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(Within ten feet of this cube)
Tuesday, May 1, 2007   3:25 PM

While walking past my cubicle, a prescriptivist coworker of mine noted that "it would be nice if someone would actually put up a decoration that contains a complete sentence."

There was not a sentence fragment in sight, so I asked her what she meant and she pointed to my LANGUAGE IS THE PEOPLE'S picture.

"That's not a sentence."

"What? How is that not a sentence?"

"Because it begs the question. The people's what?"
"What? That is totally a sentence," I said. "I'm going to prove you wrong."

Also, I noted that she'd used begs the question wrong, not because she had — as far as I was concerned, she hadn't — but because... I have no idea now, probably to show that I could play her game.

(In hindsight, it was probably pretty petty to fight prescriptivism with prescriptivism like that.)

My coworker's initial claim seemed to be that you couldn't end a sentence with a possessive. The only reading she allowed herself was:

Language is [article for missing noun -->] [attributive possessive adjective -->] [missing noun] .

(Apparently an attributive adjective sidles right up to the noun and a predicate adjective proclaims itself through a verb.)

I can see where my coworker gets her version, but there's no reason to prefer a reading that results in an ungrammatical sentence when there's a logical alternative reading. I see this:

Language is [<--- predicate possessive adjectival phrase]

C.f. language is the shit. It almost doesn't matter that there is a possessive there, but you can also clearly end a sentence with a possessive. For example, with an absolute possessive pronoun, as in the nonsensical-but-grammatical language is hers. The AP styleguide also has punctuation guidelines for sentence-final possessives.

When I talked to my coworker later, she claimed that it was the word is that was the real problem, because you wouldn't say car is the people's. I gave a fumbling explanation, but got sidetracked into a discussion of the difference between a noun representing an abstract concept and a noun representing a finite object.

(Everyone should read Language Log's Plural, mass, collective post)

The bigger issue here is: how do we handle prescriptivists? If someone says that a non-WTF usage is Wrong, should I merely disagree? Argue? Spend an hour trying to learn grammatical terms? Preach?

If you're trying to live based on the real world, rather than an abstract set of rules and beliefs, how much can you disagree with people without coming off as a smarmyass? Does their attempting to impose their system on you change the rules of engagement? It's like being an atheist, but with Strunk as Jesus.


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