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Subject:Re: Common Errors in English From:"Mark Baker" <listsub -at- analecta -dot- com> To:"TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com> Date:Fri, 27 Feb 2004 09:59:47 -0500
Dick Margulis wrote:
> "Nine years' experience" does not mean "nine years of experience." It
> means "the experience of nine years." _That's_ why it requires the
I tried to make myself stay out of this one, but this has been bugging me
for two days so I will comment as a means of exorcising it from my mind.
In the first place, the practice of saying that one sentence is really
another sentence for the purpose of imposing a grammatical construction on
it won't do. Any sentence that follows common usage is itself and no other
sentence. "Nine years experience" means "Nine years experience", not "nine
years of experience" or "the experience of nine years", though it may mean
the same thing as those other sentences. If your grammatical system can't
explain it as it is, then there is a problem with your grammatical system.
Secondly, the argument for the apostrophe is actually based on the genitive,
of which the possessive is only one case. Clearly this is not a possessive,
since the years do not own the experience. The problem for me in this is
that the whole idea of a genitive is a borrowing from Latin in an attempt to
explain English. It is an attempt through grammatical exegesis to impose
punctuation where none is needed in defense of a grammatical argument that
makes no sense.
What is the real function of "years" in this sentence? The simplest and most
straightforward explanation is that it is a unit of measure for experience.
I have six head of sheep, seven tons of coal, and five years experience.
The function of punctuation is to improve clarity and remove ambiguity. It
is not good practice to interject punctuation that does neither of these
things based on an obscure grammatical construction of an innocent and
If people punctuate badly it is precisely because of pointless rules like
this one that ask them to insert punctuation that makes no difference based
on grammatical arguments that make no sense. People conclude that
punctuation is too hard and stop trying. If people were taught the function
of punctuation and left to apply it sensibly we would have far greater
clarity in everyday writing. If the grammarians had a hard time explaining
the constructions that resulted, that's just tough on the grammarians. It
is not the job of the writing public to change their practice to make their
use of the language conform to the flawed models of the grammarians.