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 Coming to Terms, 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 constitutional specialist Bruce Fein.
So much for our great defender of the less-educated little guy.
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 library is further evidence of something funny going on here.
It's certainly not my place to speculate whether there exists any 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 apostrophe and "s" and instead say, "It crawled up Kilpatrick and Safire's behinds"?
Though both sentences have a certain on-the-money ring to them, the first one sounds better, doesn't it? That's because the 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 Kilpatrick's butts."
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 irritate again."
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.
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