Aunt Ruth and the Peach Cobbler’s Kitten

 grammar  Comments Off on Aunt Ruth and the Peach Cobbler’s Kitten
Sep 192016

It’s mine!” shouted Aunt Ruth. “Give it back to me at once, my nemesis nephew. Or else!”

“You’re being too possessive, my dear Aunt Ruth,” I said as I set down the now-empty plate of what had been a delicious serving of Aunt Ruth’s peach cobbler. “Besides, you are distracting me from being able to concentrate on this fascinating topic of possessives with appositives.”

I tried hard to ignore Aunt Ruth’s occasional tantrums—not an easy task, certainly, but occasionally it worked—and this morning I had been in deep thought about some of the odd (and correct) possessive statements I have witnessed through the years.

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), Aunt Ruth’s new pet kitten had taken a liking to me, and it was now sound asleep on the floor at my feet.

Anyway, back to odd possessives. The most bizarre possessive statements that I’ve seen involve appositives.
Appositives, you may recall, are noun phrases that are used to clarify or further describe the noun immediately preceding it in the sentence. For example, look at the sentence:

Marjorie, the lady who sat next to us in church this morning, has a dog and two cats.

In that sentence, Marjorie is the subject, and the lady who sat next to us in church this morning is the appositive. The appositive is a description or identification of Marjorie.

Now, suppose I accidentally sat on Marjorie’s hat. Suppose, also, that I am not sure if you remember who Marjorie is. For clarification, then, I want to include the appositive when I tell you about sitting on Marjorie’s hat.
The rule for creating a possessive with a statement that has an appositive is NOT to put the apostrophe on the subject, but put the apostrophe at the end of the appositive (i.e., add apostrophe -s to the last word of the appositive, and then remove the comma that normally immediately follows the appositive). So, that would look like this:

I sat on Marjorie, the lady sitting next to us in church this morning’s hat.

Note a couple of things. In the phrase before the appositive, it indeed says I sat on Marjorie. However, I did not sit on Marjorie. I sat on her hat. The second thing to notice is that the apostrophe -s is attached to morning, as in … this morning’s hat. And the comma after morning has been removed.

Weird? Certainly. And I must confess that the grammar books that discuss this also say that in such cases, the writer should seriously consider restructuring the sentence for clarity, e.g.,

I sat on Marjorie’s hat; she was the lady sitting next to us in church this morning.
Or … I sat on the hat of Marjorie, the lady sitting next to us in church this morning.

That works, certainly, though the hat of Marjorie sounds a little stuffy, kind of like the title of a murder mystery, perhaps.

“Tonight, on ‘Hitchcock Presents,’ we will watch The Hat of Marjorie.” That sounds sinister, indeed.
One can contrive scenarios that produce word combinations that are visually funny.

I was bitten by Marjorie, the lady sitting next to us at the concert’s dog.

Of course, I was not bitten by Marjorie but by her dog. The dog was probably upset with me for sitting on (and undoubtedly ruining) Marjorie’s hat.

I vacuumed up Marjorie, the lady who always went to the park with her husband’s ashes.

I did not actually vacuum up Marjorie; and Marjorie did not go to the park every day with her husband’s ashes. She simply went to the park every day with her husband. I did vacuum up Marjorie’s ashes, but we don’t know from whence those ashes came. Maybe Marjorie is a chronic chain-smoker. As far as we know, her husband is still alive and has not (yet) been reduced to ashes. The possessive statement leaves a lot of wiggle-room for ambiguity.

“I sat on Marjorie, the lady sitting next to me’s hat.”

This is similar to the first example, but I like the me’s hat combination. It just sounds so wrong.

“I ate a bowl of Marjorie, the next-door neighbor who liked to go to Africa to hunt elephants’ soup.”

I ate a a bowl of Marjorie? I’m not even sure what that means. She does go to Africa to hunt elephants (I am not condoning that, by the way …this is just an example. So back off, will ya?) She does not go to hunt elephants’ soup, though that could be an interesting hobby. Tusk, tusk. Note, also, that in this case we merely added the apostrophe to elephants; we did not add the “s” because the word already ended in “s” (and elephants’s just doesn’t sound right).

“We must get Steve Berry, the attorney handling the case of the missing elephant’s signature.”

