Excerpt of Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies by June Casagrande
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In a 1980 piece, Safire demonstrates a surprising capacity
for understanding the dangers of language superiority. "Some
of the interest in the world of words comes from people who
like to put less-educated people downLanguage Snobs, who
give good usage a bad name." But after authoring that piece,
Safire went on to spend the next twenty-five years writing
columns that snootily drop more names than you can count. In
a single "On Language" column reprinted in his book
Safire makes reference to
Hermes, Mercury, Library
of Congress manuscript division chief James H. Hutson, Warren
Harding, Roger Sherman, Max Farrand, Attorney General
Edwin L. Meese III, seventeenth-century theological author
Richard Burthogge, editor Hugh J. Silverman, Zeus, Martin
Heidegger, Irving Kristol, Jacques Derrida, Shakespeare,
Coleridge, Stuart Berg Flexner, and Heritage Foundation
specialist Bruce Fein.
So much for our great defender of the less-educated little
Perhaps it's no coincidence that both Kilpatrick and Safire
have had long careers as political columnistsconservative
political columnists. And perhaps the fact that one William F.
Buckley Jr. authored one of the language books at my local
is further evidence of something funny going on here.
It's certainly not my place to speculate whether there exists
correlation between conservative political punditry and uptight,
anal, quasi-erotic obsession with impossibly strict language
rules and/or mean-spirited superiority. My job here is
only to examine the shared affliction of these men to consider
the question: What crawled up their behinds and died?
For argument's sake, let's say it was a bug.
So, transitioning not so gracefully into the lesson phase of
this chapter, would you say, "A bug crawled up Kilpatrick's and
Safire's behinds and died"? Or would you omit the first
and "s" and instead say, "It crawled up Kilpatrick and
Though both sentences have a certain on-the-money ring to
them, the first one sounds better, doesn't it? That's because
question of whether to use the extra apostrophe and "s" has to
do with whether the possession is shared or separate.
If Kilpatrick and Safire shared two behinds, you would say,
"Safire and Kilpatrick's butts." If they shared a single behind,
it would be "Safire and Kilpatrick's butt. (And no doubt it
would also have to work double overtime to expel both men's
special brand of genius.)
But because it's safe to assume that each man has his own
distinct and vise-tight posterior, you would say, "Safire's and
No doubt right now you're probably thinking, "This
whole question is ridiculous. A single bug could not have
crawled up both their butts and died, unless of course it was
some kind of super zombie bug that can rise from the dead to
So, looking forward to the day when science can transcend
such limitations and genetically engineer a fanny-loving
phoenix bug, I concede that, for now, you're right.
Excerpted from Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies by June Casagrande. Copyright 2006 by June Casagrande. Reproduced by permission of Penguin Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.