You need a good sense of whom, or…

August 2, 2011

There’s an old debate over whether that as a relative pronoun can refer to people. As far as I’m concerned, of course it can. The usage is fully standard and has been for centuries. Briefly: that can be used to refer to people or things, which refers to things, and who(m) is reserved for people and animals:

the house that she lives in (or which)
something which has long been disputed (or that)
people who fuss over relative pronouns (or that)
Tabby, whom I adopted as a kitten, is four today. (or who)

Note, though, that that and which are less interchangeable in AmE than they are in BrE. (The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage has a helpful history.) Sometimes a distinction is made depending on whether an animal has a name: who for animals with names, that or which for animals without names. This is the AP Stylebook’s advice.

AP style does not allow that to refer to people, and neither does the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage.* This is style advice, which is very different to grammatical correctness. For the latter, we consult works more authoritative than style guides. Bryan Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage contains the following note:

That, of course, is permissible when referring to humans: the people that were present or the people who were present. Editors tend, however, to prefer the latter phrasing.

Which brings us neatly, our sense of irony to the fore, to a recent edit in the NYT. Garner wrote a commentary in its Room for Debate on the need to reform legal education in the United States. His article concludes as follows:

the future of continuing-legal-education seminars for the practicing lawyers – the kind whom I teach – looks very bright indeed.

But this is not what he wrote. That, not whom, was the relative pronoun in Garner’s original text. Apparently an editor “fixed” it before publication, “thereby changing the sense entirely,” as Garner remarked. Thus:

the future of continuing-legal-education seminars for the practicing lawyers – the kind that I teach – looks very bright indeed.

The parenthetical text between the dashes – “the kind ___ I teach” – was meant to refer to the seminars Garner teaches; after editorial interference, it referred to the lawyers who attend them. The edit was worse than unnecessary.

If practicing lawyers were the antecedent (i.e., what the relative pronoun relates back to), that would be grammatically fine, though it goes against NYT style. But it would make more sense in that instance to use whom, since this precludes the possible ambiguity: whom could refer only to the lawyers; that could refer to either the lawyers or the seminars. So a sensible reading would connect that to the seminars.

Presumably the two readings were not noticed, just one mistaken one, and the edit was made automatically to accord with house style. If there had been any doubt, the editor would surely have consulted a colleague, or some reference books, or if necessary the author himself. Maybe multiple editors agreed to it.

Regardless, the change was made and published and it undermined the sense of the text.

If I were editing prose from someone who writes dictionaries of law and English usage, I would expect the prose to be smooth and punctilious, and I would not introduce changes lightly. It’s a minor matter, but not an insignificant one: the “typographic oath” for editors is to do no harm.


* I don’t have a copy of the NYT manual, but I trust Merrill Perlman‘s report at the Columbia Journalism Review.

A phrase fit for purpose?

November 19, 2010

The second post from my recent stint at Macmillan Dictionary Blog is about the expression fit for purpose. It hasn’t gained much currency in U.S. English, and I’d be surprised if it did, but in Britain it became so popular so quickly that the Guardian style guide criticised it as a cliché “unfit for the purpose of good writing”. I describe fit for purpose as a newcomer to the catchphrase arena,

with hardly any hits in the main British and American corpora. According to lexicographer John Ayto, it had occasional metaphorical use in British English in the early 21st century. Then, in 2006, the British Home Secretary John Reid described the Immigration and Nationality Directorate system as “not fit for purpose”. Given the newsworthiness of this statement, it’s no surprise that the expression’s profile and range subsequently grew

Elsewhere in the post, I discuss the sudden spread of the phrase and the inevitable broadening of its usage, before assessing its fitness for purpose and suggesting a few alternatives. The rest is here. You might also enjoy Michael Rundell’s subsequent post about how “linguists and lexicographers have been using corpus data to learn about the behaviour of words” (and phrases), including fit for purpose.

Can we break history?

January 13, 2010

Eagle-eyed Allan Cavanagh drew my attention yesterday to a peculiar turn of phrase. It concerns what the BBC described as “the first crown court criminal trial to be held without a jury in England and Wales for more than 350 years”. Rising to the occasion, a barrister for one of the accused said: “We are breaking history. This is the first time that a court has started a jury-less trial.”

Now, as Allan remarked on Twitter, breaking history is a strange turn of phrase. At least, it’s strange to him, and it’s strange to me too. One can make history or break with history; one can also rewrite history, bend history (see below), or go down in history; one can even be history (“The rest is history”; “If I see that deadbeat punk again, he’s history”). But can we break history?

[Pictured: a Neolithic stone axe hammer with which to break history]

It seems we can, but we don’t do it very often. A search on Google produced a few examples among the many false positives:

Election set to break history
This is an historic community, breaking history even today
Somehow while breaking history the series seemed anticlimactic
We wanted to get married [and] be the first ones in Dubuque to break history
Only few get opportunities to break history, but all have the capacity to bend history and Periyar is a man who has not only bent, but broken the history of Tamil Nadu

and several from sporting contexts:

Lady spikers look to break history this weekend
Garth Tander and Will Davison need to break history
We have done a lot to break history over the last year or so
While breaking history at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Phelps said…
He also expressed some confidence over his team’s ability to break history
The Miami Hurricanes’ mission to “Break History and Make History” was accomplished in spectacular fashion with a 49-27 defeat of the Seminoles.

The sense is clear, and in most cases seems identical to making history. The last example is therefore especially interesting: is there a difference between breaking history and making history? At first I thought the Miami Hurricanes’ ‘mission’ — to “break history and make history” — might have been an official club slogan, but line 1 below [click image to enlarge] points to a more casual origin, subsequently picked up by news media:

In any case the expression does not seem nearly as common as making history. Yesterday was the first time I noticed it, and I will consider it a non-standard variant unless I hear otherwise. I found no evidence of history being broken in several online newspapers or in the Time corpus or British National Corpus, while in COCA I found just two examples, numbers 1 and 4 in the image above.

