February 10, 2014

Speech's trends in America's United States.

Is the United States of America on track to become America's United States?

That's a question that crosses my mind after reading this Language Log discussion of the trend away from using "of" and toward using the possessive "-s" in phrases where there is no living entity to do the possessing. There's a nice graph at the link showing this historical progression in the State of the Union Address, which I guess some day will be called the Union's State Address.

Language Log did not use the phrases America's United States or the Union's State Address. Those are my comic projections into the future based on the discussion of the tendency to say things like "some of America's leading foundations and corporations" instead of "some of the leading foundations and corporations of America." But there are many examples — I went looking for them — of the continued use of the "of" formation, including one in the sentence from which I extracted "some of America's leading foundations and corporations":
And I'm reaching out to some of America's leading foundations and corporations on a new initiative to help more young men of color facing especially tough odds stay on track and reach their full potential.
Sometimes the 's feels right and sometimes we know it's wrong. Maybe you'll laugh — or get mad at me — when I point out that President Obama did not say "color's young men." But it makes you think: What do we believe we are saying when we use the possessive with inanimate things?

I found a few other possessive phrases from the 2014 SOTU that retain the old "of" structure and that seem weird converted into 's form.

1. "After five years of grit and determined effort, the United States is better-positioned for the 21st century than any other nation on Earth." Rephrased: "After grit and determined effort's five years, the United States is better-positioned..."

2. "Let's make this a year of action." Rephrased: "Let's make this action's year."

3. "[O]ur success should depend not on accident of birth but the strength of our work ethic and the scope of our dreams." Rephrased: "[O]ur success should depend not on birth's accident... but our work ethic's strength and our dream's scope." 

4. "The best measure of opportunity is access to a good job." Rephrased: "Opportunity's best measure is access to a good job." (Or if there's a larger trend away from prepositional phrases: "Opportunity's best measure is good job access.")

5. "[I]nvest more in fuels of the future...." Rephrased: "[I]nvest more in the future's fuels."

6. "And in case you haven't heard, we're in the process of fixing that." Rephrased: "And in case you haven't heard, we're in fixing that's process."

7. "Citizenship demands a sense of common purpose; participation in the hard work of self-government...." Rephrased: "Citizenship demands a common purpose's sense; participation in self-government's hard work..."

8. "[W]e have... placed our collective shoulder to the wheel of progress: to create and build and expand the possibilities of individual achievement...." Rephrased: "[W]e have... placed our collective shoulder to progress's wheel: to create and build and expand individual achievement's possibilities...."

Some of those are more bizarre than others, and when they are bizarre, perhaps it's because the speechwriter didn't have a concrete picture of X possessing Y in the formation Y of X. The rephrasing could be a useful device for coming up with a third way of saying it — saying its third way?! — that makes more sense. I think we tend to use these long "of" phrases when we're cramming a lot of material into one sentence or affecting a tone of grandeur.

Hmm. Cramming material's lot and affecting grandeur's tone?!

There are a number of strange things going on here — strange things' number! — and now that I've seen this, I'm intrigued and want to keep noticing these constructions and restating them for purposes of examination — for examination's purpose! — and I'm simultaneously inclined to scurry back to just talking the way that feels natural, because this is the kind of stuff that drives you crazy. This is the stuff's kind that drives you crazy.


Bob Ellison said...

I'm old-fashioned on this question. The possessive form is clear and clearly named, and it should usually be confined to things which can possess (and not merely encapsulate).

This shouldn't be an inviolable rule, though. "The blog's format" is OK, though I'd prefer "the format of the blog". Your numbered items, Professor, are all good examples of bad usage, but I'll bet 3, 5, 7, and 8 would sound OK to lots of people, because the possessing noun kinda points to an actual possessing human or group of humans.

In Larry Niven's short SF story "Grammar Lesson", an alien Chirpsithra discusses with a human the three possessive forms of that alien's language, and how the differences among them affect behavior. One alien race declines to fight for rights to property because it uses the "extrinsic" form for ownership of property, rather than the "intrinsic", as one would with one's leg. The Chirpsithra seems to think that the one human form of possessive is silly and primitive, much as, perhaps, I object to referring to "the future's fuels".

CStanley said...

My instinctive reaction is that the more abstract The noun, the more awkward the possessive ('s) form.

It also seems that the "of" in some of those phrases carries different shades of meaning (different meaning's shades?) the genitive case applies better to some relationships between nouns than others.

I am doing Polish genealogy and learning a bit about the language. The Poles appear obsessed with genitive case. My maiden surname ends in -owski, which is genitive. Usually it derived from the name of a village, so Janus Xkowski would have been the Janus from X. But sometimes X was a profession, or a landmark like a river.

