Possession is nine-tenths of the whatsit
Some Australians write "girls school". In a couple of places I have worked, it has even been an item in the house style. The writers of the style guides have argued that it is attributive, like "dog" in "dog bowl". But it isn't and it's easy to show why not.
The usage has been born out of an artefact of pronunciaton: the two forms, possessive and plain, are spoken the same way. So people began to drop the apostrophe because, after all, it doesn't affect the way you say it.
But here's the thing. You can have a boys school, a girls school, a ladies toilet and a bucks night but you cannot have a men toilet.
This is nothing new, of course. I daresay Lynne Truss mentions it in her book. But I had cause to think about it because I ran up against another sound-driven change in grammar.
Purists -- of which I sometimes am, sometimes am not one, depending whether I've woken up feeling the world is wonderful or needs putting to rights -- are clinging on to the possession of gerunds, fighting a bitter retreat in the face of a world that doesn't think language needs to be "logical" or sensible (which of course it does not).
I still write "he regretting his taking it" and "I love Leeds' winning". Gerunds are, as any fule kno, nouns, and require possessing by the nouns that they belong to (or with, I suppose). This distinguishes them from participles, which are adjectives.
But the possessive with the gerund sounds a bit awkward. Most speakers of English are not aware that gerunds are not participles. They look like them and are most often used in constructions that do not make it particularly clear that they are nouns to speakers who are not given to analysing what they say (which is most of us). In some cases, what looks like it might be a gerund is not (I looked at my friend baking in the sun"), adding to the confusion, or it is but does not need possessing ("I took him shopping"). In the spoken language, in particular, gerunds are virtually never possessed. "I saw the plane approaching the runway" just doesn't sound wrong. I would say it.
Language loves to simplify where it can. Where there can be no confusion, often speakers will cut the unneeded extra sounds, streamlining language, particularly when speaking fast. The process of losing the "'s" at the end of nouns that possess gerunds has been hastened by the awkwardness of pronouncing some cases. While "They liked my thinking it" sounds a bit stilted but is easily pronounceable, "They liked his thinking it" is harder to get your tongue round than "They liked him thinking it". Because we use "her" for both the "objective" and the possessive of "she", it is easy to consider that "him" parallels it in this construction.
We won't mourn the possession of gerunds. Few people are clear what a gerund is or why, and language has a remarkable resilience, which allows it to be as illogical as it pleases (a good example is Spanish, which gets by with a double negative without confusion, and in English, the use of "never" to create a simple past negative doesn't ever create confusion -- "I never went there" is plainly understood as "I didn't go there"). The cause of my concern was that my author had insisted on possessing his gerunds, contrary to our house style, but when I pointed out the many, many instances in which he had not possessed them, he claimed his rule was to use the possessive with people (my coming, Smith's having, John's thinking) and not things (the door opening, the car coming). This is nonsense, of course, but it is the same kind of special pleading that allows a "rule" that nouns that end in "s" can be attributive and those that do not cannot be. No way. If you write "girls school", you must write "men toilet". And if you possess your gerunds, you possess them all, not just the ones that seem easy to decide on.
But, Dr Zen, I hear you saying. Surely it doesn't matter. Surely we could just disobey these rules because we are still comprehensible, and we could invoke a rule of euphony that didn't permit "men toilet". Well yes, as with much of the pedantry that surrounds English, you can ignore the rules here without doing much harm. But there will be readers, a small number but those you most likely most want to impress, who will know you went astray and will judge you on it, regardless how good your writing is otherwise. This is why I possess my gerunds. Because I'm good enough to, and the cognoscenti, upon reading me, will see that I'm good enough to and tip the hat, and I like that.
The price of pride
My sister S is having a rough time. Her boyfriend, A, has left her. Not because there is anything wrong with their relationship in itself. There isn't. They are as good a couple as you could wish to meet: they never argue and although their interests don't much coincide, they are comfortable with each other. But A is Kosovan, having come to the UK as a refugee, and he cannot get a good job in London. He and S have talked about having children, and he has concluded that he will not be able to support S and a child, so must leave her, return to Kosovo and make his life there.
S is distraught. Not only has she lost the man she loved, but she feels she has wasted two and a half years on him. The biological clock is ticking furiously for her. She very much wants a child and had believed A was a good choice for their father. Now she has to begin again with a new man, if she can find one.
