I apologize for being late with this—the link will probably expire tomorrow—but I didn’t want to let go without comment one of the few entirely sensible things the NY Times has published on language; no surprise, given that it’s by Geoffrey Nunberg, whom I have previously praised. It’s called “The Bloody Crossroads of Grammar and Politics” and it should be the final word on the idiotic controversy over the College Board sentence “Toni Morrison’s genius enables her to create novels that arise from and express the injustices African Americans have endured.” Nunberg discusses the alleged rule that would make the sentence incorrect, and says:

The assumption behind the rule is that a pronoun has to be of the same part of speech as its antecedent. Since possessives are adjectives, the reasoning goes, they can’t be followed by pronouns, even if the resulting sentence is perfectly clear.
If you accept that logic, you’ll eschew sentences like “Napoleon’s fame preceded him” (rewrite as “His fame preceded Napoleon”). In fact you’ll have to take a red pencil to just about all of the great works of English literature, starting with Shakespeare and the King James Bible (“And Joseph’s master took him, and put him into the prison”). The construction shows up in Dickens and Thackeray, not to mention H. W. Fowler’s “Modern English Usage” and Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style.” (“The writer’s colleagues . . . have greatly helped him in the preparation of his manuscript.”) And it’s pervasive not just in The New York Times and The New Yorker, but in the pages of The Weekly Standard, not excluding Mr. Skinner’s own column. (“It may be Bush’s utter lack of self-doubt that his detractors hate most about him.”)
The ubiquity of those examples ought to put us on our guard — maybe the English language knows something that the usage writers don’t. In fact the rule in question is a perfect example of muddy grammatical thinking.For one thing, possessives like “Mary’s” aren’t adjectives; they’re what linguists call determiner phrases. (If you doubt that, try substituting “Mary’s” for the adjective “happy” in sentences like “The child looks happy” or “We saw only healthy and happy children.”)
And if a nonpossessive pronoun can’t have a possessive antecedent, logic should dictate that things can’t work the other way around, either — if you’re going to throw out “Hamlet’s mother loved him,” then why accept “Hamlet loved his mother”? That’s an awful lot to throw over the side in the name of consistency.

And while I am (however reluctantly) praising the Times, I may as well mention Safire’s May 18 column “a.k.a. Abu,” in which he actually provides information I’d been wondering about: the relationship of the new Palestinian prime minister’s name, Mahmoud Abbas, and his kunya, Abu Mazen. Safire says:

Mr. Abbas also has what is called in Arabic a kunya, a nickname that most often refers specifically to one’s offspring. Abbas’s kunya begins with Abu (which means ”father,” akin to the Aramaic abba) and ends with Mazen, which was the name of his eldest son, who died last year. Mohammed Sawaie, professor of Arabic at the University of Virginia, tells me that the name suggests muzn, which can mean ”white cloud” or ”water,” both happy sights in an arid area. It may also call to mind the name of an ancient Arab tribe known for its bravery, the Banu Mazin….

Just what I wanted to know. He goes on to add, usefully:

If an Arab man has no son, he may be called familiarly by Abu followed by the name of his father, or grandfather, as a substitute until he has a son, on the assumption that he will name his future son after his father. Or he may adopt a nom de guerre, as Yasir Arafat, who has no son, apparently did with Abu Ammaar, unless this was an indication that he intended to name a son Ammaar or Ammar. Abu Ammaar as a cognomen for Yasir may be an example of a traditional, ”fossilized” kunya like Abu Khalil, which means ”friend of God” and is applied to anyone named Ibrahim (in Hebrew, Avraham).

The only thing he’s omitted is that ‘Ammar (second a long) means ‘long-lived’ and is related to the names ‘Umar, ‘Amr, and ‘Amir.


  1. If there’s one term that’s outlived its usefulness, it’s “political correctness.” In my youth, it was used by those on the left to criticize those trendy young lefties whose grasp of political issues was not up to their adherance to fashion. Dr Nunberg does a great job of demolishing yet another foolish wannabe grammarian who cannot even follow his own “grammatically correct rules.”

  2. Safire on kunyas, imagine. I suppose he could have also explained the idafa construction as well (it’s just like the Latin nominative-genitive pair: Abu Mazenin, if you use the case inflection, or Abdu Rabbihi, the servant of his master). Anyway, thanks for the value-added marginal glosses, you guys. I was scratching my head and wondering why I didn’t see the point the prescriptive grammarian was making. More proof that the New York Times is better prechewed.

  3. Headline in today’s local paper: Police release man’s name who drowned while rafting.

  4. OK, now that’s just wrong.

  5. I know; it was intended as amusement, not counterexample. The referent of her is not the words Toni Morrison’s but the writer Toni Morrison, who is a noun. Grammar doesn’t even enter into it.

  6. Please I want to know what is ” Abu abba”, because I dreamed with this word. Could you answer me? Thanks, Bruno

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