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It seems that there is a group of mistaken prescriptivists who insist that you cannot use the ‘s possessive with inanimate objects. One argues that the ‘s possessive grants human qualities to the inanimate object that it surely does not deserve. This may sound familiar; I discussed a similar (if reversed) argument a few months ago that using that in a relative clause that refers to a person is somehow de-humanizing and surely at least highly indecorous, if not outright illiterate. Others just state as fact that inanimates and ‘s possessives are a Jet and a Shark; never the twain should meet. At first blush, the rule might seem reasonable:

(1a) I had the time of my life last weekend!
(1b) *I had my life’s time last weekend!

(2a) I spent the weekend painting the side of the house magenta!
(2b) *My wife has just informed me that I’m spending next weekend re-painting the house’s side white.

But I’m going to argue that the ungrammaticality of (1b) and (2b) is epiphenomenal. First, note that (1a)’s time of my life is an idiom. It’s rare that you can change the form of an idiom and retain its idiomatic meaning. For instance:

(3) *That new record album is the meow of the cat!

That’s nonsense, unless the album literally contained caterwauling. But if you switch in the cat’s meow, suddenly it’s comprehensible — if a bit dated. So (1b) doesn’t sound bad because it’s got an inanimate with ‘s; it sounds bad because you’ve botched the idiom. As for (2b), I agree it is bad, and it’s bad because it is an inanimate object possessing an inalienable part. But even that’s not always a problem. The extreme southwestern tip of Great Britain is called “Land’s End“, so-named at least back to 1769; the phrase itself has been used generally since at least 1400, according to the OED. Similarly, there’s a hotel called The Cliff’s Edge in Hawaii.

In general, aside from idiomatic avoidance and a few special situations, this rule is rubbish. The Gregg Reference Manual wants you to think that there is something wrong with saying the terminal’s lower level, or its edge, or leaf’s color but I can’t see it:

(4a) […] you see it’s just people trying to survive,” he said yesterday, sipping coffee in the terminal’s lower level […]
(4b) […] bring the hoe in a direction perpendicularly to its edge […] (from 1787, by the way)
(4c) Three substances contribute to a leaf’s color

Summary: In the case of inanimate possessors using ‘s, there’s historical usage of such phrases, there’re modern attestations, there’re idioms with it. There simply isn’t any evidence that there is or ever was a rule of English saying that inanimate objects cannot take an ‘s possessive.


The Preposterous Apostrophes series as it stands:


As promised, here’s a quick summary of the (to) no end idiom.  In the original post, I asked what people thought of sentences like (1a) and (1b):

(1a) The crank insulted me to no end.
(1b) The crank insulted me no end.

Are they acceptable to you?  If so, what do they mean?  I’d figured that the answers would be pretty straightforward.  But, as it turns out, you readers are a far more diverse lot than I’d ever expected.  Thanks to that diversity, it’s now clear that these idioms are themselves far more diverse than I’d expected.  The range of views on the matter blindsided me, especially since I still think I hadn’t heard (1b) before a few weeks ago.

A few commenters were in the same camp with me, ignorant of no end. What surprised me is that they were geographically widespread; three were from the U.S. (Alaska, Pacific Northwest, and Mid-Atlantic), but one was from Canada, and one was from Australia.  A few were my evil twins, unfamiliar with to no end, or at least preferring no end over it; two from the U.S. and one from Canada.  So that’s weird, because I’d sort of suspected that the (1a)/(1b) distinction was one of those Anglo-American differences, but clearly members of both camps share North America.  (No Brits preferred to no end over no end, so there could still be some A-A effect.)

But — and I intend no offense to those of you who were mentioned in the preceding paragraph — the really interesting commenters were the ones who considered both (1a) and (1b) to be perfectly good ways of saying different things.  Apparently there is a sizable contingent of readers who think that (1a) and (1b) should be paraphrased as (2a) and (2b), respectively:

(2a) The crank insulted me without a goal or without achieving anything.
(2b) The crank insulted me endlessly.

