...a potent blend of Miss Manners and Batman

Saturday, October 6, 2007

The Kobiachi Maru of Grammar

I have finally found work that marries my love of a good joke with my obsession for semi-colons.

I have a new job, one that ranks 2nd on the list of oddest work I've ever been paid for (right after the time where I demonstrated Barbie products in K-Marts thruout Sydney). In my latest incarnation, I'm a work-from-home behind-the-scenes editor for Comedy Central in their effort to create a searchable database of every episode of The Daily Show. A problem has arisen, however, that threatens to undermine my very sanity and put me in Davey Jones' locker: possessives after an S. Thank goodness for Star Trek.

Didn't "Davey Jones' locker" sound wrong in that last sentence? Anyone who's seen a Pirates of the Caribean movie knows that dead seamen find themselves in Davey Jones's locker (dead semen can be found in Davey Jones's tissue in the garbage by Davey Jones's bed). This whole Jones' thing is a leftover from the days when we watched our favourite programmes on the telly with our neighbours. In other words, it's a British thing. Not Cockney-British, but Oxford-British. That is to say, it's pompous.

Steven Pinker, the cunning linguist from Harvard, has written much about this so-called prescriptive language. His point is that language should flow naturally. If I say, "Who did you give the ball to?" it's not like anyone over the age of 2 is going to look at me like I'm from another planet. Prescriptive grammarians would find fault twice in that sentence, but "To whom did you give the ball?" is not the way any adult would speak to a child, and for that matter, it's not the way most of us speak to each other. Put another way: 'Right' isn't what we should say but what we actually do say.

There is a way to placate both sides of this argument. This is where Star Trek comes in: In "Star Trek 2," we learn that Captain Kirk reprogrammed a simulation rather than going down with his virtual ship. The simulation, called the Kobiachi Maru, is meant to test the mettle of prospective captains faced with the certain destruction of their vessel. By hacking into the system, he avoided certain doom. I have taken "Kobiachi Maru" to mean a situation where, faced with choosing between bad choice A or bad choice B, you wisely pick C.

There are many grammatical situations that require a Kobiachi Maru:

A. I told everyone to grab his or her things.
B. I told everyone to grab their things.

Sentence A is gramatically correct but sounds awkward. Sentence B is more vernacular but is technically wrong (according to most prescriptives) since 'everyone' is supposed to be singular. [If you don't believe that 'everyone' is singular, try asking, "Are everyone ready for fish?" the next time you serve dinner.] Our only choice is to make up a new sentence:

C. I told all of them to grab their things.

Ta da. Now let's see if we can apply the Kobiachi Maru of grammar to possessives:

A. She is one of jazz' greatest guitarists.
B. She is one of jazz's greatest guitarists.
C. She is one of the greatest jazz guitarists.

Here is another one:

A.This is Betsy Ross' famous flag
B. This is Betsy Ross's famous flag
C. This is the famous flag that the lying snots of the Ross family claimed Betsy had sewn when in fact she'd done nothing of the sort.

That gives me an idea for the famous final resting place for dead sailors:

A. Captain Jack is in Davey Jones' locker.
B. Captain Jack is in Davey Jones's locker.
C. Captain Jack is dead. Arrgghh!

Oh, for goodness's sake!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Actually, prior to the advent of political correctness, the first example of the technique would have been unnecessary. You simply would have said:

"I told everyone to grab his things."

In cases of grammar, the masculine form represents both genders correctly, and in most languages still does so without complaint from the hypersensitive. Lucky you've got that Star Trek maneuver to thwart them now.

About Me

My pesky alter ego who will set you right if you break one of the unwritten rules of getting along