I can understand why A feels bad about not being able to support a family. I would feel something like the same. Although in theory I don't have a problem with my partner's being the breadwinner, and I and Mrs Zen have lived that way in the past, it doesn't feel quite comfortable. Here my rational, educated mind clashes with my upbringing, because I know it should make no difference who brings in the money but I can't feel
it. But I cannot understand why anyone would leave someone they love, rather than find a way to make right what is wrong.
I am an incurable big and little r romantic. I do believe that amor vincit omnia
or at least that if you have the amor
, you have a fighting chance. I believe it is worth sacrificing everything for it, because without it, life is barren, a wasteland. I believe, at the least, that it is so superior to pride to make the latter worth nothing in the scales that balance the two.
Well, maybe I listen to too much pop, and maybe A doesn't listen to quite enough. But I think he could have learned to love being a househusband or just to accept that S pays the bills. After all, a couple is a team: each gives what they can. Maybe he could have taken some time out to learn English better, to gain more qualifications. Maybe that struck him as too hard a road. Much easier to let pride drive your life and give up on love. Easier but it'll have to be paid for. When he has the job he wants but no one to share his life with, on some cold, long night, he will know that the price of pride can be a broken heart.
In or out
The flop is 753 rainbow. I have pocket queens. I raised PF and was called by one guy.
So I bet out a decent amount. I would like to take it down right here and now, and not let the guy draw out on me. He has no odds for a draw if he calls.
But he raises. I reraise, figuring him for a bluffer. He reraises again and I muck the ladies. He might try to bluff a PF raiser once but not twice.
But what did he have? He didn't reraise PF, so I can't think he has big cards. At the time I was thinking pocket sevens or fives. But it dawned on me, after the game, that he might bet like that with a pair. He might even have done it with two overcards. He's a poor player after all, his only strength his unpredictability.
Losing doesn't hurt in poker, not if you want to be a good player. I lose without blinking because I know that making correct decisions will pay off in the longer term. If my opponents call without the right odds to do so, they might get lucky but ultimately maths will catch up with them.
But making mistakes hurts. If the guy had pocket Ts or Js, I made a terrible mistake. I do not know whether I should have gone all-in. Trying to figure it out, I reckon he must have had one of these hands: 64, 33, 55, 77, 99, TT, JJ, KK, AA (these last two rather unlikely because he'd likely raise a big pair PF), AJ, AQ, AK. I am beating the medium pairs and the ace highs, losing to everything else.
I dunno. At least I didn't consider just calling. That's the best I can say about it. I have no idea whether I made the right decision. It crippled me for the rest of the game though, putting me on a short stack, which a run of poor cards didn't allow me to increase at all.
But even if I did make a mistake, it wasn't the worst of the night. There were at least two worse. In one, M was faced with an allin bet on the river. The flop had included paired Js. The guy who I had struggled with, M2, had gone all in. W, the host, had called. M, it turned out, had pocket rockets. It's hard in hold'em to get away from AA if you're beaten but you have to do it if you are. So what should M have been thinking? M2 is a bluffer but he is betting into two players. So you have to think he has a J or just maybe two pair, which M can beat.
Even if you think M2 is stone bluffing or betting two pair, you know W isn't. Bettors can be bluffing but callers cannot. M had to fold. W even agonised over his call, letting anyone observant know that he had a J with a smallish kicker.
But M called. A horrible decision. M2 and W both had JT and M was busted.
Early in the game, in the small blind, facing a raise from the big blind and holding AK, I went all in. The big blind folded, but showed me his cards: KK.
This was terrible. He had assumed I must have AA. But there were several hands I might have gone all in with, not least the one I actually had. Given that we were the blinds, I wouldn't necessarily be thinking I'd need a hand as big as AA or KK to go all in. I could even have been bluffing. It's likely I would be stealing with a lesser hand that left me with outs if called by something decent.
KK is a very good hand. Only AA is better. If you get the opportunity to go all in before the flop with it, you must take it. Not to do so is a huge error. If I had had rockets, well, that's the way it goes. With any other hand in my range, I would be a big underdog. Strangely enough, I had the exact same thing happen online the next day, except that I was the guy holding KK. I called. The guy flopped an A. A disaster for me.
