The old mailbag

Friday is a day on which I sometimes try, vainly, to catch up with accumulated messages and tweets.

Correct grammar can kill you: We all learned that with joint possession we make the last noun possessive, and with separate possession we make all the nouns possessive, right? “John and Mary’s house” is the one John and Mary own jointly, “John’s and Mary’s houses” the ones where they live after the divorce. But ponder this sentence forwarded by one of my spies in Wichita: Dozens of people line-up to give money at Norwich High after a tornado destroyed Don Hall, his wife, and two daughters' house.

Not apposite: One reader invites me to write about the false appositive. A true appositive is one in which a noun is in apposition, positioned next to, another noun to amplify or extend its meaning: “He appealed vainly to McIntyre, a sluggard, for a quick response.” A false appositive does not refer to the immediately preceding noun, but to a previous phrase or clause: “He framed his questions precisely and provided supporting detail to McIntyre, a futile attempt to get a prompt response.”

I have no samples in stock at the moment. You coming across this sort of thing much?

“Git” is more compact: Some time back there was a mild sensation in Baltimore — it doesn’t take much — when b, a publication of the Baltimore Sun Media Group aimed at the young, published an issue blaring the headline DOUCHEBAG for an article on how to identify someone as a douchebag (No need to write in; I already knew.) Now Jan Freeman has written a short article at Throw Grammar from the Train, her worthy blog, on how the word came to be an all-purpose pejorative.

It’s not the Internet; it’s you: Steven Pinker has a refreshing essay in The New York Times debunking the glib alarmism that using the electronic media is making us shallower and dumber than we were before. (Hard to imagine the possibility.) Not so, he says, and he finds no scientific support for the idea.

Here’s the part, though, that you really need to keep in mind:

And to encourage intellectual depth, don’t rail at PowerPoint or Google. It’s not as if habits of deep reflection, thorough research and rigorous reasoning ever came naturally to people. They must be acquired in special institutions, which we call universities, and maintained with constant upkeep, which we call analysis, criticism and debate. They are not granted by propping a heavy encyclopedia on your lap, nor are they taken away by efficient access to information on the Internet.

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