Monday, July 02, 2007

Pompous Purveyor of Prattling Preciosity Piffle

To: Mr. Jesse Sheidlower, Oxford Dictionary Man

From: Lee Drury De Cesare, Feminist Grammariana

Unpacking old boxes, I came across your 2001 letter below to William Safire. It answers Mr. Safire’s query about my writing him that the possessive before a gerund is missing in your quote of this 1859 sentence by George P. Marsh, a founder of the Oxford Dictionary in America:

“`The Society having determined to ask the aid of American scholars in this enterprise, the subscriber has been asked to act as Secretary in America.’”

I mistook the “having” phrase as a gerund; you mistook it for a participle. We were both wrong. I’m smarter now and assert that Curme calls this construction nominative absolute. I mistook the --ing word for a noun. You mistook it for an adjective. You quote Curme with such confidence that your blooper surprises. One expects a Dictionary Man to spit these answers out with the infalliability of an R2D2.

Before we get to your punctuation and writing errors, pray let me comment on your sexism. When you use “Ms” without the period, you deny us of the Ms. Phylum the dignity of a period to adorn our honorific. I bet you wouldn’t dismiss Patient Griselda “Mrs.” by omitting a period after the label of male ideal woman ten steps behind a man with her title’s showing she’s his property.

We feminists plant our flag on the period after “Ms.” to salute our achieving an abbreviated title that gives no clue to a woman’s attachment to a man. “Ms.” stands analogue to “Mr.” Don’t invoke retro appeals to the weak-stress form of Mistress’s devolving to Miss and hence to Ms. Linquistics, shlempistics. We brook linguistic evasion to rob us of our period after “Ms.”

Then there’s your prissy preciosity in shrinking back that I used rough-hewn adjective “whopping”; the “vehemence” of my expression “startled” you. You spook easy, Jesse. Your tone implies that strong language to be province of Y-chromosome testosterone-besotted overlords or that only a woman of questionable refinement would resort to such lumber-jack argot—probably hillbilly slattern who doesn’t know gerunds from participles.

Men’s aspersions, subtle or crude, about women’s lady status underlie this snotty diction comment. You may be editor of the flossy Oxford Dictionary, American branch, Master Jesse, but in this template male sneer, you are one of the louts who try to keep women second bananas with ancient chauvinist mind games.

Don’t bother to call me paranoid. We feminists glory in paranoia. The sexists and their Aunt-Tom supporters called suffragists paranoid for chaining themselves to the White House gate to showcase Wilson’s resistance to women’s enfranchisement. The gallant prison doctor whom Wilson urged to declare gate-chained Alice Paul crazy so that he could lock her up in an insane asylum put the situation best: “People call woman who show courage crazy.”

We feminists accomplish some of our best work in an ecstasy of paranoia. We forced the US Weather Bureau to stop labeling all hurricanes women’s names, sexist ploy coincident with the ancient slander that women are “unpredictable and tempestuous” but that men are steady as she goes.

The weather bureau buckled to our relentless paranoid assault and now labels hurricanes male and female names alternately. We rested content with that victory and have now the leisure to move on to snotty Oxford Dictionary editors who act sly sexists by omitting periods from our Ms. honorific.

Stop that no-period slur, Jesse, or I shall confer with Mother Sheidlower. Women won suffrage because the mother of a Tennessee state legislator, the last needed to ratify, told her son that she would never speak to him again if he didn’t vote for ratification. He listened to his mother.

I suspect your tone of condescension to a “Ms.” Somebody’s calling an error “whopping” connects with “Jesse” aura.

There are lots of Jesses where I come from, the South-most women. In Jeff Davis County, Georgia, I have an Aunt Jesse. The problem for male Jesses is they fear their episcene name exposes them to suspicions about sexual orientation.

Although Jesse James did a bit to ramp up the name’s macho aroma, he didn’t obliterate its feminine resonance. “Jesse” does not show as dire as “A Boy Named Sue,” to be sure, but it’s in the grey zone. The Centers for Disease Control has run unimpeachable studies on Jesses’ suffering from compensatory macho swashbuckling deportment whether they be truck drivers or Oxford editors.

Your sniff at “whopper” also coincides with Dr. Johnson’s snooty refusal to allow American coinages in his dictionary. Your case is worse, however, I bet. I suspect you are an American assuming British airs. It’s OK to admire the English but tacky to try to pass for one of them. If you come from Brooklyn, accept that fact and don’t try to pretty it up with British pretensions that everybody will catch on to sooner or later. My family in Burnt Fort, Georgia (burnt by the wicked Northern Army of Oppression, of course), glories in the unusual number of eccentrics that adorn our clan—not a few bordering on idiocy. If you have a flaw, make a virtue of it. A corn crib full of eccentrics is our family's.

