Possessive ambiguity

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"Senate Bill 250 limiting free-speech rights in Ohio is unneeded and pernicious", cleveland.com 1222018 [emphasis added]:

A pending Ohio bill […] seeks to turn the state's misdemeanor criminal trespass law into a felony if it involves knowingly entering a "critical infrastructure" site. […]

The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio's Gary Daniels told the Judiciary Committee that SB 250 and its related bills across the country "are meant to end and severely limit criticism, exposure of … corporate wrongdoing, or anything that merely inconveniences" the builders or operators of "critical" infrastructure.

The link is  from Patrick Nevins, who needed a couple of re-readings to figure out that they meant to attribute the quotation to Gary Daniels from the ACLU of Ohio, rather than to an ACLU somehow belonging to Gary Daniels of Ohio.

It's easy to find examples of both ways to parse sequences of the form

ProperNoun of ProperNoun 's ProperNoun

[X of [Y's Z]]: Al Hodgson of California's Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory
[[X of Y]'s Z]: the University of California's Berkeley campus

But in the [[X of Y]'s Z] type, [X of Y] is usually a familiar phrase easily taken as a unit, e.g.

the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School
the University of Denver's Daniels College of Business
The University of Virginia's Cavalier Daily

For the writers of the cited editorial, "the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio" apparently coheres strongly enough as a unit to establish itself as the possessor in the 's construction. But for readers like Patrick, the phrase tips the other way.

The waning animacy constraint on apostrophe-s possessives may also be a factor. See:

"A correlate of animacy", 9/27/2008
"The genitive of lifeless things", 10/11/2009
"Mechanisms for gradual language change", 2/9/2014
"*The haystack's painting", 12/9/2015

Overall, it's clear that avoiding such ambiguities has not been high on the list of factors influencing the (biological or cultural) evolution of language.



  1. Allen Thrasher said,

    December 3, 2018 @ 10:41 am

    I notice a completely different oddity in the very first sentence. Can one change a law from a misdemeanor into a felony, rather than changing the offense into a felony? Do the legislator face going to prison for a longer term if they vote Yes?

  2. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 3, 2018 @ 12:41 pm

    Part of the problem is probably that the writers felt the need to be extra-precise, by not just saying "the American Civil Liberties Union's Gary Daniels," but the distinction being drawn between the national ACLU and its various state-level affiliates is a bit of inside baseball that the average reader of the op-ed is likely to be oblivious to, meaning such a reader may be more likely to be confused than to be enlightened.

    I can see forcing the reader's attention to that distinction as being good journalism when the story involves an issue that is divisive within the ACLU-supporter community, such that the position being taken by the Ohio group might be contrary to that taken by the national group (and/or one on which the national group has stayed neutral because it has different constituencies that are disagreeing with each other). But if that's not the case here, I can't see what would have been lost by just cutting out the "of Ohio."

  3. Ulf said,

    December 3, 2018 @ 1:06 pm

    I suppose you could say "Gary Daniels, representing the Am Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, told the Judiciary Committee…" That would be less ambiguous and maybe less clunky.

    But I have to say I didn't see any ambiguity in the sentence as written. The "alternate" explanation — an ACLU belonging to Mr. Daniels — would not be on my radar at all.

  4. Gregory Kusnick said,

    December 3, 2018 @ 1:37 pm

    J.W.: Surely the point is that Daniels is not in fact speaking for the national organization, and it would be journalistic malpractice to represent him as if he were.

  5. Neil Obstat said,

    December 3, 2018 @ 3:31 pm

    "The genitive of lifeless things"–what a wonderful title. I'm going to have to read that.

  6. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 3, 2018 @ 5:23 pm

    Gregory Kusnick – that's presumably the point, but whether it would be "malpractice" to fail to make that explicit is less clear to me except in the scenario I hypothesized. One can easily imagine, for example, situations in which e.g. someone supporting or objecting to such-and-such is described in a newspaper story as a leader of or spokesman for "the Teamsters" or some other labor union without it being made explicit whether the person is acting on behalf of a specific union local or the national union. Whether it is helpful or crucial to be specific about that in the context of a particular story strikes me as context-dependent, presumably depending on some journalistic instantiation of the Gricean Maxim of Quqntity.

  7. Gregory Kusnick said,

    December 3, 2018 @ 9:50 pm

    Put it this way: In Daniels' shoes, I would want to be clear that any follow-up inquiries should come to me rather than to my counterparts at the national org (whether or not they agree with my position), and I would be justifiably peeved at journalists who took it upon themselves to elide that distinction.

  8. KevinM said,

    December 5, 2018 @ 3:07 pm

    Today's train wreck of a headline:
    "1 critical, 54 Amazon workers treated after bear repellent discharge in N.J. warehouse"


    So many questions. To begin with, why was only one person willing to criticize this repellent conduct? Were the other 54 given treats to buy their silence? etc.

  9. Gordon Campbell said,

    December 6, 2018 @ 5:24 am

    It bothers me, when writing, to have to rephrase perfectly grammatical utterances like these ones:

    The man in the shop’s hat …
    Doctor Smith, the physicist,’s opinion …

    Noun phrases, of course, often contain other noun phrases, so this kind of issue happens reasonably often.
    We shouldn’t have to adjust our grammar because our punctuation system is not up to the job of capturing it properly! Let’s reform punctuation! We need brackets—or something. Someone should issue an edict and make it so.

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