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Another casualty

n the coverage of the death of John F. Kennedy Jr., Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and Lauren Bessette, how many times have you seen or heard the following phrase?
  • John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife and sister-in-law.
  • I'll forgive the widespread misuse of tragic and even ironic amid our grief and mourning, but I think the tossing away of parallel construction is as disrespectful as it is stupid. Lauren Bessette is a sister-in-law, she's Kennedy's sister-in-law, but she is not "sister-in-law." The poor woman deserves the honor of a pronoun or an article.

    For those of you who are lost at this point, allow me to explain. The flawed phrase contains three characters:

    1. John F. Kennedy Jr.

    2. His wife (no problem there -- it's clear who his refers to).

    3. Sister-in-law. (Huh?)

    There is one other syntactically sound way to read that phrase, and that is to presume Kennedy is both the (a) wife and (b) sister-in-law of an unnamed person whom his refers to. That reading, of course, is plainly absurd in context.

    The phrase is easy to repair, but the fix contains a dreaded bugaboo: a repeated word! Here's how it should read:

  • John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife and his sister-in-law.
  • Wasn't that simple? Even better, perhaps, would be:
  • John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife and her sister.
  • Also correct, though potentially ambiguous:
  • John F. Kennedy Jr. and his wife and sister-in-law.
  • A different repeated word, for those of you who, heaven knows why, wince at such things, and clearly inferior to my first solution in that you could argue that it leaves open the possibility that the wife and the sister-in-law are the same person. But because the latter is not a realistic scenario, I would not declare such a phrase incorrect.

    I also keep reading and hearing that the plane might have been descending "10 times faster" than normal. Yes, if reports are accurate the descent was much faster than normal. But nothing is x times y-er than anything else. The use of times requires the x times as y formula, so the plane might have been descending 10 times as fast as such a plane normally would. A subtle point, you might say, but boil it down to the simplest of multiples and ask yourself if a 6-foot-tall person is twice as tall as a 3-footer or "two times taller." (Or would it be "one time taller"? The "x times y-er" construction is ambiguous as well as usage-impaired.)

    Now what?

    Move on to SPLIT DECISIONS

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