I move on to your perfidious scholarship. You quote Curme where it’s coincident with your dumping on my gerund comment to Safire. But you don’t say that Curme says passim that language exists in flux. Any bona fide linguistic scholar echoes Curme.

Curme says that the possessive before the gerund waxes and wanes. Jespersen’s Language makes the same point. You name-drop Jespersen too. Name- dropping even for citing scholars shows insecurity, Jesse. You insert the footnotes into the text. My Burnt Fort family says such behavior is “tryin’ to get above your raisin’.” They mean you’re tiresome and pretentious. This flaw gets the most derision when we rake the family moribundi’s graves at the yearly family reunion with dinner on the grounds. Our Civil War dead rests in the back of the cemetery. One was only 17 when he died—slaughtered by the wicked Army of Oppression, of course. He might have grown up to be a crackerjack linguistic scholar who would have put Jespersen and Curme in the shade.

You cherry pick evidence to put a “Ms.” down. That’s not gentlemanly. I can’t think why you act linguistic clod except that you want to impress Mr. Safire, an attenuated but persistent sexist himself.

You should have more self-confidence as Oxford-dictionary expert to whom Mr. Safire appealed. One would think that an Oxford-dictionary editor would have a sense of validity that neutralizes need to posture.

Mr. Safire needed all the help an Oxford editor could give him—especially one that had nailed down the difference among a gerund, a participle, and a nominative absolute. You hadn’t, Jesse.

I may rat you out to the English English Oxford Dictionary editors. I bet they are such towering snoots to American provincial editors that you just want to crawl under your desk to escape their condescension, exacerbated by their affecting those ancient tweeds with rump-sprung bottoms. Nothing must be worse than a brisk dressing down by one of those podgy public-school twits full of himself.

I heard Mr. Safire say once on a talk show that he “felt badly” about something.

I wrote to rebuke the fellow, whose status of NYT grammar expert says something about what it takes to be a NYT grammar expert.

Don’t go back to Rask, Grimm, and Bopp to cook up a case for Safire’s adverb’s following a linking verb. I shall strike back with Offa, Alfric, and Aekfric, my contemporaries in the linguistic racket. If necessary, I shall hearken to the runes. And stop kicking poor old Fowler as you do in this letter. I saw you invoke him as confirming expert in a Slate piece. You punch him to prove your point; then you appeal to him to support your point. That behavior ranks dishonorable scholarship.

Today, the gerund gets the possessive before it. That condition may change, but at this point in the flow of the river of language, possessive-before-gerund reigns. The editor of The NYT Style Manual advises it as does Harbrace Handbook, which at least since 6th edition, my college era, has endorsed possessive before the gerund. Harbrace still does in dummied-down recent editions.
So do other current freshman-English primers.

These editors are not fools; you, Jesse, may be the clown tap-dancing with skewed evidence to impress a NYT columnist guy and sneer at a Ms. who uses words such as “whopper” that offend your fragile sexist language limits for ladies.

Stop dropping big-cheese linguistic stars’ names to the likes of Mr. Safire. Any man who gets on national TV and says he “feels badly” forfeits name-dropping homage.

Now your writing problems:

You commit the most frequent error that English teachers see in student essays: overusing commas.

Follett says, “The historical trend for the past three or four hundred years has been away from the rhetorical style of punctuation…. The drive toward lean punctuation is such that even if we still wrote the complex, periodic sentences of Johnson and Macaulay, we should punctuate them much less heavily.”

You overuse adverbs to a faretheewell. You dote on pussyfooting passive verbs. You overwrite. Your syntax shows awkward.

lee drury de cesare

Jesse’s Mess-ups:

Oxford English Dictionary

North American Editorial Unit

Jesse Sheidlower


198 Madison Avenue

New York, NY 100164314

212 726-6215 telephone

212 726-6449 fax


25 September 2001

Mr. William Safire

New York Times-----Washington Bureau

1627 I St. NW

Washington, DC 20006

Dear Bill:

Thanks for forwarding to me the letter from Ms De Cesare about the alleged grammatical error in the passage I quoted from George P. Marsh (not George “C.Marsh, as Ms De Cesare inaccurately transcribes it; she also mistranscribes Marsh’s sentence, although not in any way that affects the grammatical interpretation). I confess to being a little startled at the vehemence indeed fear for the English language due to this alleged “whoppingerror, and of [at] her criticism of my “obtuse complacency” for merely copying what she assumes is an error. 97 words of her declaration that the British should

Le Jesse hisses and has claws.

