Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Ownership, singularity, and frustration

The manuscript editor who works in an office full of other manuscript editors will sometimes get to read a professional newsletter that a colleague circulates. This is a questionable blessing (although for the scrupulous manuscript editor everything is questionable, so that isn't saying much).

Recently, I got to see such a bulletin that included a letter from the editor of some style guide or other (I no longer have a copy of the newsletter). He said he prefers farmers market to farmers' market. He had checked with an organization of such markets, and besides, the farmers generally don't own the market. They don't own the market? True, but what does that have to do with the grammatical possessive? Does this editor of a style manual really think that it implies ownership? On the same page is an article by an editor on her dealings with "her authors." Does anyone seriously think she's claiming ownership of these authors?

And why is farmer's market not considered as an alternative? Note the first paragraph of this post; it has two references to the grammatically singular manuscript editor. Did anyone think that it refers to only one manuscript editor? The grammatically singular farmer brings his or her produce to the market, where the grammatically singular city dweller may purchase it.

I don't know whether the author of that letter to the editor rejects farmer's market out of hand; if he does reject it, I don't know whether it's because he thinks the singular is in some way illogical. The letter was in response to something that had appeared in a previous issue of the newsletter, and I lack knowledge of that context. But there is at least one person who proudly announces her cluelessness about such constructions. Here are the last few sentences of the introduction to Lynne Truss's not-quite-completely-worthless Eats, Shoots & Leaves (p. 34):

The second [cartoon that Truss treasures] shows a bunch of vague, stupid-looking people standing outside a building, and behind them a big sign that says "Illiterates' Entrance". And do you want to know the awful truth? In the original drawing, it said, "Illiterate's Entrance", so I changed it. Painted correction fluid over the wrong apostrophe; inserted the right one. Yes, some of us were born to be punctuation vigilantes.
I don't care about the lack of a comma in "says 'Illiterates' Entrance'" and the presence of a comma in "said, 'Illiterate's Entrance'" (I mention it for the sake of my professional cred); there may be a rationale for it, and even if there isn't, I don't care about this stuff (although you sort of get the idea that zero-tolerance Truss does). And the periods and commas outside the quotation marks are British, and that's the style she uses. What I care about is that this person who would tell people how to write is so unaware of the subtleties of language (and this one isn't even that subtle). I care that Truss is so clueless as a human being that she embraces the concept of "stupid-looking" people, and that she isn't embarrassed about it.

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