A Grammatical Interlude

This is just a quick post. There was a story going around a few days ago about how a climate scientists named Peter Wadhams believed three of his colleagues had been murdered as part of some sort of conspiracy.

That's not what this post is about. It turns out Wadhams has taken filed a complaint with at least one of the newspapers that ran the story. According to him, he had a near death experience around the same time as his three colleagues died, and for a little while he worried it might not be a coincidence. After he took some time and thought about it, and actually looked at the circumstances of the other deaths, he decided it was just a really weird coincidence.

That sounds understandable. If that's all it was, it was kind of irrational, but being somewhat irrational after nearly dying is quite normal. The only issue is, did he keep believing it? According to the news stories, he did and still does to this day. According to Wadhams today, he doesn't, and he told the newspapers that. In fact, he claims he asked for his comments to be kept off the record because he knew they could be misunderstood/misrepresented to make him sound like a loon. Instead, he claims the papers misrepresented off the record comments to make him sound like a loon.

But I have no idea if he's telling the truth. Maybe he's completely right, and maybe he's owed a huge apology. Maybe his reputation was trashed for no reason other than some journalists being completely dishonest and unethical. Or maybe he's just trying to cover up a PR nightmare. Or maybe there's some other explanation. I don't know. I don't really care at this point. The way I see it, I don't have any evidence to base conclusions on, so how could I draw any conclusions? All I can do is report both sides of the story. I guess I could speculate a little, but I just don't care to when I have nothing to go on.

So you might be wondering why I'm even talking about this. That's a good question. I normally wouldn't. It's just, there's one thing I really care about in this story. You see, earlier I was trying to write a sentence about the complaint Wadhams filed, and... I couldn't figure out how to do it.

Is it "Wadhams' complaint"? Is it "Wadhams's complaint"? Is it "the Wadhams complaint"? How do you make a proper noun possessive if it already ends with an s? I had thought about this question before, but I never came up with an answer I was satisified with.

Most people would seem to write, "Wadhams' complaint," just adding an apostrophe, but that's just confusing. How can anyone interpret that. If you didn't already know who Wadhams was, you wouldn't be able to tell what the name was. Is it a complaint filed by Mr. Wadhams, or is it a complaint filed by Mr. and Mrs. Wadham, the Wadhams? I used to try to get around this by writing it as "the Wadhams's complaint," and I think that works out okay. But that raises a new question. What happens if you want to make Wadhams plural?

For instance, suppose there's a neighborhood where Mr. and Mrs. Wadham own a house. Down the street, Mr. Wadhams lives alone in a house of his own. After a bit of confusion, people sort things out and come to understand they have the "Wadhams' house" and the "Wadhams's house." But them Mr. Wadhams gets married. What do we call his house then?

It turns out there's an answer I never anticipated. Thanks to a user on Twitter linking me to a helpful source, I found out the answer is you make a proper name which ends in s plural by adding -es to the end of it. So Wadhams becomes Wadhamses. And according to the same source, my idea of adding 's to Wadhams to make it possessive is okay. It's not mandatory, but it is allowable.

But that's not all. As the resource I linked to above points out, in the English language, nouns often take on the role of adjective. The resource I used gives the example of "New Orleans cuisine." In that phrase, the proper noun "New Orleans" is used as an adjective. The same could happen with a family name. That means it would also be reasonable to call a house "the Wadham house" or "the Wadhams" house.

So when taken all together, these rules means a neighborhood could have the "Wadham House," the "Wadhams house," "Wadhams' house," the "Wadhams's house" and the "Wadhamses's house."

I love the English language.

Edit: About half an hour after this post went live, I realized I had forgotten about the possibility of proper nouns being used as adjectives. I've slightly edited the post to address that possibility. It just makes things more awesome.