But I rivered a king, took all his chips and went on to win the SnG I was playing.
Towse asked in misc.writing what our comments were on Seymour Hersh's piece in the New Yorker on Iran
This is my answer. I'm not keen on the US' interfering in other countries' business but I believe that Iran's acquiring a nuclear weapon is impossible to accept. I take note that Pakistan, an unstable state, has one without causing undue concern (except when it was reported to be considering a first strike on India, of course, but that would be "due concern" in my books). I take note that Iran has a desire to be recognised as a regional power of importance and a culture that stretches back into antiquity.
However, Ahmedinajad is a cryptofascist. He is very scary. It is bad that America has nuclear weapons, but worse, much, much worse that Iran does.
Saddam had no links to Islamists. But Iran has links to people who hate Israel sufficiently to consider a "final solution".
I say that if Israel knows where the reactors are, and it almost certainly does, we greenlight them to bomb them. They don't actually need the green light. If Iran really has enriched uranium, Israel will do it anyway. Were I Olmert, I would be asking my spooks for the definitive word on enrichment. If they say yes, it's go. After I have destroyed the reactors, I make it clear to Iran that any revenge attack on Israel or Israeli interests will cause the destruction of Teheran. There is no way Ahmedinajad should be allowed to have a nuclear weapon.
Should we go to war to prevent Iran from getting the bomb? I think we should prevent Iran from getting the bomb. I do not think Iran is entirely insane. If we show resolve, it will back down. We must offer them carrots to do it, not just show the stick. But there must be a stick. And if that means that Iran wants a war, that is a consequence we must bear.
Another 9/11 myth has been shattered. It was part of a bigger myth, both a bit muddleheaded, born out of the desire to make Americans feel superior to the rest of us, which, frankly, they need no encouraging in anyway.
The myth is that Todd Beamer bravely rallied the passengers on United Airlines 93 with a cry of "Let's roll". The bigger myth is that he led a brave struggle against the hijackers.
Without wishing to be too
churlish, I have to say that the bigger myth was always a bit silly. How brave do you have to be to fight people with boxcutters when they are about to kill you by crashing the plane you're on? It is nigh on impossible to kill someone with a boxcutter unless you do it by surprise. You might get a nasty gash but you'd need to be very unlucky to be killed. It turns out that the hijackers were barricaded into the cockpit.Evidence in the Moussaoui sentencing trial
, in which the state is ghoulishly trying to have Moussaoui killed, makes it clear that the passengers were trying to break into the cabin, not swarming hijackers among them.
Beamer yelled "Roll it", not the rallying cry of the myth but an instruction perhaps to push a dinner trolley into the cockpit door. It doesn't have quite the same poignancy.
Naturally, those who knew what the tape said didn't ever put the myth straight. I don't know whether Beamer was ever quoted by a Bushista, but I wouldn't be surprised if someone who knew better did it.
I mean no disrespect to Beamer. He was an ordinary guy caught in a nightmare. We do not know whether his behaviour that day was good, bad or indifferent. It doesn't matter. The legend is kind to him and it will endure long after the truth. Legends do. We forget that but those who manufacture our stories do not.
What are we fighting for?
I noted a few months ago, in connection with the US Congress's passing a measure that denied the right to habeas corpus to Guantanamo Bay detainees, that if we are fighting for our "values" in the "war on terror", we ought to be clear that those values include the right not to be arbitrarily detained.
The US is run by bad men, who consider individual human lives nothing but counters in a game of power and money, but almost worse are the UK's leaders: reasonably good people who allow their desire to do what they see as the right thing in a particular situation to blow away any principle they might be defending. Their approach is more sophisticated but the outcome is likely to be equally bad.
The UK has introduced control orders on certain Muslims, one of which has been challenged in court
. The judge concluded that the law on the orders had been written so that they were impossible to challenge. He could not himself overturn the order. In effect, the home secretary can detain citizens at will without providing them with any evidence. This latter clearly denies them the right to access to a court, which is agreed to exist in the European convention. More worryingly, the law has been written so that there can be no judicial oversight. For ordinary citizens, the courts are their only protection -- often only a flimsy one -- against capricious governments.