Recently I found records with my last name with an
-ego suffix, which is also a genitive form. So Xkowskiego means, "of the family that is of X".

betamax3000 said...

'Of' Has No Place in Language's Future: That's What This Piece Made Me Think Of.

rhhardin said...

Why not both?

A friend of my brother's.

rhhardin said...

You can find the rules (for what feels natural) in A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, look up genitive of vs -s

17.38-45 in my edition.

An excellent book, even for the money.

Bob Ellison said...

I just re-read the comments above and realized that I could have written "bad usage's good examples".

m stone said...

The sentence structure seems to be built on the key or action word being placed last, which is usually optimal for reader effect. (We tend to remember the last word, alternately the first.)

This is applied to numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, and 8.

It's a speech writing technique mixing well with active voice.

rhhardin said...

I read the thing cover to cover (2000 pages) one summer, always thinking of constructing a machine to parse natural language.

With that orientation, the more you read, the more amazing the language is, and the more totally impossible the machine task is.

Noticing that you don't know the rules that you apply easily is the discovery.

rhhardin said...

The most likely cause is that you learn language backwards from what you'd think.

What you learn is to reassemble cliches.

The big units first, then ways to change the big units.

So you learn a lot of implicit rules by learning big examples.

The rules remain after you're dealing with tiny units, without any clear indication what the rules are.

Kovacs said...

You realize that indicating possession isn't the only function of the word of, right?

Sean Gleeson said...

The possessive apostrophe-s can never completely replace the word "of," because the word "of" is not merely used to indicate possession. The dictionary lists five usages of "of," only one of which is for possession. Other uses are distance ('south of Omaha'); cause ('to die of hunger'); contents ('a dress of silk'); and apposition ('that idiot of a president').

Some of your own examples, such as the "year of action," are non-possessive uses of "of," and so could never be replaced with a possessive form.

James Pawlak said...

For better-or-worse the War Between The States began the change from "These United States" to "The United States"---As forwarded the suppression of Article-X of the "Bill Of Rights".

Scott said...

...I'm glossing over many syntactic, semantic, and lexical issues here: for example, "women's groups" and "groups of women" are not simply alternative ways of saying the same thing.

Just like "United States of America" and "America's United States" are not simply alternative ways of saying the same thing. Can you discern the difference? Substitute "called" for "of".

rhhardin said...

"For" is used to mark the subject of a to-infinitive.

Subjects of non-finite verbs are in the objective case.

Two odd rules.

For him to notice a rule is rare.

I liked the observation because subjects of non-finite verbs are also in the accusative in Latin.

Jim said...

When you only have 140 characters, changing " of " to "'s" saves 2 characters.

Basta! said...

I think it might help to reconsider the matter using categorizations of the genitive developed for the study of ancient languages.

For example, if by "fear of the enemy" you mean that you're afraid, that's a Subjective Genitive, whereas if it's the enemy who's afraid, it's an Objective Genitive. It's the latter that can be turned into a possessive --- "the enemy's fear" --- with little to no problem in understanding or awkwardness. "Love of God" can mean either, but "God's love" can only substitute for the Objective. "Love of music" can only be a Subjective Genitive, and thus can't be rewritten as "music's love".

So, in #7, both constructions are Subjective Genitives and can't be made into possessives without turning them into Objectives in sense, turning them into nonsense. In other words, the "hard work of self-government" means work done by unmentioned people (Subjective), not work done by self-government (Objective), and only the second can be restyled "self-government's work". It sounds ridiculous because an Objective Genitive is not what the writer meant.

There's also a Genitive of Material, e.g a "floor of wood", which can be rewritten as adjectival constructions, here "a wood/wooden floor". "Young men of color" seems to fall into this class, and we *should* be able to restate that as "young colored men" with identical meaning, except, quixotically, one is currently acceptable and the other insulting.

Then there's the Partitive Genitive, which one can see in your "a lot of material" and "a number of strange things". This type can't be rephrased as a possessive.

In some of the phrases listed, a genitive is being used as a sort of short-hand for a non-genitival relation. Mostly, it seems to involve an elision of a verb. "Five years of grit and determined effort" really means something like "five years during which we applied grit etc.", a "year of action" really means a "year for taking action" --- neither a genitive in function/sense, and so not rephrasible.

In sum, what you're doing is analyzing each X of Y as if it is of the Objective Genitive type, and thus amenable to rephrasing as Y's X, and this is leading to confusion and bizarre phrases.

But I did get a good laugh out of #6, "we're in fixing that's process".

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...


