Monday, November 24, 2008

What Good Writers Won't Tell You

We had one of those profound word-nerd moments at work the other day. Someone had stumbled into a really weird, awkward, special-case plural possessive -- I won't reveal it, so as not to humiliate myself, my co-workers, and all our collected English teachers.

As we're wont to do in these situations (being a cube-farm full of professionally trained wordsmiths), everyone had a go at it, and no one really knew the absolutely-100%-correct way to handle this obscure little corner of the language. There were lots of theories and lots of, "I like it this way, but I don't know if that's right," answers, but no one planted their flag in the sand and said, "I've got it!"

What this room full of good writers could do, however, was artfully dodge the offending construction. Everyone had at least three rewrites of the sentence that would skirt the problem entirely, sneaky little rhetorical and/or grammatical sidesteps that came to us almost by instinct.

It made me wonder if that's how other people make other occupations look way too easy. Maybe everyone -- no matter what their area of expertise or how long they've studied it -- has that nagging hole in their knowledge, but they can run around it or jump over it so fast, the untrained observer thinks they meant to do it that way all along.

File under L for "Lazy justifications for not studying up on my obscure possessive rules."


Steve Fuller said...

C'mon, you have to post it so the rest of us can puzzle over it as well. :)

Jason Nunemaker: said...

And display my ignorance to all three of my readers in the *one* thing I'm supposed to know a little bit about? No way. I don't want my parents to know just how much of those tuition dollars were flushed down the toilet (often quite literally, in the form of -- ahem -- "processed" beer.)