It is often stated that we are fighting against terrorists and in Iraq for "freedom". But if we allow government ministers to prevent us -- citizens, I mean to say -- from doing particular things, we do not have any freedom to defend against "terror". Allowing us to replace the tyrant every four years is not something I want to go to the last ditch for, nor something I want to see young men and women die in a faraway place to bring to others.
What's in a name?
I always disliked my name. Long, it felt formal, much too stiff for the loose, ragged childhood I had, too "posh" for the rough and tumble of Cornish boys. Short, it felt common, marking me as dumb, ugly, characterless. It's the name most used for useless men on TV. Trust me, it is. When it's your name, you notice. In between, it sounds wrong, too Scottish, giving a misleading impression. Even though it's the version I prefer, I don't ever introduce myself by it or ask people to call me it.
I wanted to be a Mike or a Steve. They are proper English names, with just the right amount of easy familiarity and butchness, without tipping over into the diamond hard Rod or Brett. They are contemporary, unlike Roy, Ron or John. I could have settled for Richard or Edward, but I'd be uncomfortable with Eddie or Ted, not keen on Rick and I think Dick is about the last name you want in a Cornish schoolyard, this side of Isa Cox.
I've learned not to take it seriously, of course. I suppose most people dislike their name when they are young but learn that it both is and is not them. What I mean is that it becomes wrapped up in you, an intrinsic part of your identity, yet somehow it doesn't describe you at all. It is after all just a label, something to distinguish you from the trees, sheep and cars. I am not a dumb, useless man because someone else shares the same label, any more than a moggy can catch a gazelle just because it is a "cat" like a lion, and the leopard trees that shade my front yard will not shed acorns instead of the ugly seed cases that litter the lawn just because they and oaks are both "trees".
It tickles me when some luser finds out my "real" name and tries to taunt me by using it. I have a sense almost of pathos. I have whipped the luser so hard they are trying to hurt me with my own name, the name I am called by many times each day, that my mother uses, my wife, my friends. It's to laugh at. Of course, they believe they are revealing something, or threatening to reveal something, by hinting at having knowledge of who I "really" am. But I use a screenname not a codename! I am not hiding. I have nothing to hide and no reason to be scared of being "revealed": if I did, I would
be hiding. Many people online know who I "really" am. I email them from an account with my "real" name, the same that I use for work and offline people. It's not a big secret at all. Why would it be? It's the name I go by in this life. Thinking that the interwebnet is separate from life is a common mistake people make. It is part of life. (I realise that not everyone shares this view and some have circumstances that differ from mine. In particular, were I a woman, I might be more cautious and just perhaps if I was likely to move in circles that harbour genuine nutters, rather than the bags of piss and bluster that I tend to mix with.)
Of course, I also have other names -- not just the unprintable ones that I'm quite often called. I have been Dr Zen for some time now. It's a great name, one to be proud of. It is a troll in a name because it seems to be saying several things it isn't. I like injokes (when I'm "in", of course! Not being in on the joke is one of the worst places to be in this life). I invented it to post on a trackers' messageboard. (A tracker is someone who uses a sample sequencer to make music.) I wanted something that sounded "techno", nothing more convoluted or difficult to grasp than that. The world of dance music is littered with DJ this and thats, Dr this and thats, Professor this and thats. It's a small gesture of belonging. You don't want to be hanging with Neutrino, Electroshok and Professor Sowndwave and be going by Steven Smith.
On Wikipedia, I am more or less Grace Note. You would not believe how many people have thought I am a woman, because I go by Grace. My writing is so masculine that it's almost unbelievable. The tension it must create for the unwary is wonderful. It is like being a transexual in pixels. There is a wonderful thrill in transgression and it is doubled if you can become a question too. I greatly admire men who have the nerve to be what they feel and I find them adorable when they are posing the question: are they a man? I am entirely fascinated by chicks with dicks. How does a person feel to want to abandon their gender? If you fuck someone who has chosen to be a woman but still has a dick, what kind of fucking is that? I don't doubt I could do it. It is the masculinity of men that makes them unattractive to me, not their having dicks. But I'm not a transexual or anything like it. I don't even wear Mrs Zen's clothes. I am borrowing the ambiguity but I'm all man. I have never wanted to not be one, despite believing it's a lot harder in the round than being a woman.