I think that’s the meaning distinction people saw; it’s awfully hard for me to tell since I do not have such a distinction.  (I would use for no end to represent the meaning of (2a), which is where I’m getting my paraphrase from.)  At least two commenters felt this way, one from the Mid-Atlantic U.S. and one from the British Midlands.

I don’t know that there’s any great insight about usage to draw from this data, expect perhaps the greatest of all: each of us knows next-to-nothing about general English usage.  I think of myself as being pretty familiar with American English because I’ve lived in three corners of the country, have associated with the underclass, old money, and the nouveau riche, and have almost managed to figure out what might could means.  But I didn’t know anything about the variability in this idiom.  This serves as a reminder to would-be prescriptivists: you’d better do some research before you go around telling people what’s right and wrong in language.  No matter how much experience you have with the language, it’s always possible that your usage is the odd one out. Don’t trust someone’s prescriptions just because they seem like they know English well.  Make sure they’ve done their homework on it.

Or, in this particular case: dismissing either to no end or no end as bad English with just a sentence or two just makes you look foolish.

My parents sent me a link to this article on prescriptivist idiocy.  I’ll be honest: I couldn’t read it.  I got through the first two paragraphs and suddenly all the words were drowned out by the voice in my head screaming.  Just listen to this:

Some people avoid Krispy Kreme because of the calories. Angela Nickerson won’t go there because of the Ks.

“I confess, I’m a spelling, grammar and punctuation snob,” says the 35-year-old travel writer from Sacramento, Calif. “And I won’t patronize businesses with misspelled signs. It’s like hearing fingernails running down a chalkboard.”

Oh, come off it.  Names aren’t English.  (If they were, John Humphrys would have to change his to Humphries, and I think my first name would be properly pronounced something like gab-REE-ul, with a short initial a, stress on the second syllable, and a schwa in the last.)  So too with store names.  Naming something, at least to me, falls under something similar to poetic license.  But this is not a point that I am interested in arguing.

Instead, I want to ask a more pragmatic question.  If Nickerson really is as intransigent as she claims, where could she get a doughnut? I assume she would consider donut to be a misspelling of doughnut, so the big names in the industry would be out.  Krispy Kreme, Dunkin’ Donuts (a double whammy due to the in’), Winchell’s Donuts, and Mr. Donut: all out. She could flee to Canada, but then she’d be assailed by Tim Hortons, which lacks the possessive apostrophe.  Even mom-and-pop donuteries would be unacceptable; Randy’s Donuts, the famous one with the giant donut on its roof, is out, as is the best donut place in San Diego, Donut Haven.  Grocery stores are mostly out as well: Ralphs lacks an apostrophe, and Safeway isn’t a word at all, so it’s inherently misspelled. I love to hold grudges, and I love to discriminate against businesses for stupid reasons, but if it came down to it, I’d be the first to swallow my pride so I could swallow a good donut.

All that said, having re-skimmed the article, I’m not entirely sure that Nickerson has been correctly characterized in the article.  She may well mean that she won’t shop at places whose advertisements contain misspellings of actual words (i.e., that she wouldn’t shop at a supermarket that advertises “appels” or “cukecumbers”), but that she’s fine with stores whose names themselves are irregular.  That makes a lot more sense to me, although it’s still not a platform I’d endorse.  If that’s what she meant, then I apologize for furthering her mischaracterization from the article.  But certainly there are people out there who hold the more extreme opinion, who won’t shop at a place that has taken artistic license with its name, and they, I think, are fools.

Sometimes prescriptivists render me dumb.  I mean dumb in both its senses: speechless and stupid.  I’ll just stare at the comment and my brain sputters, trying to object but just bumping up against the enormity of the proscription’s idiocy.  For instance, today I chanced upon the prescription that (1a) is wrong and (1b) is right:

(1a) The letter pleased him to no end.
(1b) The letter pleased him no end.