  1. Our language is a wonder. Flexible enough to encompass technical topics as well as exquisite poetry. Constantly accreting new words from other languages and rearranging the core to fit the needs of the moment. Formal rules and prolific slang. I admire non-native speakers who learn and use it well. In grad school my adviser criticized my use of nouns as adjectives and it now helps me to decide if this structure is the best for communicating meaning. Sometimes it is, but often not.

  2. This example makes my head spin. Lloyd's of London is named after a coffee shop owned by Edwards Lloyd, hence the possessive 's. But now Lloyd's has a building, named after the company, so the building could I guess be named Lloyd's's Building. Quite sensibly it's just called the Lloyd's building, but I wonder grammatically how you indicate a possessive of an existing possessive.

  3. rdk, in the case you refer to, the "Lloyd's Building" would be using "Lloyd's" as an adjective, so the Llyod's building really would be Llyod's's building.

    That's the joy of names that have punctuation in them. In addition to names which are already possessive, lots of names have hyphens in them, and some names also have apostrophes for other reasons (or they might be called something else, but they sure look like apostrophes). And to make matters more fun, you can refer to more than one place at a time. If you refer to building owned by two people, you only make the second name possessive, but if you refer to separate buildings owned by two different people, you make both names possessive. Imagine the fun that would cause if two companies whose names are both possessive have joint ownership of some property, and you wanted to refer to the properties they do and do not own together.

  4. Brandon

    Peter Wadhams has form as regards filing complaints.

    He is very fixed on his idea the arctic ice will melt this year and strongly defends his ice expert position. This resulted in a spat with Gavin, amongst others.


    The Times and the reporter concerned are experienced enough to check their sources so I tend to side with them and that Wadhams was convinced that someone was 'after him.'


  5. tonyb, I've never taken arguments from reputation to be very compelling because they've always seemed to be one-sided. You may have dirt on Peter Wadham, but did you spend a moment's time looking for dirt on Ben Webster? What about the author of the piece for the Telegraph? You say these people "are experienced enough to check their sources," but what does experienced have to do with ethics? Wadham's complaint isn't that they made some rookie mistake; it's that they were dishonest. That means you have to vouch for their integrity. What makes you so sure you can do that?

    Personally, I don't know any of these people. I'm not going to jump to conclusions about who has more integrity than who. I'm not going to try to guess what shady tactics various reporters might or might not be willing to stoop to any more than I'm going to try to guess how far Wadham is willing to distort things to cover up any embarrassing statements he might have made. Without actual evidence or meaningful personal knowledge, all I'll do is present both sides of the story.

    That's how reporting should be done. I think it's a real shame nobody covering this story is doing the same. From a practical standpoint, if it turns out Wadham's complaint is true, sites like Watts Up With That are going to have a bunch of egg on their face because they didn't even attempt to acknowledge his side while if it turns out his complaint is false, they'll have missed an opportunity to rub the story in some more. From a moral and journalistic standpoint, it's just good practice to give both sides a chance until you have the facts.

    But as I said in this post, this post isn't really about Wadham. I think the lack of coverage of his complaint is interesting and could merits discussion, but this post was really just about grammar. I'm a big enough nerd that I do love grammar.

  6. Of course I know about Ben Webster. I am British and have been reading his (usually) correct articles for years. Similarly I have been following Peter Wadhams' output for years which have become increasingly strange and strident.

    Thought WUWT went way over the top

    Lets see what the press complaints commission says, if indeed Peter Wadhams has referred the story there.

    In the meantime hope I put an apostrophe in the right place of our Cambridge scientist..


  7. tonyb, even if I were inclined to side against Wadham, I wouldn't given the Times's (see what I did there?) incredibly weak response to his complaint. He complained they used off the record comments out of context to misrepresent him. They responded by saying they had recordings of him saying those words. That doesn't even deny his accusations!

    They didn't deny his comments were off the record. They didn't deny his comments were taken out of conext to misrepresent him. All they said is, "Well, he said the words we claim he said."

