François Mitterrand crash blossom

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Under the heading "the benefits of paired em dashes, part 57", Mark Swofford sent in the following screen shot from yesterday's New York Times:


The main part of the caption under the most prominent photo in the screen shot reads:

"Mazarine Pingeot, the daughter of François Mitterrand, the former French president, and his longtime mistress, has published a diary."

As Mark says, "It took me several readings before that stopped sounding incestuous."

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43 Comments »

  1. RF said,

    December 2, 2012 @ 11:38 pm

    I'm curious where you would place the em dashes to avoid this.

    "Mazarine Pingeot—the daughter of François Mitterand, the former French president, and his longtime mistress—has published a diary"?

    "Mazarine Pingeot, the daughter of François Mitterand—the former French president—and his longtime mistress, has published a diary"?

    "Mazarine Pingeot, the daughter of François Mitterand, the former French president—and his longtime mistress—has published a diary"?

    None of these seems to me to eliminate the reading that Pingeot is both daughter and mistress (although the second at least makes it clear that it is Mitterand, not Pingeot, who is the former president, and that Pingeot does not have three parents).

  2. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    December 2, 2012 @ 11:44 pm

    It appears to me the most elegant solution would be to transpose the nouns in apposition, i.e. "…the daughter of former French president François Mitterand and his longtime mistress…"

  3. Chris Waters said,

    December 3, 2012 @ 12:03 am

    @RF: I agree that none of those eliminates the amusing reading, but the second one seems to strongly imply the correct reading to me. Which is probably as good as you can get without rephrasing.

    @Daniel von Brighoff: As with RF's examples, I can still misread that, although it would need a comma after "Mitterand" to make the misreading seem likely.

    I do have a solution which I believe eliminates even the possibility of misreading, and doesn't require modifying the punctuation at all: change "and his longtime mistress" to "by his longtime mistress".

    That said, I appreciate an attempted defense of the much-maligned em-dash, which I have a strong fondness for–possibly because of its widespread use in pulp fiction, which I like more than I probably should.

  4. Lloyd Barna said,

    December 3, 2012 @ 1:07 am

    Mazarine Pingeot, lovechild of François Mitterand, the former French president, and his longtime mistress,has published a diary?

    Mazarine Pingeot, illegitimate daughter of François Mitterand, the former French president, and his longtime mistress ,has published a diary?

  5. Simon P said,

    December 3, 2012 @ 1:32 am

    I'd change the "has" to a "have". I'm not a native speaker, but surely a "has" implies a single subject, thus the daughter and the mistress are one and the same person?

    I guess I'd have added a "together" or something, too.

  6. Simon P said,

    December 3, 2012 @ 1:33 am

    Oh, wait, haha, the daughter "by" his mistress. I thought they had published it together. Nevermind.

  7. Ross Presser said,

    December 3, 2012 @ 1:40 am

    Here's an unambiguous form:

    Mazarine Pingeot, whose parents are former President Francois Mitterand and his longtime mistress, has published a diary.

  8. Alex said,

    December 3, 2012 @ 1:45 am

    @Simon P: I would also add the world "all", as in (they) "have all published a diary together". It is very brave of Mr. Mitterand to come back from where he resides, to tell the world about his indiscretion.

  9. Levni said,

    December 3, 2012 @ 2:05 am

    How about adding an extra "of" before "his longtime mistress"? It does nothing for the elegance of the sentence (which is already lacking), but I think it eliminates any ambiguity:

    "Mazarine Pingeot—the daughter of François Mitterand, the former French president, and of his longtime mistress—has published a diary."

    Also, I'm not sure the definite article is necessary before "daughter", and "the former French president François Mitterand" sounds better to me than "François Mitterand, the former French president". This would leave us with the still very inelegant:

    "Mazarine Pingeot—daughter of the former French president François Mitterand and of his longtime mistress—has published a diary."

  10. John Walden said,

    December 3, 2012 @ 2:41 am

    A second "of"

    "Mazarine Pingeot, the daughter of François Mitterand, the former French president, and of his longtime mistress, has published a diary."

  11. Joe Green said,

    December 3, 2012 @ 2:56 am

    @Simon P: yes, I made the same mistake.

    The original problem surely arises from what appears to be inherent sexism, namely that the president is considered worth naming but the mistress is not. Or perhaps we're all supposed to know who she is because she's really famous?