Dump comma after “Marsh”; you cut off a restrictive adverbial clause. Parenthetical “not” phrase covers redundant adverb “inaccurately.” Omit redundant adverbs “little” and “indeed.” In “…`whopping’ error, and her…,” don’t separate with a comma compound prepositional phrases. Use “at”…“at” for parallelism. Omit redundant adjective “little” and redundant adverb “merely.”

Edit: “Thanks for the De Cesare letter that alleges my error in the George P. Marsh quote. Ms. De Cesare mistranscribes Marsh’s “P” to “C” and “requested” to “asked.” The vehemence of her declaration that the British should fear for the English language because of my “whopping” error startles me as does her citing my “obtuse complacency” for copying what she mistakes for an error.” 64 versus 94 words

Jesse’s “vehemence” diction choice rather than some more neutral word as “energy” throws down the gauntlet. I take it up with delight.


I’ll ignore the trivial comment about Marsh’s capitalization of “Secretary,” which is being used as a title and thus would be capitalized according to the usual 19th century - and also common 20th-century, practice, and consider only the grammatical point. 40 words


This ranks gawky, flatulent, 40-word sentence: Jesse should forego the jab at a Ms. for a cleaner construction: Marsh’s `Secretary’ would merit capital in 19th- or 20th-century title.” 10 versus 40 words

For a parenthetical element, use two dashes, not one dash and one comma.


It’s clear that Ms De Cesare is completely erroneous in her analysis, as a look at any grammar or history of English, including the one that she herself cites, would show. 31 words


No commas enclose “as…cites”: the “as” prepositional phrase is restrictive. No comma before “including”: restrictive participial phrase modifies “any grammar or history.”

Edit: “Ms. De Cesare errs as any English grammar history shows including the one she cites.” 15 versus 31 words


There are two main issues to consider. The first is whether a gerund should always be preceded by a possessive.


Dump redundant adjective “main.

Pussyfooting passive verb: “The first is whether a possessive should always precede a gerund.”


Usage writers have been discussing this for hundreds of years; Robert Lowth, for example, in his influential (and extremely conservative) l762

Short introduction to English Grammar was distinctly hostile to the use of a possessive with gerund.


Jettison “extremely”; ditto “influential.” You use too many belt-and-braces parentheses. Readers suspect you think they’re too dumb to catch on without these pedagogic interpolations.


But the modern view has been shaped chiefly Fowler, who invented the term “fused participle” for a gerund without the possessive, and was strongly opposed to it. 27 words


Drop redundant modifier “strongly.”

Edit: “Fowler shaped the modern view.” He invented and opposed “fused participle” for the gerund without possessive.”18 versus 27 words

The strongest attack on this notion came from Otto Jespersen, who as you know was perhaps the greatest historical grammarian of English.Jespersen devoted the bulk of his On Some Disputed Points in EnglishGrammar (Society for Pure English Tract No. XXV (1926)) to an analysis of the possessive with gerund, and proved conclusively that a gerund without the possessive is perfectly grammatical, very common, and standard;


There is no “perhaps” about Jespersen’s being preeminent historical grammarian.

Don’t separate with a comma compound verb “devoted… and proved.” Drop “conclusively,” “perfectly,” and “very.” Brackets enclose “1926.”


he quotes many examples of its use, from such authors as Swift, Defoe, Fielding, Sterne, Goldsmith, Boswell, Austen, Scott, Shelley, Keats, B. Bronte, Dickens, Thackeray, G. Eliot, J. S. Mill, Trollope, Hardy, A. C. Doyle, G. B. Shaw, Chesterton, and Galsworthy. (The OEDJ, in its discussion, had already cited from Shakespeare onward.) Fowler was able to respond to Jespersen’s analysis only with the feeble comment that he (Fowler) still didn’t like the usage.


No comma before “from”: “he…quotes…from such authors as...” is restrictive adverbial prepositional phrase. He didn’t quote from all authors. He left out bodice-ripper authors and even Proust, not to mention all other authors since the beginning of time. Dump stocking-stuffer “in its discussion.”

These hallowed authors over-punctuate. Even at their time, over-punctuation was passe.


Why are scholars who favor one position right and Fowler wrong? They disputed this point. That “feeble” shows tendentious and unscholarly. Poor old Fowler’s long labor in the mangroves of language doesn’t deserve this whippersnapper back-of-the-hand.

Jespersen’s “scholarship” falters in his comments on “women’s speech” in Language. Men cannot handle with equilibrium any question about women in or out of scholarship. Sexism trumps science in Jespersen’s dismissive comments that women’s speech reflects their inferiority to men. Men reign the deep thinkers and speakers, affirms Jespersen, women the linguistic dingbats.

