When I wrote about the “use a possessive with a gerundive” rule on July 29, I assumed it would be quite a while before I came across the rule in a real-world sentence.
So I was pleasantly surprised to find this example (people’s using) in a recent New Yorker article : “Huckabee wouldn’t mind being characterized as a Christian intellectual, but he is vigilant against people’s using his background as a pastor to characterize him as a ‘redneck from southwest Arkansas,’ as Nelson put it.” (“Prodigal Son” by Ariel Levy, 6/28/10; click here to read the article.)
Let’s all give author Ariel Levy a round of applause!
But I also have a bone to pick with him. Who was the “Nelson” who made that statement? I couldn’t remember and had to backtrack through the article to find the answer. It turns out that two pages (or 2,976 words) earlier, Rex Nelson was identified as Governor Mike Huckabee’s policy and communications director.
Bad writing. Your job as an author is to provide everything the reader needs to move smoothly through whatever you’ve written. There should be no backtracking and no interruptions to look up a word at www.Dictionary.com or to Google confusing information.
Postmodern theorists are correct when they say that reading is a collaborative effort between author and audience. But that doesn’t give authors permission to slack off. What it does mean is that authors constantly need to consider their readers’ experience, knowledge, and thinking processes. You can’t insult your readers (identifying Shakespeare as “a great Elizabethan playwright,” for example), but you also have to avoid obscurity and confusion (referring to “Bertie,” say, without explaining that his formal name was King George VI).
I began this column by harking back to one I’d previously written about the possessive-with-a-gerundive construction. Now I’m going to hark back to July 31, when I wrote about indefinite pronoun references. Did you find one in the previous paragraph? No? Here it is: But that doesn’t give authors permission to slack off.
“That” is indefinite because it doesn’t refer to anything specific in the previous sentence. If someone pinned me against a wall and insisted on knowing what “that” stood for, my answer would be “The fact that reading is a collaborative effort between author and audience.” But those exact words don’t appear anywhere, for a good reason: I intensely dislike “the fact that” and don’t use that phrase unless it’s absolutely necessary.
So let’s summarize what’s passed between you (the reader) and me (the writer) in today’s entry:
- People in the real world use the possessive-with-a-gerundive construction. At least Ariel Levy does. Or his editor at the New Yorker.
- Writing should flow with no backtracking and no side trips to www.Dictionary.com or Google.
- Real-world writers sometimes run red lights, so to speak, to avoid clumsy constructions, as I did when I deliberately chose an indefinite pronoun reference.
And that’s enough for one day!