    "Mazarine Pingeot, the daughter of former French president François Mitterand and his longtime mistress Madame Bovary, has published a diary." surely works a treat.

    (Sorry, I neither know nor really care what the mistress' name actually is. But then I don't care about the diary either.)

  12. Rich Rostrom said,

    December 3, 2012 @ 3:27 am

    ISTM that there is no way for the "and" to be unambiguous, It can link either "daughter" and "mistress", or "President" and "mistress".

    One possible re-arrangement: "President M and his mistress's daughter". This is ugly, but it forces the correct interpretation, because "President M" must associate with "his mistress" so the possessive covers both.

  13. Peter Taylor said,

    December 3, 2012 @ 3:34 am

    @Joe Green, I think it's the other way round: we're supposed to know who Mitterand is (but for any readers under 20, he was the French President), but we wouldn't have a clue who his mistress was even if they printed her name.

  14. LDavidH said,

    December 3, 2012 @ 4:01 am

    @Simon P: I made exactly the same mistake, and I didn't even register the singular "has" until Iread your comment.
    Plus the fact that diaries are usually written by only one person should have rung a bell… I'm slow today!

  15. Yakusa Cobb said,

    December 3, 2012 @ 4:33 am

    There are two r's in Mitterrand. The NYT got this right, but, interestingly, every single contribution to this thread that uses the name (including the OP) gets it wrong.

  16. GeorgeW said,

    December 3, 2012 @ 6:18 am

    This gives new meaning to "doting father."

  17. Unnamed Linguist said,

    December 3, 2012 @ 7:52 am

    Daniel vB has a good suggestion. If word order were to remain as-is, perhaps one might instead choose parentheses or dashes to offset the information about her father's identity in order to eliminate confusion from so many commas.

  18. Joe Green said,

    December 3, 2012 @ 8:55 am

    @Yakusa Cobb:

    There are two r's in Mitterrand. The NYT got this right, but, interestingly, every single contribution to this thread that uses the name (including the OP) gets it wrong.

    I suppose because we all blindly copied the OP's text (which has now been corrected, just to muddy the waters).

    @Peter Taylor: you're probably right. Still, what, Mitterrand only had one mistress? (I mean, because otherwise we would need her name to be printed here so we knew which one.) Time to head on over to Wikipedia and find out why anyone is bothered about this diary in the first place.

  19. Chris said,

    December 3, 2012 @ 9:28 am

    I would start with explaining the relationship:

    The daughter of former prez FM and his mistress, MP has published …

  20. marie-lucie said,

    December 3, 2012 @ 10:09 am

    The long-time mistress's last name was Pingeot, which is why that is her daughter's name. Mentioning her as "Madame Pingeot" would not add much information, and she probably does not want to attract more public attention to herself.

    I am shocked by the daughter's physical appearance in the photo: compared to photos taken a few years ago, here she looks emaciated, with huge eyes, a person under a lot of stress if not worse.

  21. Ellen K. said,

    December 3, 2012 @ 10:27 am

    Chris Waters:
    I do have a solution which I believe eliminates even the possibility of misreading, and doesn't require modifying the punctuation at all: change "and his longtime mistress" to "by his longtime mistress".

    Yes, that eliminates ambiguity, but it's rather disrespectful to women as mothers. It's a solution that's worse than the problem.

  22. Dw said,

    December 3, 2012 @ 11:21 am

    Why not simply:

    "Mazarine Pingeot, the illegitimate daughter of François Mitterrand, the former French president, has published a diary."

    I'm not sure that the fact that her mother was a "longtime mistress" (as opposed to a one-night stand) is crucial in the first sentence.

  23. Rod Johnson said,

    December 3, 2012 @ 11:25 am

    Is "illegitimate" really still a thing? That seems like a truly insensitive framing.

    If "by his mistress" is disrespectful, how about "with his mistress"? That seems more mutual. At least it's not "out of," the way it is with thoroughbreds.

  24. Dw said,

    December 3, 2012 @ 11:30 am

    @Rod Johnson:

    Yes: it occurred to me after I posted that maybe the word "illegitimate" is no longer used in this sense at the NYT. Still, probably less offensive than the suggestion of incest.

