Let's remember—and be glad—that law-enforcement officers and journalists have been trained to speak of people respectfully. Let's remember, too, the presumption of innocence that is central to our legal system. Once someone is convicted of a heinous crime, words quite different from gentleman apply. Often, though, using gentleman instead of man is just a silly genteelism, and it's not much worse in reference to a criminal investigation than it is in this recent citation from The Sacramento Bee: "Not so routine is the 800-pound man the Coroner's Office received not long ago. Firefighters had to cut a hole in the gentleman's trailer to get him on his way." As you suggest, man would have been a better word choice in all these quotations.
Christina Pitts, of Grosse Pointe Woods, Michigan, writes, "As an English major, with a graduate degree (M.A., English literature), and as a lover of the language, I find it increasingly shocking that in virtually every 'knowledgeable' magazine article or story I see the misuse of the possessive. For example, 'He is a friend of Frank's.' The correct use of the possessive, as I recall, is that the apostrophe substitutes for the word of. That is, 'He is a friend of Frank,' or 'He is Frank's friend.' But to say 'He is a friend of Frank's' is ridiculously, tautologically redundant, not to minimize its offensiveness to those of us in the know."
Would you say "a friend of him"? Double possessives like "a friend of Frank's" may be "freaks of idiom," as H. W. Fowler deemed them in his Modern English Usage, but idiomatic they are. Sir Ernest Gowers amplified on this point in his 1965 revision of Fowler's book, observing that Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra begins, "Nay, but this dotage of our general's o'erflows the measure." Possessives, including the word of, do jobs besides indicating relationships of possessing or having. The examples with which grammarians like to demonstrate this point often involve the word picture or portrait: "a picture of Frank's"—a picture that Frank possesses—is different from "a picture of Frank."
When, exactly, should we use double possessives? This is controversial. My rule is to experimentally substitute a pronoun for the noun, as I did at the outset of this reply; if I'd say "a friend of his," then I say "a friend of Frank's."
Dan Green, of Wallingford, Connecticut, writes, "The use of impactful is running rampant, especially in my corporation's highest levels. I know in my soul this is wrong, but I need a well-articulated explanation. Please help me respond and stop the spread of this blight."
Many of us still wince when the verb impact is used figuratively. The current edition of the American Heritage Dictionary reports that 95 percent of its usage panel "disapproves of the use of impact as a transitive verb in the sentence 'Companies have used disposable techniques that have a potential for impacting our health.'" But the same usage note goes on to say that the "use of impact has become so common in the working language of corporations and institutions that many speakers have begun to regard it as standard." Let's hope we can yet draw a line in the sand on this side of the adjective impactful. Do you need to tell your colleagues more than that scarcely any dictionaries recognize impactful as a word?
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