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The Empire of Grammar

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Peace and joy, Camper, and welcome to Your Uncle Jerry’s Grammar Grotto.

Lately, it has come to Uncle Jerry’s attention that more and more young persons lie awake at night fretting over fine points of English grammar, stylistics, and semantics.

Listening to NPR, for example, they ask, “Shouldn’t Scott Simon have said ‘this raises the question’ instead of ‘this begs the question’? I mean, ‘begging the question’ refers to the fallacy of petitio principii, doesn’t it, Uncle Jerry?”

So true, but as professors in the humanities building have always told us, you really can’t get to Journalism from English; you have to go through Marketing.

Or, buying their ramen and caffeinated sugar-drinks at the grocery express line, young readers say to each other, “I’m sure that sign should be ‘15 items or fewer ’ instead of less.”

Well-spotted, Camper. But in this case, the more serious crime against language is the use of the word express.

Grammar is complicated. (No one knew how complicated.) So it’s no wonder that campers have questions. Recently, Your Uncle Jerry heard from a young person the following grammatico-theological question. “Dear Uncle Jerry: With the phrase, destroying the temple, what case should the pronoun really take—genitive or dative? Do I want HIS or HIM?”

As with so many questions of language, much depends on the context. First of all, we need to know whether it is ISIS or Tigleth-Pileser destroying the temple. This should be obvious. Second, when parsing scriptural texts, we should keep in mind that these are written in an obscure tense often called the Perfect Preposterous or sometimes the Compound Hagiographic. Pay attention, Camper; this will be on the quiz.

What comes before or after the phrase in question is also important. “What’s that noise? Oh, that’s him destroying the temple,” would yield a different answer from, “His destroying the temple was a clear case of government over-reach.”

And in either case, we still don’t know if the temple was being used for lawful worship of the emperor or for basement meetings of an MLA Citation Suicide cell.

Be that as it may. If the writer leans toward HIS, then we have the following problem. HIS must point to, as the kids say, “a real thing.” Like “destruction.” OK? But look: “His destruction the temple”? That don’t work—it needs a preposition: “His destruction OF the temple.” Or IN the temple or AROUND, etc. (Why? Because emperors, as partisan politicians, destroy pretty much everything.) So then we put “destroying” back, but with the preposition, and we get “His destroying OF the temple came on the solstice this year.”

This is now correct grammatically. But theologically . . . eww. The solstice is no time for destruction. Best to avoid HIS, the genitive.

On the other hand, if the writer wants HIM, then we’re in the dative case (the case for indirect objects) and not the genitive, which is the case for possession. For the dative, it helps to think of the last person you actually dated. Because as you discovered, you can possess neither a verb-form nor a hopelessly immature sex-obsessed man-child, and that particular romance was absolutely not a real thing.

Hence, we now have: “Did you hear something? Yep. That’s him, destroying the temple. It’s Wednesday.”

Perfect. With the dative, the case of romance, destruction suddenly makes more sense, MLA is crushed, and grammatical balance is restored to the empire.

Peace and Joy.

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