A Point So Nice, They Make It Twice

A New York Times front-page headline on November 9 drew my gaze in like a magnet. It reads: “For Romney, All His Career Options Are Still Open. Except One.”

The sentence fragment at the end would be the grabbiest element for most people, but the headline caught my attention because it contains the most prominent instance I’ve yet seen of a construction I call the preposition-possessive-pronoun combo—PPPC for short. I’ve been following the PPPC because I’m more broadly interested in the country’s redundancy predilection. I’ve written about such phrases as the point is is, fellow classmates, continues to remain, but yet, even still, and both x and y alike. The PPPC is the most micro manifestation yet and thus speaks to my geeky heart.

The syndrome is most easily seen in constructions like the Times headline, which follow the structure For X, x’s Noun Verb, where X is a proper noun and x’s is a genitive pronoun referring back to X. Since the for clearly establishes that everything that follows is in reference to X, there’s no logical or grammatical need for a subsequent possessive, and using one would traditionally have been been rejected as redundant. Rather, the definite article has commonly been used, as in these quotes:

Washington Post, 2005: “For Griffin, football has been the vocation through which…” (Not his vocation).

Christian Science Monitor, 2000: “For Ramos, the whole experience of Vietnam has been about wrenching transitions.” (Not his whole experience.)

Houston Chronicle, 2000: “For Bush, it was the next-to-last full week of a 17-month campaign…” (Not his next-to-last week.)

Putting no word before the relevant noun is an option as well, especially in headlines, as in this recent one from the Times: “For Some, Exercise May Increase Heart Risk” (not their heart risk). By this thinking, today’s hed would have been: “For Romney, All Career Options Are … ”

I got the above quotes from the Corpus of Historical American English at Brigham Young University by searching COHA’s newspaper database for a sequence of a period (the punctuation mark), the word for, and a proper noun. I looked at the decades of the 1990s and the 2000s (the corpus goes up to 2009), and found precisely zero PPPC’s. Then I did the same search in another Brigham Young resource, the Corpus of Contemporary American English, which contains texts published between 1990 to 2012, and was spoiled for choice. All of the following examples were published since 2010:

USA Today:  “For Cavis, a Dover, N.H., resident, it was his first protest since his college days.”

Denver Post: “For Cejudo, 24, his quest will be as much mental as it is physical.”

Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “For Simone Neal, another Magic City dancer, club work is her ticket to becoming the first in her family to go to college.”

The PPPC is admittedly a rather special case, used nearly exclusively (I would think) by journalists, who often feel the need to command their readers’ attention through the use of grab-by-the-lapels openers or transitions. Indeed, the sentence-starting For is itself a specimen of journalese, taking a simple statement like “All Romney’s career options are open” and rendering it a tad more portentous and long.

Even still, I believe the PPPC is meaningful and significant. The point is is that we seem to feel that in order to be listened to and understood, saying something once isn’t enough or sufficient anymore.

And maybe we’re right.

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