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May 31st, 2006

Toe the line / nearby the building / possessives of pseudo-plurals

by Barbara Wallraff


Rik Lapham, of Hamtramck, Mich., writes: “What is this ‘toe the line’ I keep reading in article after article? You’d think at least one editor or reporter would know it is ‘tow the line’ -- as in ‘The rebellious aide failed to tow the line according to the administration’s policies.’”


Dear Rik: Actually, “toe the line” is right. You’re probably imagining that the phrase has its origins on canals with towpaths. It doesn’t. To “toe the line” or “toe the mark” literally means to keep your whole foot behind a line or mark. Different sources argue that the phrase comes from nautical terminology, from footraces, from boxing, and from the British House of Commons, where the members sometimes are excitable. Where “toe the line” was first used is in dispute, but the correct spelling is not.




Harlan E. Marquess, of Madison, Wis., writes: “Is the following sentence from a recent newsletter of the Madison Audubon Society correct? ‘Apparently they (Cooper’s Hawks) are nesting nearby the office building.’ My Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition, lists only the adverbial and adjectival usages for ‘nearby.’ Has a prepositional usage crept in recently?”


Dear Harlan: No -- but let’s not give other readers the impression that you and I think grammar is an end in itself. It’s really just a way to describe how knowledgeable people use language. Saying that “nearby” is an adverb and an adjective but not a preposition is shorthand for pointing out that “They nested nearby” (adverb, modifying the verb) and “a nearby building” (adjective, modifying the noun) are standard ways to use the word, whereas “nearby the building” (preposition, governing an object) is not.

Unabridged dictionaries do give examples of prepositional uses of “nearby,” but these aren’t common in contemporary American English. And there’s no need for them, because “near” does the same job perfectly well: “They are nesting near the office building.”




Mark Savoie, of Seongnam, Korea, writes: “I wish you’d discuss possessives of plural-sounding companies. Is it ‘Carlisle Companies’ store’ or ‘Carlisle Companies’s store’? The former looks and sounds better, but is it correct?”


Dear Mark: I will get to the question you asked, but first let’s agree that in your example phrase, “Carlisle Companies” probably shouldn’t be possessive at all. As far as I know, there aren’t any Carlisle Companies stores, but if there were, we’d probably write about them the same way we write about Nike stores or Disney theme parks -- with no apostrophe in the name.

Where you do want to use a possessive -- for instance, in “Carlisle Companies’ sales figures” -- the version that you say looks and sounds better is indeed correct. Since “Companies” is plural in form, write the possessive the way you would for other plurals, by adding an apostrophe after the “s.”

And what if the company name contains a possessive, like “Macy’s”? If you want to write about “Macy’s flagship store” in which “Macy’s” is the possessive form of a singular possessive name, write it the way I just did. (“Macy’s’s”? Ick.) But please note that companies get to decide how to write their own names, so, for instance, “Walgreens” doesn’t have an apostrophe. Therefore, to make it possessive, follow the same rule as with “Companies” and write “Walgreens’ sales figures.”




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

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