This seems to indicate that the elephant’s signature is missing. I can see why we might be concerned.
Now, suppose Steve Berry has a piano, and suppose that I went over to his house to play his piano. I could say this:

I played Steve Berry, the attorney handling the case of the missing elephants’ piano.

I did not play Steve Berry. He is a fine actor and can play his own part quite well. He’s still handling the case of the missing elephants, not the elephants’ piano. It’s interesting to consider, though, that multiple elephants would have only one piano. I can’t imagine two elephants playing a one-piano duet. That could be awkward.

“What are you saying, notorious nephew?” asked Aunt Ruth, yawning as she slowly awoke. “Are you violating our grammatical agreement to not stretch ‘out there’ into the strange world of intentional weirdness and ambiguous writing?”

I acknowledged but tried not to focus on Ruth, the aunt who likes to take me out to eat’s warts.

“What did you say? Eat’s warts?”

“Uh, never mind.”

I am wearing Marjorie, the neighbor who has llamas’ argyle socks.

“Marjorie’s llamas wear argyle socks?” gasped Aunt Ruth. “Really?”

In my rush to pack up and get out of here at the end of the story, I accidentally stepped on Aunt Ruth, my relative who makes the best peach cobbler’s kitten.

Aunt Ruth Is Possessed

 grammar  Comments Off on Aunt Ruth Is Possessed
Nov 082010

“I accidentally sat on the lady sitting next to us at the concert’s hat,” my daughter exclaimed.

I thought about that for a moment. Okay, to be honest, I’ve been thinking about it for a few days. The English brain (and here I mean English-speaking brain, not the brains of those who inhabit England) is used to parsing sentences left to right, and therefore we are greatly relieved when we reach the noun that an adjectival phrase modifies. When we finally reach “hat,” we are happy to learn that my daughter didn’t sit on the lady sitting next to us at the concert, but she sat (instead) on her hat.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that this is exactly the same as almost ending a piece of music on a chord that isn’t resolved, but at the last second it gets resolved and the audience breathes a sigh of relief; or (because I’m hungry at the moment) perhaps it’s like making a peanut butter sandwich but forgetting the grape jelly. There you are with a slab of peanut butter stuck to the roof of your mouth and no jelly to help it slide down, and finally someone shows up with that much needed glass of milk. You are relieved.

But none of that is the point of what I want to say here. Yes, the wording in the sentence is awkward. It would have been better stated, “I sat on the hat of the lady sitting next to us at the concert.” But the question, I guess, is this: Was what my daughter said actually grammatically correct (though awkward)? Or, if it’s not correct, what rule did it break?

First of all, there’s the related question of what to do with gerunds and possessives. The famous example goes like this:

I couldn’t stand Uncle Bob’s singing in the shower.


I couldn’t stand Uncle Bob singing in the shower.

Now, what is it you can’t stand? Is it the fact that Uncle Bob is singing in the shower, but you might not mind Aunt Mildred singing in the shower? Is it his singing that bothers you? Perhaps he’s doing the Macarena and you just can’t take it any more, but yesterday, when he hummed Ride of the Valkyries in the shower, you enjoyed it so much that you recorded it and posted it on  Youtube.

Once upon a time, the noun-gerund combination was called a fused participle (the noun being Uncle Bob and the participle being singing), and that was not a good thing. The correct form automatically would be to use Uncle Bob’s singing, not Uncle Bob singing.

In our enlightened society, feeling it necessary to be able to distinguish between whether it was Uncle Bob singing or Uncle Bob’s singing that really bothered us (as though the cause of a splitting headache really matters), both are now acceptable.

When we have an appositive (a noun phrase that describes the related noun to provide clarity), we add the “‘s” (apostrophe-s) to the end of the appositive phrase. Note that the following comma that would normally be in place for an appositive is removed when the apostrophe-s is added.

For example: We must get Steve Berry, our attorney handling the case’s signature.

Another appositive example is the following:

Marjorie, the woman sitting next to us at the concert’s dog is a golden lab.

If this is allowed, then it seems the following should be allowed as well.

I sat on Marjorie, the woman sitting next to us at the concert’s hat.

It therefore seems permissible that the original sentence that my daughter uttered — and that confused me — is indeed legal, except for the mandate that we want sentences to be as understandable as possible.

Legal? Perhaps. Good sentence structure? No.