Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Possessive

I came across this in a favorite song, A Good Year for the Roses:

And the sound of our one baby's crying goes unheard.

Now I usually listen to the Counting Crows' version, and that above is how the singer renders it. our one baby's crying.

But this is a popular song to cover, and other singers say what probably I'd say:
And the sound of our one baby crying goes unheard.

Do you see the difference? The first has "baby" as the possessive noun and "crying" as a gerund (an -ing word used as a noun).

The second has "baby" as a noun, and "crying" as a participle modifying that noun.

Let's try it structurally--
The sound of our one baby('s) crying (subject phrase)
goes unheard (verb phrase)

Then let's break down the subject phrase:
The sound (noun, actual subject)
of (preposition)
our one baby (noun, object of preposition)crying (adjectival participle, modifying the noun)
our one baby's crying (object of preposition-- possessive noun and gerund noun)

That is, in both cases, the "of" phrase is modifying "the sound"-- telling us what the sound is, and the verb phrase ("goes unheard") explains what the sound DOES.

So... are both "our one baby's crying goes unheard" and "our one baby crying goes unheard" correct?

I think so. It's actually a similar issue to:
I spoke to him about his/him speeding.

That is, is the noun there going to be possessive or not? Is the participle there a gerund (noun) or an adjective?

Minor point, I know-- both are perfectly correct. But I wonder why we'd choose one over the other.

(Yes, this is the place you come when you really want to contemplate the sound of one hand clapping. Or one's hand clapping. :)

Alicia

9 comments:

Asea said...

It occurs to me that this is a very fine point of emphasis. It usually doesn't matter, but insomuch as we have a choice, we might as well know what we're choosing, right? In this case,

I spoke to him about his speeding.
has a slight emphasis on the action, whereas

I spoke to him about him speeding.
leans more strongly toward him as a person.


Or I could be wrong. Maybe it doesn't matter at all and years of making up answers to my students' anguished WHY?!s has made me batty.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

To me, it changes poetry into something more mundane. I like baby's crying -- but then, I communicate through song lyrics.

Selah March said...

(Yes, this is the place you come when you really want to contemplate the sound of one hand clapping. Or one's hand clapping. :)

Or one hand's clapping? ;)

Iapetus999 said...

If a baby cries in the woods, does he even make a sound??

Sorry...that's the SPD beer talkin

Adrian said...

Asea has it exactly right. It's a subtle shift of emphasis.

pulp said...

Sorry, off-topic. I don't see any better place to ask you a question.

Why are books being published with the word realtor capitalized? I thought it was a new phenomenon having to do with the real estate boom, but after the crash it's still happening, and I've run across it in older books, too. Respectable publishers are doing it, and not as part of a title, either, but using the term as a common noun, as in "The Realtor took out a key."

This is making me nuts.

Edittorrent said...

"Realtor" capped, as I recall, is all about the real estate association trying to say it's a profession. I think it's supposed to be classier than "real estate agent". Anyway, I never capitalize it, anymore than I'd cap "teacher" or "writer." It annoys me the way trademarks other than on the company's own advertising bothers me, like we're expected to inflate their reps or something.

I know, I know. I get ticked off by trivialities. But "Realtor" is easier to solve than world hunger!
Alicia

Jami G. said...

Wow, I didn't get a headache trying to follow one of Alicia's grammar posts. That feels like such an accomplishment. :)

Jami G.

pulp said...

Thanks, Alicia. I've wondered if there's one Copyeditor out there who capitalizes that word for a bunch of Publishers (kidding!), who for some reason are helpless to resist.