An easy way to tighten: possessives

No, this is not “a Really, Really Short Workout” like the one featured on the New York Times home page as I write (relief, perhaps, from the voluminous pre-debate coverage). This is one the simplest ways I know to make sentences shorter, tighter and faster: use possessives.

A possessive is the form of a noun or pronoun that indicates ownership, or possession, of a noun. Possessives take three forms: for nouns, the ‘s  form, or s’ for plurals (Trump’s hair, the Democrats’ lead); for pronouns, their possessive forms (my, your, his, her, its, our, their); or, again for nouns, a prepositional phrase using of (the eye of the storm). Often, tightening can be as simple as editing the third of these into the first or second.

Non-native English-speakers tend to fall back on of phrases. That may be the way their native languages form possessives (in French, for example, les cheveux de Trump, l’avance des Democrats), or they may not have fully mastered English possessive forms. Some examples from international students’ writing this semester:

According to the 2010 census, only 5% percent of  8,500 residents of Little Italy were Italian-Americans.

That sentence has two of phrases in a row. Smoother:

According to the 2010 census, only 5% percent of  Little Italy’s 8,500 residents of Little Italy were Italian-Americans.

From the same story:

The organizers of the feast takes so for granted his participation, that this year they included him in the program, on the website and the posters.

Simpler:

The feast’s organizers . . .

From another student:

Andrew Greer adds that the eleventh edition of the Brooklyn Book Festival shows that there is still demand for physical books in a digital world.

Tighter:

Andrew Greer adds that the festival’s eleventh edition . . .

From yet another:

Blair described the house of the Lynch family with major inaccuracies and flaws.

Tighter:

Blair described the house of the Lynch family’s house with major inaccuracies and flaws.

Or even:

Blair described the Lynches’ house of the Lynch family with major inaccuracies and flaws.

And:

The district needs statement of the CD4 also indicated that there is a lack of funding for the Summer Youth Program.

Tighter:

The district CD4’s needs statement of the CD4 also indicated that there is a lack of funding the for Summer Youth Program.

Tighter still:

The district CD4’s needs statement of the CD4 also indicated that there is a lack of funding for its Summer Youth Program lacks funding.

Such edits are especially useful in sentences with multiple prepositional phrases, one after another; changing of  phrases to possessives, where appropriate, can make such sentences read much more simply and directly. But they don’t work in every case. English still frowns on double possessives (Lynch’s family’s house). And you can’t change a prepositional phrase to a possessive if it’s followed by a relative clause that modifies it, or an appositive, as in this sentence:

For 10 years, Mandolin has been performing the opening concert of the San Gennaro Feast, a 90-year tradition, the biggest celebration of the Italian community in New York City.

A knee-jerk (automatic, without thinking) edit would change the of phrase to the San Gennaro Feast’s opening concert. That would cut off the noun from the two phrases describing it that follow, and they need to be kept together. But a little more editing could make it work (and eliminate the double appositive):

For 10 years, Mandolin has been performing the San Gennaro Feast’s opening concert. The feast, a 90-year tradition, is the biggest celebration of the Italian community in New York City.

Why not the Italian community’s biggest celebration?  Because it is unclear what in New York City modifies, the feast or the Italian community. A good editor would ask the writer which he meant.

Avoid knee-jerk editing, even of yourself, first by reading before you edit (and too many editors  don’t, especially on deadline) and then. if necessary, reading the edited sentence aloud to see it still makes sense. As always, let clarity be your guide.

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  1. ESL Coach Offers Grammar Tips To Foreign Journalists | CUNY Journalism Press - October 3, 2016

    […] Diane Nottle has made it her focus to help international journalists master reporting and writing. Her latest ESL blog entry, tackles the importance of using possessives to shorten and clarify […]

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