  25. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 3, 2012 @ 12:27 pm

    "By" is apparently not an insulting/taboo preposition when successive marriages are involved and there is a need to specify which wife was the mother of a man's particular child – if one plays around with the google n gram viewer with the various combinations of "[son/daughter] [by/with] his [first/second] wife," "by" is consistently more common that "with" in the AmEng corpus. I will admit I haven't checked on "out of," although there's a medieval carol that proclaims "Christus natus est / Ex Maria Virgine," not that that makes calquing the (one assumes highly respectful) Latin free from hazard.

    Note that prior now-too-harsh words like "illegitimate child" and "bastard" (not to mention old euphemisms like "natural child" and newer ones like "non-marital child") tend to focus just on the fact that the parents were not married to each other. I'm not sure if the English lexicon has a well-established short-form way of describing those children where there's the additional salient fact (perhaps even more salient than in earlier generations, to the extent that taboos about premarital sex have receded more rapidly than taboos about marital infidelity) that one/both of the parents was/were at the time married to someone else.

  26. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 3, 2012 @ 1:38 pm

    Oh, and that by>with result is the same when you switch the sexes to test the permutations of "[son/daughter] [by/with] her [first/second] husband." So "child of X by Y" does not seem to be encoding in the preposition some sort of sex-linked view about distinctions between paternity and maternity. Which parent is the X and which the Y will depend on context rather than sex.

  27. Ellen K. said,

    December 3, 2012 @ 2:16 pm

    "By" (a man's child by a particular woman) perhaps isn't a problem if the focus is meant to be on the father. But changing "and" to "by" changes what it says; it changes it from saying the child of the father and mother, to saying the child of the father.

  28. Steve said,

    December 3, 2012 @ 3:38 pm

    ISTM that the simplest way to restructure this would be to put "the former French president" in parentheses and get rid of a few commas:

    MP, the daughter of FM (the former French president) and his longtime mistress, has published a diary.

    This creates an effect similar to putting that phrase in emdashes but it seems to be even less likely to result in confusion. Perhaps the style guides prescript against such usage, but it seems like the simplest solution here.

    @Dw: I'm pretty sure that using the term "illegitimate" would be more likely to land a writer in hot soup than constructing an awkward sentence that inadvertently suggests either incestuousness or dual authorship of the diary. I could be wrong, but I think many would presume that a writer who uses the word "illegitimate" is deliberately being offensive (not that i think that that is necessarily true) while the current sentence's sins, I think, would be chalked up to nothing more sinister than inartful drafting.

  29. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 3, 2012 @ 4:08 pm

    Ellen K.: I take it in this case that it is only the identity of the author's father that makes her diary of sufficient public interest to be publishable. There are also people out there whose memoirs would be of some public interest because of famous mothers, but whose fathers' names you would have to dig up on wikipedia.

  30. Nelida K. said,

    December 3, 2012 @ 4:58 pm

    What about this turn of phrase:

    "Mazarine Pingeot, daughter of France's former president François Miterrand and a long-time mistress of his – whose last name she bears – has just published a diary."

    This has less commas, sidesteps ambiguity, substitutes "a" for "his" in regard to M.P.'s mother (leaving the question open as to whether she was the only mistress or there were others, which truly we may never know), and informs the latter's name without an explicit mention of it between em dashes. I am not a native speaker of English, but I am a translator, and this is how I would go about it.

  31. dw said,

    December 3, 2012 @ 5:27 pm

    @Nelida K: Your suggestion has, to my eyes, the same ambiguity as the original headline.

  32. The Ridger said,

    December 3, 2012 @ 8:15 pm

    I imagine the em-dashes were meant to bracket "the former French president".

  33. Graeme said,

    December 4, 2012 @ 8:47 am

    It reads as so deliciously loaded (two authors, daughter and mistress? incest??) as to surely have been deliberate.

    But isn't the issue here social not linguistic.

    Who would care about her legitimacy? Except that is presumably the reason her diary is noteworthy. In which case be direct, not coy. Just say that the diary is a reflection on being a hidden progeny of a President.

  34. marie-lucie said,

    December 4, 2012 @ 9:23 am

    "HAS written" cannot possibly suggest two authors. And I doubt that the slight ambiguity about the mistress (which I, knowing the story, did not perceive right away) is deliberate: witness the many efforts above to revise the sentence so as to eliminate any ambiguity – easier said than done without a complete rewrite. "Daughter of X … and his Y" suggests that X and his Y are the parents. If indeed the daughter (20 years old when he revealed her existence to the public) had also been a "long-time mistress", the scandal would have been enormous (much worse than the DSK affair). Incest is a hidden crime, but a crime nevertheless, not something "delicious".

