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July 28th, 2004

Mechutonim vs. consuegros / Burns' or Burns's?

by Barbara Wallraff

Recently a reader asked whether English has a word for “the family relationship of my daughter’s mother-in-law to me.” I replied that in Yiddish his daughter’s mother-in-law would be his wife’s “mechutonesteh.” But since that word is so specific, I suggested we borrow the Yiddish word “mechutonim,” a plural for all members of a son- or daughter-in-law’s immediate family. Well! Yiddish, it seems, isn’t the only resource our diverse and sometimes playful culture might draw upon. Here are other possibilities, each of them sent by a Michigander -- or would that be a Michiganian, or a Michiganite? (Dictionaries give all three terms.)

Tom Capiris, of Plymouth, Mich., wrote: “The Greeks have a far, far better word for the relationship between the two mothers of a married couple -- namely ‘sym-beh-THERA.’ The fathers of the couple refer to each other as ‘sym-BEH-theros.’ Far more euphonious, don’t you agree?”

Carlos A. Altgelt, of Dearborn Heights, Mich., wrote: “Given that Spanish-descent immigrants are the largest minority in this country today, there is a word that stands a better chance of being adopted into English to reflect your children’s in-laws’ relation to you. The word, from Spanish, is ‘consuegros.’”

And Susan Bloom, of South Lyon, Mich., wrote: “Re terminology for ‘once-removed’ in-laws: Many folks can’t get their vocal cords around the ‘ch’ sound in Yiddish. Our family refers to these folks as ‘out-laws’!”

So there you have it. Take your pick.

Mary Nolan, of Voorheesville, N.Y., writes: “I recently sent a letter to the editor of a small local paper. The editor printed my letter after she ‘corrected’ a possessive: I had written ‘Burns’ unit,’ and the editor changed it to ‘Burns’s unit.’ When I asked why this was done, the editor said it was her paper’s policy to always add ‘’s’ to show possession even if a word ends with ‘s.’ I think that policy is wrong. What do you think?”

Dear Mary: The Associated Press Stylebook sides with you -- though not simply because “Burns” ends in “s.” The stylebook says that “singular proper names ending in ‘s’” should be made possessive by adding only an apostrophe. And of course “Burns” is a proper name. (At least I hope it is. If you’re talking about a hospital’s “burns unit,” that’s a whole other story: no capital “B,” no apostrophe and no extra “s,” please.)

But The Chicago Manual of Style, another widely used stylebook, sides with the newspaper’s editor. It recommends treating singular proper nouns ending in “s” just like singular common nouns (such as “brass”), in either case adding “’s” to form the possessive. In fact, one of the examples of correct usage Chicago gives is “Burns’s poems.”

Newspapers try hard to be consistent, so if a paper’s style calls for it to use “’s,” there’s no use complaining. I personally use serial commas, always putting a comma before the “and” in a series, as in “Burns, Keats, and Shelley.” I can’t help it -- it’s a habit of 25 years’ standing. And Word Court’s editor diligently takes them out before the column sees the light of day, because newspapers rarely use serial commas. I mean to say you needn’t follow your local newspaper’s style, but its style is not wrong.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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