I’m not the sort of person who expects people to always listen to what I have to say. But here I go admonishing that Omit Needless Words is not a rule of grammar, and I’m immediately reminded of why I had to do so. Let’s look at an example of misusing Omit Needless Words in support of a proposed grammar rule; in fact let’s go a step further and look at an example of misinterpreting ONW in support of said rule: James Kilpatrick’s newest column. He’s got a bee in his bonnet about the double genitive, the common construction used in sentences like
(1) He is a friend of Celine Dion’s.
(2) I’m familiar with that enticing look of his.
Now, as Language Log has pointed out, there’s nothing wrong with those sentences — the double genitive was a favorite of Shakespeare’s, among others. But here’s what’s weird about Kilpatrick’s argument: he claims that the double genitive is wasteful. For Kilpatrick, the friend of… part of the phrase establishes possession, and thus the ‘s possessive is redundant. As Kilpatrick puts it, “Words are precious! Waste them not!”, which is an instantiation of the Omit Needless Words idea. (It looks to me that Kilpatrick has made a mantra of Omitting Needless Words; he wastes none on segues between the various peeves he catalogs in his column.)
Now, it’s bad enough that Kilpatrick has gone astray by claiming that Omit Needless Words justifies his grammar rule, but to add salt to the wound, he’s gone further astray by confusing what qualifies as a word. Properly, ‘s is a clitic (a syntactically independent but phonologically dependent lexical item — something you can’t say unless it’s attached to another word), not a true word. Strunk never said anything about Omitting Needless Clitics. If you’re going to buttress your opinion by exhorting people not to waste something, make sure you’re exhorting them not to waste the right thing. And seriously, who on earth sits about fretting over wasting clitics? It’s not as though the clitic mines are running short, or we’ve passed “peak clitic”.
Anyway, as I mentioned before, the Omit Needless Words/Word-Like Elements argument won’t pass muster here, because the double genitive really is a grammatical construction in English. Just try to rephrase sentence (2) so as to not use the double genitive, without changing the meaning of the sentence. What can you say? Certainly not that enticing look of him, nor that enticing look of he. You could try his enticing look, but it loses the specificity of the look that that enticing look affords. So not only is the double genitive not bad, it’s also good. Further supporting this, consider sentence (3a) and some possible restatements (each accompanied by delightful symbols):
(3a) This complaint of Kilpatrick’s is unfounded
(3b) *?This complaint of Kilpatrick is unfounded
(3c) #Kilpatrick’s complaint is unfounded
(3d) ?This one of Kilpatrick’s complaints is unfounded
(3a) sounds right to me, but (3b) sounds nearly ungrammatical. (3c) is perfectly grammatical, but isn’t the right thing to say if Kilpatrick has more than one complaint and we need to distinguish that this particular is unfounded. (I’m positive he’s had some well-founded arguments in his life.) And (3d) sounds a bit off to me, though not too bad. But, if we were going to rule out (3a) by Omitting Needless Words, then we’d really have to rule out (3d) a little harder because it’s got one more word (and one more suffix) than (3a) had. So here it looks like the double genitive is the best option.
Summary: Please, don’t get overzealous in applying Omit Needless Words. Strunk made no suggestion to Omit Needless Clitics. If you’re going to complain about niggling points of grammar, please use the right terminology. Also, the double genitive is not ungrammatical.