John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and random topics. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. The original site,, at, and now at

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Look over at

By invitation, I offered a list of my top ten blogs on language and editing — a selection that should not astonish anyone who has been grazing in this pasture.

But I am just one of a number of people who have been invited to submit such lists on various topics. The Internet is such a wilderness — some tall trees but a great deal of scrub intermixed with patches of poison ivy — that a guide is always welcome. Rummage around over there to see what sites you may find useful. There’s a link to the Top 10 Lists in the menu bar at the top of the page.

Make sure you come back here.

Puzzling possessives

A few days ago a reader wondered about the construction pork producers’ and Israelis’ objecting to. Why apostrophes?

The use of a possessive with a gerund (the present participle of a verb functioning as a noun) is common in English. So is the use of a non-possessive noun. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage finds that both forms have been examined and faulted or endorsed over a long span — and that it is quite common for an author to switch from one to the other. So of these two possibilities —

I can’t stand his creeping up behind me while I’m working

I can’t stand him creeping up behind me while I’m working

you get to use whichever you like. Another step to reduce usage anxiety!

If the possessive with a gerund makes you step back, you may also be put off momentarily by the double possessive, or double genitive. That is a construction in which possession is indicated twice, by a possessive form and the word of. One refers to a friend of mine rather than a friend of me. (You can also say a friend to me, though it will probably sound stilted to many listeners or readers.)

The construction has an ancient pedigree in English, and Merriam-Webster’s explains its function in reducing ambiguity by distinguishing between an objective genitive and a possessive genitive. Here’s how: Jane’s picture can mean a picture belonging to Jane or a picture of Jane. Saying a picture of Jane’s — the double genitive — distinguishes the former sense from the latter.