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I came across the following sentence while reading "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee. Is it correct

Everybody in town’s father was playing, it seemed, except Atticus.

Or it should be rephrased as

Everybody's father in the town was playing, it seemed, except Atticus.

Thanks in advance.

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    Why would it need rephrasing? Dec 27, 2014 at 8:45
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    'The man with the dog's pocket watch' probably needs rephrasing. Dec 27, 2014 at 9:07
  • [Grammar.ccc.com] at (grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/possessives.htm) gives the 'rule' for 'Possessives & Compound Constructions': [T]he problem we confront when creating possessives with compound constructions such as daughter-in-law and friend of mine. Generally, the apostrophe -s is simply added to the end of the compound structure: my daughter-in-law's car, a friend of mine's car. If this sounds clumsy [or is ambiguous], use the "of" construction to avoid the apostrophe: the car of a friend of mine, etc Dec 27, 2014 at 13:10
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    @EdwinAshworth, your first comment's example seems perfectly clear. It doesn't need rephrasing, although perhaps calls for an explanation of why the man took the dog's pocket watch. Dec 27, 2014 at 17:08
  • @jwpat7 He didn't realise it was able to tell the time. (It was a watchdog.) Dec 27, 2014 at 20:34

4 Answers 4

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It may seem a bit awkward, but "everybody in town" is an expression that serves as a subject, like he or, she:

"I can't believe you're wearing that dress, Mabel. Everybody in town can see your unmentionables."

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  • Oldbag, I think you've stated the obvious and sidestepped the main issues. Dec 27, 2014 at 17:10
  • Yeah, I could have been more clear. "Everybody in town" was a popular figure of speech, at one time. It doesn't necessarily mean a lot of people, or even more than a few. It was a kid's way of whining that people that they knew were getting ice-cream and they wanted some too.
    – Oldbag
    Dec 27, 2014 at 17:34
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Neither example (the original or yours) is semantically incorrect, so any answer given here would have to be a personal opinion about which is preferred.

When answering the question of which you prefer, you must decide whether you prefer the meaning of "Father" as Fathers of the people (your example) or if you prefer the meaning of "Father" as Fathers of the town (original example). Both amount to the same thing in the end, though.

From a reading point of view, I would agree that your example "reads better" than the original. For me it is more quickly understood.

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  • Although I disagree with your third paragraph, and regard the second as unclear or misguided, the first seems true. Dec 27, 2014 at 17:14
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The problem is that your two sentences mean different things.

I would have gone for The fathers of everyone in town...

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  • @jwpat7 My word, yes you are right. How negligent of me, should be plural.
    – WS2
    Dec 28, 2014 at 11:01
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Everybody in town’s father was playing, it seemed, except Atticus.

is in a colloquial register which I believe is suitable for the tone of the narrative.

In both of your possible variants, the subject of the sentence is an entire phrase which could be misconstrued (though it would be nonsensical).

{Everybody in town’s father} was playing, it seemed, except Atticus.

could be misconstrued as

Everybody {in town’s father} was playing, it seemed, except Atticus.

(There exists an entity "town's father" which everybody is at/inside.)

Similarly,

{Everybody's father in the town} was playing, it seemed, except Atticus.

could be misconstrued as

{Everybody's father} in the town was playing, it seemed, except Atticus.

(The whole town has the same father.)

The most unambiguous wording I can think of is

The fathers of everybody in town were playing, it seemed, except Atticus.

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  • Readers tend not to misconstrue nonsensically (e.g. thinking there is an entity "town's father"), so it really isn't ambiguous or in need of rewording. It may sound odd, but it's not unclear.
    – Rusty Tuba
    Dec 27, 2014 at 14:10
  • Neither of these is really misconstrueable. Dec 27, 2014 at 14:18

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