Some things just sound better

The Court of Peeves, Crotchets and Irks resumes its winter assizes with an irk from Norma W. Allen of Palm Beach, Fla. She moves for an injunction against the double possessive, as in "Marilyn was a friend of Jackie Kennedy's."

Ms Allen objects: "The construction begs an obvious question: Jackie Kennedy's what? Her husband? Her mother? Was she a friend of Jackie Kennedy's dog?"

The complainant seeks an order from the court that will finally settle an argument that has been gently simmering for the past 200 years. No way! In the court's view, the problems spawned by the double genitive are more hypothetical than real. Such scholars as Bryan Garner brush aside the familiar objections. He says, "The double possessive appears in good writing and typically causes no trouble."

True, true! But the court will note that such excellent writers as Thomas Friedman of The New York Times eschew it. In his column for Dec. 15, Friedman spoke of "Pat Wood, a friend of the president." Not "the president's." One possessive was quite enough.

Reader Allen also moves for a declaratory judgment defining the verbs "off-load" and "unload." The court consulted a furniture mover. The young woman who answered the telephone explained that when a truck is delivering a sofa to one address and a chest of drawers to another, the driver first "off-loads" the sofa and then "unloads" the chest. If there's only one destination, and we're taking all the cargo off a ship, train or truck at one time, one verb is like another - they're all the same.

In other instances, "un" is clearly the prefix of choice. We may off-load data from one computer to another, but we do not off-load a shotgun, we unload it. We unload our troubles and we unload our cameras. A guy who is "loaded" is either filthy rich or falling-down drunk. Hooray for idiomatic English!

J.S. Snow of Somewhere in Cyberspace asks the court for a declaratory judgment on the choice of a verb if one is having a serious hissy-fit. Does one run amok or run amuck? Five of the court's six everyday dictionaries prefer the Malaysian "amok." Only American Heritage gives primacy to the good old American "to run amuck." The court would have opted for "amock," but nobody spells it that way.

Jon Holland of Seattle moves for an injunction against "constructed" when the meaning is simply "built." His motion tempts the court once more to marvel at the nuances - the nooks, the crannies, the subtleties, the tints, the shades, the infinite variety - of written and spoken English. The topic never stales. Bartlett's Quotations cites 46 "builds" to only two "constructs." The former verb dates from the 12th century, the latter from 1663. Their primary meanings are substantially identical: "to make or form by combining or arranging parts or elements by gradual means into a composite whole."

Writers' ears must often be their guides. If Holmes had prayed, "Construct thee more stately mansions," his soul would have cringed. Or suppose Lyndon Johnson had asked us "to construct a Great Society"? Thousands of words may have substantially identical meanings, but words have much in common with snowflakes: No two are exactly alike - and most of them fade quickly away.

Eugene Lane of Little Switzerland, N.C., asks the court to ban "basically" one more time. His motion will be granted, for all the good it will do. Beyond the realms of chemistry, "basic" and its yawing derivative "basically" have no useful function. The adverb is a teenager's word of art. Begone! The court stands, hopefully, adjourned.

Write James Kilpatrick at Universal Press Syndicate, 4520, Main St., Kansas City, MO 64111.