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LIAR - The Lexicon of Intentionally Ambiguous RecommendationsA classic guide to the smart art of ambiguity

by David V. Appleyard

Robert J. Thornton, professor of economics at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA., was feeling frustrated about one of the worst occupational hazards of being a teacher—that of having to write letters of recommendation for people with dubious qualifications. In an attempt to address the problem, he decided to put together an arsenal of statements that can be read two ways, and he called his collection the Lexicon of Intentionally Ambiguous Recommendations—or LIAR for short!

LIAR may be used to offer a negative opinion of the personal qualities, work habits or motivation of the candidate, while allowing the candidate to believe that (s)he is being praised to high heaven. If you study the following examples, you'll soon get the hang of it:

  1. When called upon for an opinion of a friend who is extremely lazy, just say:
    "You will be very fortunate to get this person to work for you."
  2. To describe a person who is totally inept:
    "I most enthusiastically recommend this candidate with no qualifications whatsoever."
  3. To describe an ex-employee who had problems getting along with fellow workers:
    "I am pleased to say that this candidate is a former colleague of mine."
  4. To describe a candidate who is so unproductive that the job would be better left unfilled:
    "I can assure you that no person would be better for the job."
  5. To describe a job applicant who is not worth further consideration:
    "I would urge you to waste no time in making this candidate an offer of employment."
  6. To describe a person with lackluster credentials:
    "All in all, I cannot say enough good things about this candidate or recommend him too highly."

Thornton points out that LIAR is not only useful in preserving friendships, but it can also help avoid serious legal trouble in a time when laws have eroded the confidentiality of letters of recommendation.

In most American states, he notes, job applicants have the right to read the letters of ecommendation, and can even file a suit against the writer if the contents are too negative. When the writer uses LIAR, however, "whether perceived correctly or not by the candidate, the phrases are virtually litigation-proof."

Professor Thornton's book first appeared in October 2003 and is published by Sourcebooks Hysteria at a list price of $14.99. If you're stuck choosing a birthday present for the person who already has everything, this highly entertaining read might just be your answer.

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The apostropheGenitive not always possessive

by Bob Cunningham

Over the years there have been postings to alternative usage English (AUE) websites that were based upon the misconception that the genitive case always indicates possession. This fallacy leads to people saying things like: "It can't be right to say 'the room's furnishings' because a room can't possess something."

The genitive case is in fact used for several things besides possession. Bergen and Cornelia Evans, in A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage, discuss seven genitive types:

  1. Classifying or descriptive genitive ("the room's furnishings")
  2. Possessive genitive ("Irene's coat")
  3. Subjective and objective genitive ("God's creation")
  4. Genitive of purpose ("He has written many children's books.")
  5. Measures and other adverbial genitives ("At one time the genitive form of certain words could be used as an adverb. Most of our adverbs that end in an "s" (or "z") sound, such as "nowadays," "since," "sometimes," "upwards," are survivals from this period.)
  6. Survivals of "an old genitive of source" ("hen's eggs")
  7. Partitive and appositive genitives (don't exist in English, but we express them with an "of" phrase, as in "some of us," "the state of Ohio," "the title of president").

(The Evanses give a detailed discussion of each type; I've only hinted at their discussions, mostly by giving a few examples.)

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage says, in part:

Bishop Lowth in 1762 used the word possessive in place of the older term genitive; so then did other 18th-century grammarians, and many grammarians since have used it. This change in terminology has led to a few minor usage problems based on the erroneous supposition that the only function of the genitive is to show possession. [...] Fries found that the possessive genitive was the most common, but that it accounted for only 40-percent of all genitives.

They discuss a number of uses of the genitive and give examples of each. Under "descriptive genitive or classifying genitive", with the comment "Fries adds the genitive of measure to this", they list:

the room's furnishings
the airplane's speed
the building's foundation
one day's leave
a dollar's worth
a year's wages
the Eighty Years' War

A comment in MWDEU concerns the rephrasing of the genitive with apostrophe to a structure with a prepositional phrase, as in:

"the airplane's speed" => "the speed of the airplane".

They point out that, in what one grammarian (Evans) has called the genitive of purpose (listed above), the prepositional phrase must use the preposition "for" rather than "of", as in:

"men's shirts" => "shirts for men", and
"a girls' school" => "a school for girls".

Mark Israel's AUE FAQ doesn't cover the genitive-equals-possessive fallacy per se, but he does skirt the perimeter of it with:

The Latin plural of "curriculum vitae" is "curricula vitae".
[ . . . ]
This is a feature of the Latin genitive of content, which differs in this regard from the more common Latin genitive of possession.

A classic story in linguistics lore tells of the grammarian who tried to classify all of the ways the genitive can be used. He eventually threw up his hands and said that the genitive is the case that shows any relationship between two substantives.