I say Grace Note more or less because I've had other names on the wiki and probably will again. I have used lots of names online, sometimes to deceive people, sometimes just because I felt like a change. Sometimes it's fun to change names just to see whether anyone can spot you (the Shell Game, as Uselessnet regulars will know). You use a new name and change your tone but not so much that you cannot be spotted. Then the cognoscenti can guess at who is under the shell. It's all good fun. The fun lies in some guessing and some not. Those who are "in" have to let you know without letting others know. Sometimes you choose a name that tells some people who you are but leaves others in the dark. Posting as Donkey, for instance, told one person straight away who I was, because they knew the name from another context. Everyone else had to guess. Those who think that the fun lies in trolling people and having them all unaware are way wide of the mark. Where's the fun in that? You act very differently from normal and people can't tell it's you? That's so easy for a skilled writer as not to be worth bothering with. The true fun lies in being catchable.
Shadows on the wall
A woman crying
a baby with no mother
You fall down
We walk no further
A few cold stones
Arbeit macht frei
You haven't come here to think
You've come here to die
A cough in another room
A shell is landing
a hungry child
deprived of liberty
caged and ugly
There is green grass
rivers and trees
flowers dip their heads
gently in the breeze
And in the night
the calls of owls,
A wolf howls.DR 1995
It's the small things that piss you off. From time to time, you get an author who is in love with their own understanding of the English language. This is dangerous for an editor, whose understanding of English is likely to be better (in my case, nigh on certain: this is my profession, after all -- I peddle my knowledge of English to make money). Most authors would accept that if you hire a plumber, you don't argue with them about the need for a new washer, and do not contest edits. If they do, when they are given reasoning, they concede the point. I think they are often impressed that there is
reasoning. The authors who love their own use of English will contest edits though, and reasoning is something they are both short on and unwilling to understand.
So I'm editing a book on family trusts and the guy who's written it thinks he is a grammar whiz. He's written books on style too, although these are quasi self-published.
The guy makes many errors and varies from the house style in lots of places. I've been forewarned that he will cavil at changes that he doesn't like, so I am ready to defend my edits. Curiously, it doesn't ever occur to authors that if I make a change, I'm not going to agree without reason that I was wrong! I might miss something or fuck things up but I don't change things on a whim.
He contests the following sentence (ignore the clumsy, awful writing -- I'm not paid to make him write well, only to make him do so correctly):
"The term joint tenant refers to the ownership of an asset by two or
more people collectively in such a way that on the death of one, the ownership passes automatically to his or her
survivor or survivors."
This, he claims, needs two commas or none. He is wrong. He originally wrote it with two commas, one after "that" and the one that I have left. This is a common error; nonetheless it is an error.
We use two commas to parenthesise a phrase. We can only do that if the
parenthesised phrase is not necessary to the sense of the sentence.
There is no parenthesis here, because the second part of the sentence
relies on the phrase that you want to comma off: ownership only passes
in this way on the death of one. This is the crux of my disagreement with him. He simply doesn't understand that two commas are clearly wrong. Most
people feel uncomfortable with leading into this kind of clause
without one, but it's correct not to put one in.
For writers, I would give this advice: if you have a clause that is introduced by "that", do not use a comma unless the part you are enclosing in commas is a parenthesis. If the second half of the clause that is subordinated by "that" relies on the part in parenthesis for its sense, you have made a mistake. Unless you are Jane Austen.
Imagine you had a sentence "On the death of one, the ownership
passes automatically to his or her survivor or survivors". It should
be clear enough that you need a comma in this sentence. Generally, an
adverbial phrase that is topicalised by being placed first in a
sentence requires comma'ing off from the sentence. No comma would be
necessary were it last in the sentence. This is elementary. If you do not routinely comma off long adverbial phrases, either you write for newspapers a great deal or you were not paying attention in punctuation class at school.
Clauses ought to be punctuated in exactly the same way as sentences
that they resemble. This is because a clause is almost always a
sentence that has been conjoined with or subordinated to another. So
the comma I use should be there. (Using a comma after "that" would be as clearly wrong as using a comma to begin a sentence.)
