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Which of the following is grammatically correct? Do they all mean the same?

  1. A lawyer breaking the law is also a crime.
  2. A lawyer's breaking the law is also a crime.
  3. A lawyer's law breaking is also a crime.
  4. Breaking the law by a lawyer is also a crime.

I've a little confusion regarding 1. I think the first one means "A lawyer is also a crime" which is weird. I might be wrong. Please correct me and clear my confusion regarding all these sentences.

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  • 1
    Sahil please tell us whether you think each one is correct or why it might be incorrect. Sep 1, 2022 at 14:42
  • "breaking the law" not "breaking law".
    – Stuart F
    Sep 1, 2022 at 14:56
  • Please note that law in this context is a countable noun, so it has to be "breaking the law" or "breaking a law".
    – stangdon
    Sep 1, 2022 at 14:56
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    What's your goal? Do you want to know how to handle possessed nouns as subjects, or do you want to know how to write this particular sentence correctly and naturally?
    – gotube
    Sep 1, 2022 at 15:00
  • @StuartF I've edited my question. Sep 1, 2022 at 15:16

2 Answers 2

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As you say, a lawyer is not a crime.

Thus, some prescriptive grammarians will say that sentence 1 is grammatically incorrect.

Unfortunately, English is not the mythical language envisaged by Leibniz that makes it impossible to express nonsense. If we turn to descriptive grammar, many native speakers might say sentence 1 when they mean sentence 2, and they would be understood correctly. People who speak or write carefully will avoid sentence 1 because it does not make literal sense, but English grammar itself has no rules that preclude nonsense.

Sentence 3 is grammatical and means the same thing as sentence 2, but is awkward.

Sentence 4 is grammatical and means the same thing as sentence 2. It is not awkward, but it is somewhat verbose.

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  • Your If we turn to descriptive grammar, many native speakers might say sentence 1 when they mean sentence 2 doesn't make sense. Did you mean prescriptive grammar? I'm quite capable of being a "careful speaker", but the idea that #1 is either "substandard" or somehow carries a different meaning to #2 doesn't strike a chord with me. It sounds like misguided pedantry on a par with Don't end a sentence with a preposition. Sep 1, 2022 at 17:22
  • No I mean exactly what I say. Many people would say "A lawyer breaking the law is a crime." The form is perfectly grammatical. "People swimming are subject to cramp" is a perfectly grammatical and logical sentence. But in the latter sentence the meaning is "people [who are] swimming." The sentence "A lawyer who is breaking the law is a crime" is grammatical and simultaneously nonsense. You may view avoiding nonsense as "useless pedantry." I do not, but I recognize that many people do speak nonsense. Sep 1, 2022 at 17:38
  • It is "nonsense" only by a perverse interpretation. Meaning lies in how language is used and understood by its users: nowhere else.
    – Colin Fine
    Sep 1, 2022 at 22:58
  • The form “lawyer breaking the law is” hard to construe. Therefore it is sloppy use of language. I went out of my way to say that it was grammatical and common. If you and FF want to recommend that construction, that is your prerogative. It is not what I recommend. Sep 2, 2022 at 2:36
  • I think you're saying that A lawyer breaking the law can only be parsed as "short for" A lawyer who is breaking the law. But I have no problem saying that it could just as well be short for the fact / act of a lawyer breaking the law [is a crime]. Is that why our opinions differ on this one? Sep 2, 2022 at 17:24
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Many such awkward and confusing sentences can be remedied by re-writing. Re-writing a sentence that is creating some doubt in your mind (and may create doubt in the minds of readers) may improve the clarity of the sentence.

Try: It is also a crime for a lawyer to break the law.

= It is also a crime when a lawyer breaks the law.

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