Really?  I don’t ever remember having heard anyone say a sentence like (1b), but I know I’ve heard a lot of people use to no end as in (1a).  Whatever, I muttered, let it go.  But curiosity got the better of me, and I looked around for others who held this view.  And, in the book I’m currently skimming through and will be railing against in a forthcoming post (The Dictionary of Disagreeable English by Robert Hartwell Fiske), what did I find but an injunction against to no end! Fiske writes:

“The phrases you complain of [including to no end] are bastardizations born of mishearing and nurtured by imitation.”

What on Earth is Fiske talking about?  All of language is nurtured by imitation.  It’s how we acquire language, how we use it.  And idioms, including (to) no end, exist only due to imitation; they can’t be explained with the compositional syntax and semantics that the rest of language follows.  For instance, there is no grammar rule in English that explains why the bigger, the better means what we all perceive it to mean. It makes no sense to deride imitation in language, since it’s the central force in language’s continued existence.

Furthermore, what language does Fiske think he is examining?  Because in (American) English, it seems that to no end is perfectly acceptable, somewhat more common than the to-less variant, and emerged contemporaneously with the variant a little over a century ago.  With regards to the current usage, “pleased me to no end” has 6600 Google hits, while “pleased me no end” has 700.  I’d hoped to establish the claim of contemporaneous emergence using Google Books, but the problem is that it’s really hard to find good old examples of this idiom, in either of its forms.  When you do, there’s the further matter that the idiom can have different meanings, especially when someone says something like:

(2) […] don’t lave me here near this villain that’s afther cursing me to no end

Does to no end here mean “ceaselessly” or “for no purpose”? Context, in the form of the two pages before and after, do not help.  I still can’t tell you which meaning is intended in (2), and I’ve been thinking about it off and on for a day.  Let me tell you what I do have. I can’t find a single example of no end meaning “ceaselessly” or “incessantly”, or “strongly” in Google Books before 1844. (I searched for “me no end“, “him no end“, and “her no end“.) After 1844, the number of hits becomes too cumbersome to sort through. I haven’t got the time to go to all that bother just to find out if prescriptivists are morons, as we already know the answer to that one from previous investigations.  But I did find a usage of to no end from 1874:

(3) Only when he saw a rich fellow, he would make up to him, and cringe, and fall down and worship him to no end.

Now, if to no end is the bastardization, then no end would have to have been the received usage before to no end showed up; if the two forms appeared at the same time, then there’s no reason why one should be considered the proper version.  I can find no evidence that no end preceded to no end.  So I thrust the burden of proof upon the prescriptivists. Show us that to no end is wrong!  Show us that it is a bastardization, and show us that this is a problem!  (After all, it’d be a 135-year-old bastardization, and who really cares about lineage that far back?)  Until then, the 1.3 million webpages containing “to no end” and I will be here waiting, the prescriptivists’ incessant and ill-informed blathering perplexing us to no end.

And, by the way, let’s do an informal poll.  Do you use either or both of these idioms?  What is standard in your idiolect?  Does one of these idioms set your teeth on edge? Is my to-requirement another piece of evidence establishing that despite my aspirations and affectations I remain inescapably prole?  Thanks for your help!

Summary: Some people actually argue that “to no end” is an improper bastardization of “no end”, and more oddly, that this matters to our lives.  There is no evidence that one is a bastardization of the other, and they’ve both been attested for more than a century. Complaints about such trifling matters serve only to turn people off from the beauty of language and reveal the niggling nature of many prescriptivists.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently an assistant professor at San Diego State University, in the Department of Linguistics and Asian/Middle Eastern Languages, and a member of the Digital Humanities. Prior to that, I was a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. And before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

My research and teaching connects language, the mind, and society (in fact, I teach a 500-level class with that title!). I use probabilistic models to understand how people learn, represent, and comprehend language. These models have helped us understand the ways that parents tailor their speech to their child's needs, why sports fans say more or less informative things while watching a game, and why people who disagree politically fight over the meaning of "we".

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