    Now, it is of course possible the Times offered an incredibly weak response despite having a stronger defense available. I don't know why they would do so, but I don't claim to know anyone's motivations at this point. All I can say is if you do want to judge the situation on circumstantial evidence, you need to address the fact the Times has refused to deny Wadhams's damning criticisms while addressing the least important one.

  8. Brandon

    The Daily Telegraph also conducted a separate interview in which they say Wadhams said very much the same things. The Telegraph and Times are rivals so wouldn't ordinarily go to the others aid. It must also be remembered that we have severe libel laws so things don't tend to get published unless they can be corroborated. Lets see how this comes out in the wash.


  9. tonyb, I believe waiting rather than drawing conclusions was what I said should be done ūüėõ

    But seriously, I don't see why people keep saying these things to claim support for the Times. It's like you guys are trying to find any reason to oppose Wadhams's position. For instance, look at your latest point. You say:

    The Telegraph and Times are rivals so wouldn’t ordinarily go to the others aid.

    But the Telegraph and Times didn't go to one another's aid. All they did is run stories on the same topic. That meant the Times could cite the Telegraph story as support for its story, but that in no way means the Telegraph went to the Times's aid. Unless there is some aspect to this story nobody has referenced where the Telegraph issued a statement in response to Wadhams's complaint, this point is completely wrong.

  10. I wonder if Mark Steyn has been reading your reviews of Mann science.

    "climate-wise, nothing whatsoever happened until the 20th century - a moronic proposition that Mann was only able to advance by such settled science as having a lone cedar from the Gaspé peninsula divine the entire temperature of the northern hemisphere for a quarter-century all by itself. And even then he had to include the tree in two separate data-sets."

  11. MikeN, if he has been, he didn't understand what I said properly. The Gaspe proxy wasn't used "in two separate data-sets." The Gaspe proxy was used in one data set, the North American tree ring (NOAMER) network, from which the infamous NOAMER PC1 was calculated. It was then also used as a standalone proxy. That means it was used twice like he says, but unlike what he says, it wasn't used in two networks.

    Even worse, the Gaspe proxy doesn't have anywhere near as much impact as Steyn portrays. You can remove both uses of it, and you will still get the same hockey stick. The reason for that is the NOAMER network has a number of bristlecone tree ring series with a strong hockey stick signal in them. Those are given an undue amount of weight by Michael Mann and his co-authors' improper implementation of Principal Component Analaysis (PCA), creating a hockey stick shaped NOAMER PC1. As long as you include that NOAMER PC1, you'll get a hockey stick. You'll get it whether or not Gaspe is included in the NOAMER network. You'll get it whether or not Gaspe is included as a standalone proxy. The only reason Gaspe matters is Mann and his co-authors use it as justification for using NOAMER PC1 to get a hockey stick.

    In other words, Mann et al say Gaspe confirms what NOAMER PC1 shows so their results are sound. Steyn ignores NOAMER PC1 all together, claiming all that matters is the (actually less important) Gaspe series. That shows if he has been reading my reviews of Mann's science, he hasn't been doing a good job of comprehending them.

    (An additional issue with Steyn's comment is the Gaspe series was only used back to 1450 in the NOAMER network, so it didn't even cover the entire period of the MBH98 paper in one of its two uses. In its other use, it was extended back to 1400, but that still leaves it 400 years short of the 1000 AD starting point of the full hockey stick. It's difficult to guess what Steyn might have been thinking when he said Gaspe was used to "divine the entire temperature of the northern hemisphere for a quarter-century all by itself." I can't think of anything remotely close to that.)

    (By the way, if Steyn has read my reviews of Mann's work, he should know a much better talking point is the time-traveling CO2 correction Mann used in MBH99. That's the one where Mann and his co-authors adjusted data in the 1000-1400 period for CO2 fertilization that supposedly happened due to the Industrialization Revolution. You know, the one that began around 1820.)

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