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Friday, November 25, 2005

Re: Literally Everywhere

Posted by on November 25 at 15:59 PM

Ah, the contentious s’s construction. It’s been a subject of fierce debate in the Stranger offices lately, with two armies hurling pages of newsprint and invective at one another: “Traditionalist!” “Innovator!” “Illiterate!” “Snob!” It’s literally impossible to get any work done around here.

My interest in grammar is less prescriptive than descriptive. I care more about how people actually talk and write than how they “should” talk and write. Say what you will about Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker (lots of folks hate him), but he summed up the position nicely in his 1994 pop-linguistics book The Language Instinct:

There is no contradiction in saying that every normal person can speak grammatically (in the sense of systematically) and ungrammatically (in the sense of nonprescriptively), just as there is no contradiction in saying that a taxi obeys the laws of physics but breaks the laws of Massachusetts. But this raises a question. Someone, somewhere, must be making decisions about “correct English” for the rest of us. Who? There is no English Language Academy, and this is just as well; the purpose of the French Academy is to amuse journalists from other countries with bitterly argued decisions that the French gaily ignore… The legislators of “correct English,” in fact, are an informal network of copy-editors, dictionary usage panelists, style manual and handbook writers, English teachers, essayists, columnists, and pundits.

Theirs is an assumed authority, dear readersyou, the people, are the true grammarians. No matter how desperately the mavens wish to push back the ocean with a squeegee, they cannot fight the eternal morphological truth: rules, stylebooks, and dictionaries are merely photographs of the ever-shifting linguistic tide.

You are the moon that pushes and pulls our grammatical ocean.

With that purple, populist prologue out of the way, I put the question to each and every one of you:

Do you prefer s’s for singular possessives ending in s? Compare:

Eli Sanders’s bicycle is made of tapioca.
Eli Sanders’ bicycle is made of tapioca.

What do you say, dear polis?