  35. Chris Waters said,

    December 4, 2012 @ 4:16 pm

    Ellen K: I don't see how "by" is disrespectful to women. It seems to me to work just as well with all the genders flipped (except that there is no gender-flipped word for "mistress", so I have to substitute the word "lover", which doesn't carry the same connotations). "George Pingeot, the son of Marie Mitterrand, the former French president, by her longtime lover, has published a diary." Is that disrespectful to men?

    I might go so far as to suggest that the most disrespectful part is that word "mistress", which carries a lot of baggage with it.

  36. F said,

    December 4, 2012 @ 5:40 pm

    "Mazarine Pingeot, daughter of the long-term mistress of Francois Mitterrand, the former French President, has published …"

  37. Ellen K. said,

    December 4, 2012 @ 8:53 pm

    @Chris Waters.

    Changing "Child of Bob and Mary" to "Child of Bob by Mary" changes it from being the child of Bob and Mary to it being the child of Bob, with Mary's role being incidental. It's a distinct difference. And it seems to point to the old idea that the child comes from the man, and the woman simply nourishes it. And, yes, "Mary's child by Bob" does diminish his role as father.

  38. marie-lucie said,

    December 4, 2012 @ 9:00 pm

    F: The order of presentation in your sentence implies that the long-term mistress is a more important character in the situation than the former president, and that the daughter's diary would be newsworthy because of her mother's role in it. Instead, surely the public interest in the diary is aroused because of the potential light it shines on the former president and his relationship to his daughter, not on the young woman's mother, who was never a public personality (not that HER story might not be interesting in itself, but apparently no one is eager to know it, and she is not trying to catch the public's eye).

  39. Iris Lawton said,

    December 5, 2012 @ 4:37 am

    Does this sound better?

    A diary has been written by Mazarine Pingeot the daughter of former French President François Meiterrand and his long time mistress.

  40. RP said,

    December 5, 2012 @ 6:51 am

    @F, your sentence leaves open the possibility that someone other than Mitterrand was Mazarine's father. That possibility is not left open by the original sentence.

  41. Eneri Rose said,

    December 5, 2012 @ 10:20 am

    Why has nobody suggested: A diary has been published by Mazarine Pingeot, the daughter of former French president François Mitterrand and his longtime mistress?

    Is this due to the dread of even the appearance of using the passive voice?

  42. Chris Waters said,

    December 5, 2012 @ 6:28 pm

    @Ellen K: "diminish the role" is a completely different thing from "being disrespectful". And in this case Mitterand is the important one. They didn't even bother to name the mistress! What if they hadn't bothered to mention the mother at all? Would that diminish her role? And, moreover, would it have been disrespectful to women? (A claim I still can't wrap my head around.)

    I'll freely give you diminish the role. If both parents were important to the story, it might be much harder to find an unambiguous phrasing. But they weren't. And I still don't see the disrespect; especially not to an entire gender.

    Honestly, I think the "mistress" part was much more disrespectful to women. Why even mention her, except as a form of slut-shaming with which to tarnish both her reputation and his? IMO, just saying "daughter of former French President Mitterrand", period, end statement, would have been a vastly better choice. Throw in "illegitimate" before "daughter" if they wanted to be sure to preserve the negative implications.

  43. marie-lucie said,

    December 6, 2012 @ 8:42 pm

    "A diary has been published" would suggest that it is someone else's diary, perhaps a historical document found by Mazarine in the course of her researches. If her name and parentage are mentioned first, it is more likely that the diary is her own.

    "Daughter of former French president FM" does not say anything about her mother, and so it could be inferred that she was born from his marriage.

    "Mistress": I wonder if this word might be much more negative in English than in French. There are so many known "mistresses" of kings and prominent men in European history before the Victorian era (even Popes in Renaissance Italy) that the role (more or less openly acknowledged) almost goes with a man in a high position, at least in countries with a Catholic tradition. "Illegitimate" refers to an out of wedlock child, and seems to stigmatize the child much more than the parents. Until recently (and perhaps still in some countries) such children had no legal recognition, and no right to their father's name or inheritance, unless the father took special steps to "recognize" and favour them.

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