This is the sentence that triggered all the commotion:

“Toni Morrison’s genius enables her to create novels that arise from and express the injustices African-Americans have endured.”

It was a sloppy sentence, but never mind the syntax. Does the sentence contain an error in grammar?

The experts who posed that question last October at first thought the correct answer was “no error.” Then Kevin Keegan, a high school teacher in Maryland, persuaded the Educational Testing Service to reverse its decision. In the test sentence, the antecedent of “her” was not “Toni Morrison.” No! The antecedent was “Toni Morrison’s genius.” Horrors! A hit, a palpable hit! So the PSAT people changed the scores of 500,000 of the 1.8 million high-school seniors who took the achievement test.

This is the kind of pedantry that gives grammar a bad name. The test makers were right the first time. The sentence contains no error worth correcting. “Toni Morrison’s genius” is nothing more or less than “the genius of Toni Morrison.” This is the Possessive Lite. It reads easily. Its meaning cannot possibly be mistaken. Would picky-picky critics prefer a neutered construction, e.g., “Toni Morrison’s genius enables IT to create novels?”

Jean Horton of Eugene, Ore., was so irked by the Toni Morrison story that she sent me a comparable sentence of her own: “Mother’s experience enables her to make beautiful braided rugs.” Anything wrong with that? Not in my book. Nothing on Earth could be gained by, “Because of her experience, Mother is able to make beautiful braided rugs.”

A similar flap led to water-cooler talk at The Philadelphia Inquirer last month. The story had to do with a basketball hoop: “It was mounted curbside, meaning her and her husband’s five boys used the street in front of their Springfield Township home for a court.” A humane editor would have shot that sentence before it lumbered into print, but was the sentence wrong grammarwise?

Copy chief David Sullivan defends this syntactical slumgullion. The five boys were the progeny of both present and previous marriages. Closely read, the sentence did not say that “her” used the street. It said that their five boys used the street. Carefully parsed, says Sullivan, the compound “her and her husband’s” functioned as a Double-Breasted Possessive Modifier, a species not often seen in Philadelphia.

Try your copy-editing skills on this sentence from The New York Times a year ago. (The story dealt with a film festival in Texas.) “A major part of its allure is the panel discussions …” The subject is “major part,” which demands a singular verb. But the predicate nominative (if that is what we have here) is the plural “panel discussions.” A major part ARE? The reporter could have slid home safely with, “The panel discussions are a major part of its allure,” but that would have been too easy.

The Smithsonian magazine carried a piece about a biography of Samuel Pepys, the 17th-century diarist and tomcat. “Yet his energy, optimism and endless curiosity about the world and everything in it are overwhelming.” I suppose that “energy, optimism and curiosity” provide a compound subject demanding the plural “are overwhelming,” but my treacherous ear aches for the singular “is overwhelming.”

Over the past hundred years I have thundered many times about the importance of “good grammar.” The concept is not easily defended. After all, there is no meaningful difference between “She invited Jane and me to lunch” and “She invited Jane and I to lunch,” but the first sentence is proper grammar and the other is not. Obedient to the same decrees of right and wrong, we do not go barefooted to a funeral. We try not to cough at a concert. Good grammar, I suggest, equates nicely with good manners. Try not to belch at the table, darling, and do remember that a singular subject demands a singular verb. For good or ill, we are betrayed by our speech.

At the same time, let us also remember that the first purpose of language is to communicate. Good grammar aids accurate communication. If we keep a firm leash on our wandering antecedents, we will do a better job.

James Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.

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