Good, fair, serious, critical

No matter how many time you remind reporters, they keep filing stories saying that some injured person’s condition is “stable.” As Craig Lancaster points out at Watch Yer Language, stable tells the reader nothing. It means that the patient’s condition is the same, and the reader doesn’t know same as what.

The baffling thing about this whole enterprise is how difficult it is to get simple things right. I don’t mean points about which reasonable, literate people disagree, such as whether it’s time to let careen replace career. I mean things that are just wrong.

This week we published an article with a reference to All Saint’s Day. November 1 is the Festival of All Saints. All of them. Plural. So one writes All Saints’ Day. Why didn’t all coupled with a singular possessive look wrong to the writer, the editor, the copy editor?

Why should possessives in general be such a thorny problem? The major point on which there is room for variance is what to do with a singular noun ending in s. You can write James’s or James’, as your aesthetic preference leads you, so long as you are consistent. Everything else is straightforward, ’s for singulars, s’ for plurals.

Ah, but the plurals add to the confusion. You’ve decided whether to write Jones’s or Jones’, but what do you do with a family names Jones. The plural is Joneses, and the possessive plural is Joneses’ (which you can pronounce JONE-zez or JONE-zez-zez, as your tongue leads you).

If you find some passage in Jane Austen or elsewhere that refers to a Smith family as the Smith’s, please don’t trouble to write in. Arguing from the historical record of the language is instructive but not necessarily conclusive. After all, in the 17th century, it was mistakenly held that ’s was a contraction of his, so you find people like Sir Thomas Browne writing constructions like Moses his man.

We have a set of conventions in standard written English. If writers observed them, editors would be able to address matters of structure and clarity instead of correcting silly mistakes.



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