The context of the historic court case suggests that the barrister intended the idiom make history (or possibly break with history*). Given the historic nature of the trial, he may have blended making history with breaking news. Or maybe he meant precisely what he said, and is publicly championing this secondary form. My question, readers, is this: Does the expression seem strange to you, or have you heard it before?

* In which case he is breaking with the history of “breaking with history”.

Plain English and Golden Bulls

December 9, 2009

Yesterday the Plain English Campaign announced the winners of its Golden Bull awards 2009, a dubious honour given to individuals and companies who have unleashed the best gobbledegook upon an unfortunate reading public. And by ‘best’ I mean ‘worst’.

Unfortunately, the page is littered with erroneous apostrophes. Part of the problem seems to be a formatting glitch, which I’ve noted before: WordPress and some other self-publishing platforms automatically curl apostrophes and inverted commas (AKA quotation marks), sometimes the wrong way. That the apostrophes have been transformed into double inverted commas is another matter:

But that’s enough cosmetic griping. And since I drafted this post, a representative of the Plain English Campaign has contacted me to say they will soon fix the problem.

Among this year’s Golden Bull winners were Coca Cola, who “outsource some aspects of our Finance transactional processing activities”, and the UK Department of Health, who report that primary disease prevention “has been described as refocusing upstream to stop people falling in the waters of disease”. I must admit I like this description, in the same way that I like terrible poetry, but I understand why its use by the British government should invite censure and even ridicule.

I will pause a moment, to allow your nervous system to ready itself for a final example:

Neither the execution and delivery by the Consultant of this Agreement nor the consummation by it of any of the transactions contemplated hereby, requires, with respect to it, the consent or approval of the giving of notice to, the registration, with the record or filing of any document with, or the taking of any other action in respect of any government authority, except such as are not yet required (as to which it has no reason to believe that the same will not be readily obtainable in the ordinary course of business upon due application therefore) or which have been duly obtained and are in full force and effect.

This snippet of extreme legalese, a stupefyingly convoluted clause in a contractors’ agreement, comes courtesy of the Dublin Airport Authority. It is so tortuous that it is virtually incomprehensible, yet one suspects that what it purports to convey is really quite straightforward. Legal diction, however, is “almost necessarily obscure”, as Ernest Gowers put it in The Complete Plain Words.

If it is readily intelligible, so much the better; but it is far more important that it should yield its meaning accurately that that it should yield it on first reading, and the legal draftsman cannot afford to give much attention, if any, to euphony or literary elegance. What matters most to him is that no one will succeed in persuading a court of law that his words bear a meaning he did not intend, and, if possible, that no one will think it worth while to try.
All this means that his drafting is not to be judged by normal standards of good writing…

Double standards therefore do apply, and with good reason, but problems arise when legal jargon is selected for its own sake, or because one suffers from jargonitis — an inability to avoid using jargon even when plain English alternatives are possible and appropriate. The condition may be contagious.

Since I am not a lawyer, I will not try to translate the Dublin Airport Authority’s example into readable and unambiguous English. I will instead refer readers to an earlier post on Sentence first, concerning the plain style and its advantages in formal writing. ‘Notes on the plain style’ was in fact my second ever post on this blog, following a brief introduction, and it received its first comment quite recently. It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that a comment from a new reader is infinitely better than a Golden Bull Award.

[For more like this, click on gobbledegook or plain English in the tag cloud on the right-hand side of this page.]

Their puzzling devoutness

July 23, 2009

Two caveats: the law is not my strong point, and structure is not this post’s strong point – I wrote it in a hurried state of discombobulated semi-disbelief – so corrections and points of information are welcome.

Star MakerIn 1937, British historian and philosopher Olaf Stapledon published a science fiction novel called Star Maker. It is a book so imaginative, thoughtful and beautifully written that the great wonder is that it never achieved the same public renown as the works of, say, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells or Arthur C. Clarke. Certainly Star Maker is acclaimed as a masterpiece of science fiction, but its crossover success has been limited: it does not seem to be widely read by people who are not fans of the genre. (I would love to hear reports to the contrary.)

I was recently reminded of Stapledon’s story by the exasperating senselessness of those who saw fit to criminalise blasphemy in Ireland. As the Defamation Bill staggered through the Oireachtas (Irish national parliament), John Naughton examined the constitution of what he called a “backward statelet”, Bock described it as among other things a waste of the Garda Síochána’s time, Jason Walsh offered further analysis and historical context, and Martyn Turner’s satirical cartoons encapsulated the absurdity. In the Irish Times, Eoin O’Dell explained the bill’s dubious constitutionality; in the Guardian, Padraig Reidy observed that “Irish law has now enshrined the notion that the taking of offence is more important than free expression.” Despite an eleventh-hour twist and the best efforts of a newly formed lobby group, the defamation bill was passed today, including the aforementioned provisions on blasphemous libel. The links above are but a small selection of the critical commentary on the matter.

[continue reading]

An expensive typo

February 16, 2009

Yesterday’s Sunday Times has a short article about a typographical error that cost the Irish government more than one million euro. The beneficiaries were two barristers working for the Moriarty Tribunal, which is investigating financial transactions between certain Irish politicians and businessmen.

The same newspaper has an article that begins with a typo, albeit a less expensive one. It appears in both the print and online editions:

“Paracetamol should no longer be sold convenience stores”

I agree. There should be no more shops sold to pharmaceuticals.

The financial effect (in the UK) of poor spelling and grammar is hinted at here.