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January 4th, 2006

Possession is nine what? / all and all of

by Barbara Wallraff

Bob Lessnau, of Southgate, Mich., writes: “Here’s a common saying I can’t make a lick of sense out of: ‘Possession is nine-tenths of the law.’ What is the meaning of that stupid fraction — and what, pray tell, is the other tenth, nonpossession?”

Dear Bob: There’s no fraction in the original version of that saying: “Possession is nine (or eleven) points of the law.” The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs dates this back to 1616 and reports, “In early use the satisfaction of ten (sometimes twelve) points was commonly asserted to attest full entitlement or ownership.” In other words, to be indisputably the owner of something, a person had to be able to meet that many criteria. The idea that possession took care of nine out of 10 of them seems to me like a droll joke, though my sources don’t come out and say that. Nor do they spell out what the 10 (or 12) legal points were. Sorry.

Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, edition of 1894, does give nine points that supposedly made for “success in a law-suit,” namely “(1) a good deal of money; (2) a good deal of patience; (3) a good cause; (4) a good lawyer; (5) a good counsel; (6) good witnesses; (7) a good jury; (8) a good judge; and (9) good luck.” But — I hope — that was a droll joke too.

In the 19th century, as the ancient 10-points principle faded into oblivion, the word “tenths” began to replace “points” in the saying. Now the “nine points” version is scarcely ever seen or heard, and “nine-tenths” is standard. “Tenths” does get across the same nine-out-of-10 idea as “points.” And once you know the history, isn’t the saying reasonably clear?

Elizabeth Farrell, of Bluffton, S.C., writes: “Is it ‘All the people on the list came to the party’ or ‘All of the people …’? I’m not sure what the usage guideline is for ‘all’ and ‘half.’ Do they get a preposition?”

Dear Elizabeth: The rule I was taught years ago, by the editor in chief of The Atlantic Monthly, is “‘All the guns’ (plural noun) but ‘all of the butter’ (mass noun).” I found it easy to make sure we followed the rule in that magazine’s pages. It’s useful if you — like me — care about being consistent. It works for “half” too. It even accounts for the odd fact that though we may say “all the people” (plural noun), we have to say “all of us” (mass pronoun).

I couldn’t possibly go so far, though, as to call “all (or half) of the people” wrong. Usage books express all kinds of conflicting opinions about “all” versus “all of,” and justify them in all kinds of ways. I have no doubt that Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage is right when it says “The choice is a matter of style” and “It is unlikely that most of your readers will even notice which construction you have chosen.”

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

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