“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.