‘Owning’ Hillary’s fashion sense

A blog post on Hillary Clinton’s campaign-trail jokes about personal style and illustrates some grammar points, too.

Joshua Roberts/Reuters
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton claps before speaking at the Virginia Democratic Party's annual Jefferson-Jackson party fundraising dinner at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

It’s only 16 months away now, so of course the 2016 presidential race is filling the airwaves and news columns; never mind that in some countries, the government itself doesn’t last that long.

The other day, a Washington Post headline caught my eye: “Hillary Clinton is owning the joke about her fashion choices – and it’s working.” 

“Clinton has gone on the offensive by finding humor in her fashion foibles and beauty regimen.... She long ago found a timeless aesthetic that works for her: pantsuit (preferably with matching blouse), blond bob, statement necklace...,” Robin Givhan wrote. “Now she has taken full ownership of it.”

I was struck by two aspects of one idea here: “ownership,” in the sense that Ms. Givhan uses it, and “is owning,” as it appears in the headline (which she may or may not have had a hand in writing).

A glance around Google News shows the traditional meaning of ownership is alive and well, in contexts of real estate, securities, sports franchises, and even racehorses. (“Queen Elizabeth II reveals ownership ‘thrill.’ ”) 

But off in the realm of education, personal development, and business management, take ownership means to “take responsibility” for some challenge or problem – sometimes one that is not necessarily one’s own in the first place.

An online business journal article titled “Helping Others Take Ownership” poses the question “How do I get other people to ... take ownership of the project, process or task I’ve given them?” An educational website offers “7 Activities to Encourage Students to Take Ownership of Their Learning.” A personal development consultant urges, “Take Ownership of Your Life.” 

Such usages go back to the original meaning of the verb from which ownership derives: ouen (ca. 1200), meaning “to possess, have; rule, be in command of, have authority over.” 

Givhan is going a little further in her use of “taking ownership.” She’s suggesting that Clinton is turning an issue that’s been used against her and going on the offensive with it.

Which brings me to my second point: the use of what we grammar nerds call the “present progressive” tense in Givhan’s headline – “is owning.”

Verbs like own are “stative.” They express perception (“I see him now, coming over the bridge”), cognition (“I know you’ve worked here a long time”), or relation (“I own this house”). Stative verbs contrast with dynamic, or action, verbs. 

Ownership may not involve any “action” other than waiting to hear from the bank that the rent payment has been made. Accordingly, stative verbs normally are not used with the progressive tense. But Givhan uses “owning” as a dynamic verb, referring to actions some actor takes – making jokes, as Clinton has been doing, or acknowledging that she colors her hair. Was it like this when previous secretaries of State ran for president? Did Thomas Jefferson or John Quincy Adams ever have bad hair days? 

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