spelled mischievous and pronounced MIS-che-vus.
When said correctly, mischievous kind of rolls out of the mouth in the same way worcestershire does (I mean the pronunciation rolls out, not the sauce itself). That might be another story though.
Anyway, in case you’re wondering, my eleven year old can spell mischievous just fine.
“How was fishing?” I asked my angling Aunt Ruth as she ambled through the doorway. She was beaming.
“I caught an order of magnitude more fish than I caught yesterday!” she said with pride.
I was impressed. “Wow, that’s great. We’ll be eating fish for a couple of days or more.”
A shadow fell upon her face. “We’ll be hungry if we only eat these two fish for the next couple of days or more.”
“Two fish? You said an order of magnitude more. Yesterday you caught one fish, so I’m assuming that you caught ten, or thereabouts, this morning.”
“Wait — why ten? Isn’t an order of magnitude the same as doubling the amount?”
“I do believe it’s time for a lesson,” I said with a gleam. I loved giving lessons to Aunt Ruth.
“Hold on. I think I’ll go take a bath and blow dry my hair while in the bathtub,” she said.
“But you might electrocute yourself,” I pointed out.
“Exactly. Thus, I would avoid having a grammar lesson. Besides, doesn’t increasing something by an order of magnitude mean that you increase it 100%?”
“Look, Aunt Ruth, it’s not difficult. Order of magnitude is an expression used by engineers and scientists and mathematicians to help represent scaling.”
“I have scaling, but the dermatologist said if I use lotion it will go away.”
“I’m talking about numerical scaling. I think it is most commonly used in common logarithms, or by factors of ten. It is sometimes convenient and useful to be able to say that something increased by an order of magnitude instead of saying that it increased ten times.”
“Why? What’s a common logarithm?”
“Don’t worry about that. Just know that it helps with making comparisons and keeping things in perspective with the right numbers of significant digits.”
“I have ten fingers and ten toes.”
“Those are my significant digits.”
“Don’t get me started, Aunt Ruth. I could talk about this stuff for a while. I used to do math, you know.”
“Yeah, I remember. That was before you turned into such a nice young man.”
“You’re being facetious.”
“Anyway,” I continued, “suppose you have two numbers: 2,100,000,000 and 2,110,000,000. Now, the second number is ten million larger than the first number.”
“That sounds like a lot.”
“Sure it does. But if you look at it, the first number is 2.1 billion and the second is 2.11 billion; if you represent the numbers in an exponential form and use, say, three significant digits, you would write the numbers like this: 2.10 * 109 and 2.11 * 109.”
“When you write it like that, they look closer to the same size.”
“Yes, and that’s the point. Now if the second number increases to three or four billion, you still have the same order of magnitude. Depending what you’re trying to measure, it may or may not be important. But when the number increases to, say, 2 * 1010, then we say that this number is an order of magnitude larger than the other number.”
“I don’t think I like your math lessons.”
“Sorry, I’ll keep away from this mostly. My main point, I guess, is that order of magnitude doesn’t mean doubling or tripling, but it has to do with factors of scaling.”
“I wasn’t planning on scaling the fish. I thought I might fillet them.”
“I meant scaling of numbers …”
“Uh, should I just leave this order of magnitude thing for the engineers and scientists and mathematicians to use?”
“That might be a good idea.”
“One question,” she said.
“Shoot,” I replied.
“If I start out with one female pig and one male deer and end up with a hundred female pigs and male deer, would you say that I increased my animal population by two orders of magnitude and that my personal wealth would have significantly increased?”
“A couple orders of magnitude … yes. But, why would your wealth increase?”
“I ended up with a hundred sows and bucks.”
“We are headed into unchartered waters.”
For some reason – I would argue that this is the latest corporate buzz phrase, except I no longer work in corporate America – I have been hearing this a lot lately. Unfortunately, every time I’ve heard it used has been incorrect.
Waters and territories have charts – maps – and to go boldly where no person has gone before, one would be going into uncharted water or uncharted territory, not unchartered.
Unchartered should not be used nearly as often as it is. My spell checker doesn’t recognize unchartered. I suppose that if one bus is a chartered bus, another bus might be unchartered (not being used or hired or rented or whatever). And if one school or business has a charter – a mission statement of some kind, I suppose – then I guess it’s possible for another school or business to be unchartered.
“Edna and I went to an unchartered restaurant last night for dinner. The pork chops tasted like cat or maybe possum, but the iced tea was splendid.”
I suppose an unchartered restaurant is one that has no charter. Perhaps that explains the inconsistency in the food.
Of course, unchartered doesn’t have to literally apply to waters or territories. It can be metaphorical.
“After spending our entire lives raising only large dogs, we entered uncharted waters when we adopted a chihuahua.”
As an aside, for those of you who worry about metaphors and chihuahuas, note that the uncharted waters is a metaphor for adopting a chihuahua, not the other way around.
Of course, if a person who has been focused on raising so many large dogs sails a boat into uncharted waters, he or she might actually say, “We have just adopted a chihuahua.”
But that’s another story.