Re: "A friend of my brother's" -- I remember a long-ago (ca. 30 yrs.) discussion of that formulation in Bill Safire's column in which he (or one of his correspondents, I forget which) explained that it's not a "double genitive" so much as a genitive/partitive combo. You could expand it out, in other words, to "One from the set of people who constitute my brother's friends."

sinz52 said...

"People of color"--we've really come full circle on what to call black people:

"Colored people" (e.g., "NAACP")
==> "Blacks"
==> "African-Americans"
==> "People of color"

Charlie Martin said...

We believe we're doing the same thing with the possessive that we do in Chinese: we're connecting an ancillary property to a noun. We've got several grammatical forms for it, and we pick the euphonious one. 中国的 translates to "of China" or "Chinese" or "China's".

elkh1 said...

America's Dysfunctional States.

Ann Althouse said...

"A friend of my brother's."

That is gets the possessive because it's a version of "One of my brother's friends."

Which under my approach to rephrasing should be…

My brother's friends' one.


Ann Althouse said...

"A friend of my brother's."

That is gets the possessive because it's a version of "One of my brother's friends."

Which under my approach to rephrasing should be…

My brother's friends' one.


Ann Althouse said...

"Substitute "called" for "of"."

No way!

United States of America means the group of states located on this land mass named America, not that the United States are called America. You may wish that "America" was the real name of this country, but this is more of a country without a name, only a description. There were the preexisting states and they became united, and they are located here in America, which is geographic marker.

Ann Althouse said...

Recommended reading: "A Country With No Name: Tales from the Constitution."

Ann Althouse said...

"A half-century later, a famous New York writer, Washington Irving, author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and of a satire of George Washington, and soon to become ambassador to Spain, wrote an essay “On Nomenclature,” on the subject of the lack of a name for country. “We want a national name.… I want my own peculiar national name to rally under.” He derided “the United States of North America” as a “collocation of words” that gave rise to “circumlocution.” He dismissed identifying himself as an American. “The title of American may serve to tell the quarter of the world to which I belong, the same as a Frenchman or an Englishman may call himself a European.” No, Washington’s “Friends and Fellow-citizens” continued to use their old pre-independence names. “Americans” had to contend with “Yankees” in the Northeast, and with “Columbians” and “sons of Columbia” generally for the favor of contemporary writers of song and story. One newspaper carrying Washington’s farewell address headlined it “Columbia’s Legacy.” Not even the Father of His Country could singlehandedly name that country or those countrymen. In a funeral eulogy read to Congress, Light-Horse Harry Lee, cousin of Richard Henry and father of Robert E., characterized Washington as “first in the hearts of his countrymen.”"

De Grazia, Sebastian (2011-04-27). A Country With No Name: Tales from the Constitution (Vintage) (Kindle Locations 2069-2080). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

traditionalguy said...

The plea to a collective claim on individuals is as old as Rome and Romes State church still claiming pontifex Maximus role over Christedem.

The rational claim to individuals UNalienable rights was a Reformation idea. And the King that owns the entire collective is reasserting itself.
The closest Americans came was in its role as military hegemon...WE did that with America's collective effort.

Ann Althouse said...

"We have said that the title the United States of America was a common noun description, not a proper noun, with America referring to the location of North America and the United States to the States united. Would you like to know how to tell immediately whether you’re dealing with the real name of a country or with a descriptive title? Answer: by the presence or absence of the. In English the noun has to be made definite by that definite article. The Commonwealth, the Union, the European Community, the League of Nations, the United States. The uniqueness of a proper noun, on the other hand, obviates the need for a the. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is not a proper name; it designates the commonwealth or republican form of government of the State of Massachusetts. You have to put a the in front of it. When you speak of the State alone, you need no the. The name is Massachusetts. If the name of the country were Alleghania there would be no need for the. We would have, “We, the people of Alleghania.” (Alleghania was what Washington Irving proposed in 1839 as a name for the country. A Maryland amateur historian wrote finish to this coinage, pointing out that the Alleghanian tribe had been a brutal, treacherous bunch, certainly unworthy of lending their name to this noble country."

De Grazia, Sebastian (2011-04-27). A Country With No Name: Tales from the Constitution (Vintage) (Kindle Locations 2602-2608). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

ken in sc said...

The official name of Mexico translates to The United States of Mexico, in English.

jaed said...

Answer: by the presence or absence of the.

The Hague.
The Congo.
The Ukraine.

I do notice that Congo and Ukraine without the article are becoming more popular, although not Hague. But they certainly always were proper nouns.

There's also the back and forth between "the Internet" and "the internet". The first is a true proper noun, the second a general term that's short for "internetwork" and might refer to any internet, but for the "the".