No man is objective on women. Freud, tons smarter than Jespersen, claimed women suffered “penis envy.” Aristotle said male zygotes got a soul before female did. Don’t get me started on St. Augustine.

The whole y-chromosome tribe owns vested interest in keeping women subservient to hold up a mirror to men to reflect them twice their size and to keep jobs such as chief editor of the American branch of Oxford Dictionary Company reserved for y-chromosome affirmative-action hiring of the Jesses amongst them.

I regret that Jespersen is dead. That circumstance deprives me of the pleasure of slapping him silly—ditto Freud, Aristotle, and St. Augustine—all those sexist louts through the ages.


The grammarian George Curme, in his detailed Grammar of the English Language (three volumes, 1931—35), a1so provides a large body of historical evidence defending the gerund without possessive.

Redundant adjectives “detailed” and “large” should go.

Cherry picking Curme ranks lousy scholarship: he also says the status of possessive before gerund exists in flux.

Strunk &White condemns superfluous adjectives as well as adverbs.


More recent commentators agree, including Robert Burchfield (former chief editor of the OED), who writes bluntly that “the possessive with gerund is on the retreat,” and even Bryan Gamer, a relatively conservative American and strong Fowler proponent.


“Including …Robert Burchfield” is a restrictive participial phrase: no comma after “agree.” Dump “bluntly.” Drop “relatively.”


Thus it seems clear that, regardless of the recommendation the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, this construction should not be regarded as an error, certainly not a “whopping” error the silent quoting of which should render my credibility suspect. 42 words


Edit: “Despite the New York Times Manual of Style, some scholars do not regard Marsh’s construction "whopping" error, the silent quoting of which should render my credibility suspect.” 27 versus 42 words

The only way you make a case for Marsh’s not using possessive-before-a-gerund is to prove that the possessive-before-the-gerund was out of style in Marsh’s era. I doubt it was.

Abandon other redundant adverbs but retain “certainly.” It works here. Adverbs are the chocolate of style. A little goes a long way. Your cuffing commas around and engaging in other writing gaucheries make your credibility suspect, not the “silent” quoting of Marsh.


The second, and more immediately relevant, issue, is that the word “having” in the passage I quoted is not a gerund. It is the present active participle of the auxiliary verb “to have,” and its function here is to form the present perfect tense, as any grammar of English would confirm. Two sentences: 52 words.


Such belabored pedagogy explains scholars' stodgy reputation.

Edit: “Second, ‘having’ is not a gerund but present participle of `have' and forms the present perfect tense.” One sentence: 17 word versus 52

Just because it has an —ing ending doesn’t mean it’s a gerund. As the Times Manual of Style says on the page Ms Discourtesy of no period De Cesare quotes, “Look twice at the meaning of the phrase because the participle often plays the role of a noun in such a sentence.” It does not do so here, so there is no need to progress to the issue of whether it then needs a possessive. 2 sentences: 75 words

This is a metastasis.

Edit: “An –ing can be either gerund or participle. The Times Manual says the participle often plays the role of noun but does not here.” 2 sentences: 25 versus 75 words

I hope all is well with you.

With best wishes,

Jesse Sheidlower

I don’t know why Slate lets you write for it. Your crabbed, wordy style passes muster in the windy corridors of scholarship, but it’s not ideal newspaper style. It’s not good style in or out of newspapers.

Mr. Safire ranks a better writer than you. He overuses commas and passive verbs, but his style is clear. Neither is he wordy. He had to accommodate the word limits of his column.

I hope the old dear is holed up in his retirement cul-de-sac abusing commas with a hey nonny nonny to his heart's content.

But Le Safire has been writing longer than have you. A fellow can’t have written much by your dewy age. I read you are twenty-seven. That means you were barely out of knickers when you wrote the above letter to Safire preening your questionable expertise.

Your problems: overuse of modifiers—you should go on the wagon with adverbs. You suffer galumphing syntax and wordiness. The last-named comes from your anxiety to document every little point and tittle; your compulsion to attribute claims to some expert evades your responsibility for them. Anxiety also underlies your overuse of adverbs to pump up credibility.

Your performance provides one more datum in my gunny sack of proof that men are not superior to women. Men used upper body strength to put and keep women in subservience so as to hoard all goodies of civilization for patriarchal bullies and to have a handy population of half the human race as slaves. The beat goes on today.

I am coming to New York for the Kirov Ring. I may drop by your office to see where you keep that Dempsey Dumpster of adverbs.

lee drury de cesare

15316 Gulf Boulevard 802

Madeira Beach, FL 33708


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