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The use of "s" in possessives and comments on Strunk and White 

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Dear Rosie,

I remember when I was teaching and coaching at Winter Park High School in the '60's in Orange County, Fla., that an educator conducting an inservice training said, somewhat facetiously that coaches were the best teachers because they said everything three times. He used an example, and I remember him gesturing emphatically and saying, "Block this man, Block this man, Block this man." Everyone laughed and we moved on to other topics. But I was a football and swimming coach and young, and I went out to the practice field thinking about this. I discovered that the presenter was partially correct. We coaches did repeat our guidance and directions to those players, and kept repeating until they got their assignments right.

I was then, and continue today, to be amused by "coach speak" and the need to repeat everything. I must say that it works, however. As a player myself, I remember that, in order to keep the coaches from repeating things to me, I did try very hard to do it right the first time. This turned out to be a good principle to follow.

Another good principle is Professor Strunk's. Too many people write unending phrases that only confuse or stymie the readers. My 31-year career in the federal bureaucracy was larded with documents that were virtually unreadable. Whenever I got the chance, I edited the ones that came to me for approval with a vengeance, cutting out as many words as I could. One of the blessings of composing on a computer is that one can obtain a word count, reading level and other help if one only seeks this support from the electronic assistant.

Thanks for your column and the many gems there.

— Steve Van Voorhees



Dear Rosie

My favorite guidance for the '(s) thing is from the Gregg Reference Manual. Sabin says to be guided by pronunciation: If you pronounce the extra ess sound, add the s; but if you do not pronounce it, do not. I don't always agree with his examples (because I'd pronounce some of them differently); but I agree with the idea. It's kind of like deciding whether "historical" begins with a vowel or consonant sound and needs an or a.

But what left me curious about your column is that you never explained why we should feel anxiety about the upcoming (perhaps you think it's impending?) revision to Strunk -n- White.

— Wayne Kitsteiner



Note from Rosie: Rosie is anxious because she treasures Strunk and White so much. It would be terrible if someone tried to improve on it -- so much for her protestations about the flexibility of language!

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