If all you latent copy editors will gather ‘round, the quiz will begin. The first question deals with punctuation in possessive constructions. Don't go away! These sentences plop upon your desk:
From The New York Times: “When Mr. Stewart tried to joke about Mr. Obama changing his position on campaign finance, he met with such obvious resistance …” Should it have been “Mr. Obama's changing …”?
From a column by Deborah Howell in The Washington Post: “Gumbinger was quoted in Stephens's story as saying that Obama …” Was “Stephens's” correctly punctuated?
From The Washington Post's Style section: “Everyone seemed to believe Raffaello, including Ron Burkle, the supermarket heavyweight and friend of Bill Clinton's …” Was “friend of Clinton's” a double possessive?
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Two conditions required
The Times' Manual of Style and Usage has an entry on “possessives as nouns.” I can make neither heads nor tails of it. The Stylebook of The Associated Press also has an entry: It is not quite as lucid as the entry in the Times. The AP muddily decrees: “Two conditions must apply for a double possessive: (1) the word after ‘of' must refer to an animate object, and (2) the word before ‘of' must involve only a portion of the animate object's possessions.”
I cannot speak ex cathedra to this towering issue of punctuation, but out of a lifetime of editing copy and reading proof I submit:
In the first Horrid Example, from the Times, it should have been “Mr. Obama's changing.” In this construction “changing” was just as honest a noun as Mr. Obama's ears or Mr. Obama's grin.
In the second Horrid Example, I would argue in favor of an unencumbered apostrophe, i.e., Stephens' story.
Finally, in the third H.E., I would get rid of the double possessive in “friend of Bill Clinton's.” What conceivable purpose is served by that apostrophe-“s”? Was Burkle a friend of Clinton's driver? A friend of Clinton's lawyer? Of Clinton's dog? Surely the aspect of possession is abundantly served by the “of.” I am all in favor of extra words when they contribute to the flow or the clarity of a sentence, but this redundancy neither flowed nor clarified. It merely irked.
Hurrah for hirpling
Moving on: In a recent column on new words in the news I remarked upon the verb “to hirple.” It turned up in a Scottish newspaper's account of the Belmont Stakes. There the favorite developed a career-ending limp and had to drop out: He was hirpled. Alert reader Rick Hoggle in Hickory, N.C., wrote to pass along two lines from Seamus Heaney's 2000 translation of “Beowulf.” Here Beowulf describes Grendel's fate to Hrothgar and the other drunkards:
“He is hasped and hooped and hirpling with pain, limping and looped in it.”
Poor old monster! Even in the seventh grade I was on his side.
Alert reader Bob Ide in Cary, N.C., sends along an item last month from The Associated Press. The story dealt with the glaciers of Mount Shasta. The reporter quoted an assistant professor of earth sciences at the University of California-Santa Barbara. The professor said, “When people look at glaciers around the world, the majority of them are shrinking.” It is surely something to think about.
Finally, a salute is in order for an editorial writer at The Wall Street Journal.
The piece involved some fancy accounting by the Service Employees International Union. As always, said the Journal, “it pays to look beyond the union libel.”
Boswell had it right in his life of Johnson: A good pun is among the smaller excellencies of social existence. This was a beauty.