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The Right Word in the Right Place at the Right Time

Wit and Wisdom from the Popular "On Language" Column in The New York Times Magazine

About The Book

For the past twenty-five years Americans have relied on Pulitzer Prize-winning wordsmith William Safire for their weekly dose of linguistic illumination in The New York Times Magazine's column "On Language" -- one of the most popular features of the magazine and a Sunday-morning staple for innumerable fans. He is the most widely read writer on the English language today.
Safire is the guru of contemporary vocabulary, speech, language, usage and writing. Dedicated and disputatious readers itch to pick up each column and respond to the week's linguistic wisdom with a gotcha letter to the Times. The Right Word in the Right Place at the Right Time marks the publication of Safire's sixteenth book on language. This collection is a classic to be read, re-read, enjoyed and fought over. Fans, critics and fellow linguists wait with bated (from the French abattre "to beat down") breath for each new anthology -- and, like its predecessors, this one is bound to satisfy and delight.
Safire finds fodder for his columns in politics and current events, as well as in science, technology, entertainment and daily life. The self-proclaimed card-carrying language maven and pop grammarian is not above tackling his own linguistic blunders as he detects language trends and tracks words, phrases and clichés to their source. Scholarly, entertaining and thoughtful, Safire's critical observations about language and slanguage are at once provocative and enlightening.
Safire is America's go-to guy when it comes to language, and he has included sharp and passionately opinionated letters from readers across the English-speaking world who have been unable to resist picking up a pen to put the maven himself in his place or to offer alternate interpretations, additional examples, amusing anecdotes or just props.
The Right Word in the Right Place at the Right Time is a fascinating, learned and piquant look at the oddities and foibles that find their way into the English language. Exposing linguistic hooey and rigamarole and filled with Safire's trademark wisdom, this book has a place on the desk or bedside table of all who share his profound love of the English language -- as well as his penchant for asking "What does that mean?" Or, "Wassat?"
This new collection is sure to delight readers, writers and word lovers everywhere and spark the interest of anyone who has ever wondered, "Where did the phrase 'brazen hussy' come from?"



We will come to sodomy in a moment. To stagger together through today's column about grammatical possessiveness, you and I must agree on the difference between a gerund and a participle.

Take the word dancing. It starts out as a form of a verb: "Look, Ma, I'm dancing!" When that word is used as an adjective to modify a noun -- "look at that dancing bear!" -- it's called a participle.

But when the same word is used as a noun -- "I see the bear, and its dancing isn't so hot" -- then the word is classified as a gerund. (From the Latin gerundum, rooted in gerere, "to bear, to carry," because the gerund, though a noun, seems to bear the action of a verb.)

We give the same word these different names to tell us what it's doing and what its grammatical needs are. Two great grammarians had a titanic spat in the 1920s over the use of the possessive in this sentence: "Women having the vote reduces men's political power." H. W. Fowler derided what he called "the fused participle" as "grammatically indefensible" and said it should be "Women's having"; Otto Jespersen cited famous usages, urged dropping the possessive and called Fowler a "grammatical moralizer."

Comes now Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia with the latest manifestation of this struggle. An Associated Press account of his stinging dissent in Lawrence v. Texas, in which the Court struck down that state's anti-sodomy law, quoted Scalia out of context as writing, "I have nothing against homosexuals," which seemed condescending. His entire sentence, though, was not: "I have nothing against homosexuals, or any other group, promoting their agenda through normal democratic means."

Note the lack of apostrophes after homosexuals and group to indicate possession; Fowler would have condemned that as a "fused participle." Such loosey-goosey usage from the conservative Scalia, of all people?

"When I composed the passage in question," the justice informs me, "I pondered for some time whether I should be perfectly grammatical and write 'I have nothing against homosexuals', or any other group's, promoting their agenda,' etc. The object of the preposition 'against,' after all, is not 'homosexuals who are promoting,' but rather 'the promoting of (in the sense of by) homosexuals.'

"I have tried to be rigorously consistent in using the possessive before the participle," Scalia notes, "when it is the action, rather than the actor, that is the object of the verb or preposition (or, for that matter, the subject of the sentence)."

But what about his passage in Lawrence, in which he failed to follow Fowler and fused the participle?

"I concluded that because of the intervening phrase 'or any other group,' writing 'homosexuals' " -- with the apostrophe indicating possession -- "(and hence 'any other group's') would violate what is perhaps the first rule of English usage: that no construction should call attention to its own grammatical correctness. Finding no other formulation that could make the point in quite the way I wanted, I decided to be ungrammatical instead of pedantic."

But his attempt to be a regular guy backfired. In a jocular tone, Scalia observes: "God -- whom I believe to be a strict grammarian as well as an Englishman -- has punished me. The misquotation would have been more difficult to engineer had there been an apostrophe after 'homosexuals.' I am convinced that in this instance the AP has been (unwittingly, I am sure) the flagellum Dei to recall me from my populist, illiterate wandering. (You will note that I did not say 'from me wandering.')"

My does beat me before that gerund wandering. Robert Burchfield, editor of the third edition of Fowler's Modern English Usage, writes, "The possessive with gerund is on the retreat, but its use with proper names and personal nouns and pronouns persists in good writing."

Now let's parse Scalia's self-parsing. In his refusal to say "from me wandering," wandering is a gerund. When a personal pronoun comes in front of a gerund, the possessive form is called for: say my, not me. This avoidance of a fused participle makes sense: you say about the above-mentioned bear "I like his dancing," not "I like him dancing," because you want to stress not the bear but his action in prancing about.

In Scalia's dissent in the Texas sodomy case, promoting is a gerund, the object of the preposition against. His strict-construction alternative, using apostrophes to indicate possession -- "against homosexuals', or any other group's, promoting" -- is correct but clunky. He was right to avoid it, and is wrong to castigate himself for eschewing clunkiness.

There would have been another choice, however: put the gerund ahead of the possessors. Try this: "I have nothing against the promoting of their agenda by homosexuals, or by any other group, through normal democratic means." That would not only avoid the confusing apostrophes, but follows "I have nothing against" with its true object, the gerund promoting -- and would make it impossible for any reporter to pull out a condescending "I have nothing against homosexuals."

Regarding your proposed solution to my gerundial problem (to wit, "I have nothing against the promoting of their agenda by homosexuals, or by any other group, through normal democratic means"): It is so obvious that of course I considered it. Two problems. (1) I do not like to have a relative pronoun preceding its antecedent, as in "the promoting of their agenda by homosexuals." (2) More importantly, English remains a language in which emphasis is largely conveyed by word order, and the emphasis in my sentence was upon homosexuals' promoting, not upon (where your alternative places it) the promoting by homosexuals. Surely you can sense the difference.

Justice Antonin Scalia

Supreme Court of the United States

Washington, D.C.

Copyright © 2004 by The Cobbett Corporation

About The Author

Photo Credit: Fred R. Conrad/ The New York Times

As the word maven in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, William Safire is the most widely read writer on the subject of the English language. In addition, he has for the past quarter century written a twice-weekly political column for The New York Times, for which he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. A former speechwriter in the Nixon White House, he is the author of twenty-six books, including his most recent book on language, No Uncertain Terms; Safire's New Political Dictionary; the speech anthology Lend Me Your Ears; and four novels, two of them historical: Scandalmonger, about early nineteenth-century journalist Thomson Callender, and Freedom, a bestseller about Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (November 1, 2007)
  • Length: 448 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781416587408

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