Re: Common Errors in English

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: Sat, 28 Feb 2004 09:39:57 -0500

Bonnie Granat wrote:

> We don't say "he had four months training."

Sure we do. I've heard that construction many times.

> What I think now is that the convention has been to use a sort
> of reverse possessive, and that this convention is, in fact, so widely
> used, even if the construction itself is not understood at all, and is
> therefore correct by virtue of its widespread use.

I'm not sure what you mean by a reverse possessive, but the formal argument
for the apostrophe in this case is based on the genitive. The possessive is
only one case of the genitive, but the term possessive is far more widely

My point on this is that the apostrophe does nothing to add clarity to the
sentence, and indeed many ordinary readers, who have never heard of the
genitive, will think it an error on the grounds that the years do not
possess the experience.

> > The point is, it is fine to attempt to build logical models to
> > explain the
> > structure of English. But if the logic fails to explain common
> > constructions, the the problem is with the logic, not with the
> > constructions. It is not good practice to try to constrain, exclude,
> > or
> > transform common construction of the language in an attempt to make
> an
> > imperfect grammatical system work. Procrustean grammarians must not
> > prevail.
> >
> So if "nine years' experience" and "five minutes' time" is the
> convention, how can one say it is wrong?

I didn't say it was wrong. I said that the argument for it was an imposition
of Latin forms on English, and that the usage did not serve to clarify the
meaning of the sentence. English is a democratic language. You can vote for
this usage if you want to. Certain learned parties had given their views of
what they consider correct, and one may choose to follow them. If you do so,
however, you will have to acknowledge that what one learned party proclaims
as correct, another condemns as error, and that on a fair number of points,
the general writing public sails blithely on neither knowing nor caring for
the opinions of the authorities.

It is certainly a very good thing to be as conventional as you can in your
written communication. Being conventional helps readers to read what you
write. But there are rival conventions. (to split the infinitive or not, to
use the Oxford comma or not. etc.) The published authorities differ from
each other and the sensus fidelium often differs from the published

It is also true that many constructions that started as impositions by
Procrustean grammarians have now become common practice. The Procrustean
grammarians are part of the marketplace of linguistic ideas just like the
rest of us. Of course, their teaching often makes things worse rather than
better. The Procrusteans campaigned against the natural if irregular "Jim
and me went to the store", with the result that many people believe that you
must always use "I" when two persons are joined with "and", and now
regularly say "Tom sent a letter to Jim and I". One consequence of
grammarians harping on the use of the apostrophe is the rise of the grocer's
apostrophe ("Tomato's 3/99"). Half remembered rules cause more
irregularities than they cure.

Personally, I'm a minimalist. Punctuation has to actually serve a useful
function in the sentence where it appears. Punctuation rules, in my view,
exist to help us understand where a comma or other punctuation mark might be
useful. The use of an apostrophe in the case of "years experience" fails the
text of minimalism. I am aware of the argument from the genitive and I
reject it. A quick survey on Google shows "years experience" beats "years'
experience" by a margin of 5 to 1, so I am not swimming against the tide.

If a usage is both regular (more people use it than not) and clear (its
meaning cannot be mistaken) then I feel free to use it. On the other hand, I
am not afraid to be with the minority if the minority usage suits my taste.
As long as it is clear. On the other hand, if the publication I am writing
for has a house style that contradicts my usual usage I'm quite happy to
comply with it.


Re: Common Errors in English: From: Mark Baker
Re: Common Errors in English: From: Bonnie Granat

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