The author would have been right to insist on two commas were the sentence
"such that, as you would expect, the ownership passes..." Here the
comma'd-off phrase is entirely parenthetical and the sense of the
sentence remains without it.
Just so that we're clear, here's the sentence without the phrase in question:
"The term joint tenant refers to the ownership of an asset by two or
more people collectively in such a way that the ownership passes automatically to his or her
survivor or survivors."
Not only does this not make any sense, it is no longer even grammatical. "His or her" cannot refer to "two or more people".
So did the author give me masterful reasoning for his version? Did he show that I was wrong? No, of course not. He just repeated that he didn't like the comma.
In some cases, how to punctuate a sentence is a matter of taste -- and
taste differs -- but this is not one of those cases in my view. It is entirely wrong to leave out the comma and even more wrong to use two.
In case you were wondering, if I had free rein, the guy would have written "'Joint tenants' own assets collectively. If one dies, ownership passes automatically to his or her survivor or survivors." All the author was doing in using his convoluted, ugly sentence was setting up a contrast with tenants-in-common, who also own assets collectively but do not pass on ownership in the same way.
Converted to good usage
Someone I know -- I won't link it because the aim is not to embarrass but to discuss -- asked her readership whether one proselytises "to" someone else. One doesn't. You proselytise people. The reason she was confused was almost certainly because she shares a common misconception about the word.
"Proselytise" does not mean "preach with the aim of converting". It simply means "convert". By extension, we can use it to mean "act with the intention of converting". It can be intransitive, so that if I say "he is proselytising", I mean "he is trying to convert people".
A "proselyte", a Bible scholar will tell you, was a convert to Judaism. It means "stranger, incomer". The sense of being a convert has been extended to other religions, so that you might call all new converts "proselytes". When you know this, it becomes apparent that "proselytise" means simply "make a proselyte" in the same way that "politicise" means "make political" or "regularise" means "make regular".
What does this show? It shows that knowing what a word means
is not always a simple matter of knowing what the dictionary says it means, or thinking you know what it would say if you looked it up, but can include knowing why it means. Having that greater knowledge helps the writer understand the words he or she uses and use them correctly, without stumbling. And it means that I know that if I want to talk about missionaries' converting tribespeople in the Sudan, I will write that they are "proselytising Africans" and not that they are "proselytising to Africans", which would be nonsense.
A gap closes
A thousand years from today, evolution will be like gravity, so commonplace as not to raise a murmur. Often, when science has met dogmatism, science has won. It is almost inevitable that it will: science largely rests on evidence, facts, observations (not always, of course; it is practised by humans, after all).
Those who want to believe that God "designed" animals the way they currently are find themselves considerably embarrassed by the existence of fossils of animals that are no longer with us. They weaselled out of that by suggesting that God created all sorts of life but did not expect or want it all to last forever. What he did not do, they insist, is allow it to evolve. Quite why they can't simply adapt their dogma to include evolution, I don't know. It would be a smart designer indeed who used evolution as his or her means to create abundant life.
A prop for the creationists has always been that the fossil record is patchy and has "gaps". These are an artefact of its being so unlikely for a fossil to survive, given the need for particular conditions at the time of the organism's death and for the fossil to survive for millions of years in a world that suffers upheaval and change. The discovery of the "fishapod"
closes one of those gaps. Here is one of those "transitional" fossils that the creationists demand, claiming that their lack is proof that evolution does not happen.
But it does. Fish walked out from the sea and became land animals. Tiktaalik roseae is a snapshot: one creature in that chain of creatures -- at one end fish, at the other tetrapods. Tiktaalik is neither one nor the other, precisely. It is a creature in transition. Of course, in its day, it was the end of the line. (We forget that about evolution, particularly when we write articles titled "Is Man Still Evolving?" Evolution is not a process with an endpoint, and we are not finished in any sense that T. roseae was not.)
It gives me a small thrill to realise that T. roseae might be an ancestor of mine (some would say the resemblance to a crocodile proves it). Our lives are meagre, insubstantial, soon forgotten, but the chain of being that we are part of stretches back billions of years to a molecule in a warm pond and will, if our genes are lucky and we don't manage to exterminate ourselves and all other life at some point, stretch into a future as deep as the past that was home to T. roseae.