“Whom”: to reprise

August 1, 2016

Here’s a curious incident at the NYT, courtesy of author and economist Paul Krugman. On Twitter yesterday, Krugman mentioned an upcoming article and attempted to forestall criticism of its headline’s grammar:

The implication was that the headline would include, per Krugman’s preference, the word who where traditionalists would insist on whom. The rule mandating whom as object pronoun is relatively recent and often ignorable, but style guides are necessarily conservative.

NYT style upholds the rule, as you’d expect, but its writers (or copy editors) repeatedly get confused, often hypercorrecting who to whom in a misguided effort to be formally grammatical. In short, it’s a mess, and much of the confusion results from people’s belief (or nervous suspicion) that whom must always be used where it’s grammatically possible.

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Double passives, real grammar, and finding fault

July 22, 2015

At Macmillan Dictionary Blog I’ve been writing about double passives, beliefs about grammar, and usage criticism. Excerpts and links follow.

In The double passive is suggested to be avoided (sometimes), I look at a construction often criticised in writing manuals, reporting on why double passives are (sometimes) problematic, and what writers can do to avoid them:

The double passive, as its name suggests, is when a phrase contains two passive constructions yoked together. There’s one in the title of this post. How acceptable it is depends principally on how legible or awkward is the result. Phrases like ‘It must be seen to be believed’ and ‘He was sentenced to be shot’ are fairly straightforward and unobjectionable. ‘The order was attempted to be carried out’ (a line cited in Burchfield’s revision of Fowler) begins to pose a problem, because it’s unnecessarily complicated.


Reflections on Real Grammar follows up on Macmillan’s recent series on that topic, which included a quiz in which over 13,000 people took part. In a Twitter chat I was asked if the results surprised me. Some did, such as the 24.7% who said they would say Whom did you see at the coffee shop? rather than Who…? in a conversation with their sister:

This seems a very high proportion. Remember, it’s a hypothetical chat with one’s sister, not a formal job application. Some answers were probably an attempt at the ‘right’ answer – the more formally ‘correct’ or ‘proper’ one – rather than a realistic and honest answer. Instead of saying what they would say, some people may have said what they thought they should say. This often happens in surveys. But it might not explain all the thousands of people saying they would use whom in a casual conversation with a family member.


Finally, in Finding fault in the right places I examine the practice of using examples of people’s language to make a point about correctness, and stress the importance of doing this appropriately:

Criticising language use is a political act. If we say, ‘This is bad English’ or ‘X here should be Y’, then it matters who we use to illustrate our point. There is the option of making up examples, but existing ones can be more meaningful, showing readers how and where someone’s grammar or style went awry in real life.

For centuries grammarians have used examples from books and other printed material to analyse or deplore certain writing practices, often stating that their intent is not to shame but to educate. . . . Edited copy is fair game: criticism goes with the professional territory. But the same high standards should not apply to casual contexts like everyday conversation.

You can also browse my full archive of articles for Macmillan Dictionary.

Whom’s Law of Hypercorrection

December 6, 2014

I won’t subject readers to another long, rambling post on whom. But I want to note the tendency, strongest among those who are anxious to use whom “correctly”, to use it even when who would be generally considered the grammatically appropriate choice: as subject pronoun.

Ben Zimmer at Language Log recently criticised a book review at the New Yorker in which Nathan Heller wrote: “The glorious thing about the ‘who’ and ‘whom’ distinction is that it’s simple.” This is an easy assumption to make if your grasp of who/whom grammar owes to the oversimplified instructions of the many prescriptive guides that neglect to examine register* or the trickier possible cases.

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The problem with Weird Al’s ‘Word Crimes’

July 23, 2014

I’m late to the story of Weird Al and his word crimes, and I’m too busy to do it justice, but luckily there has been a glut of good commentary already, some of it linked below.

First, the song, in case you’re catching up. ‘Word Crimes’ is a new release from American comedian ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, a novelty number about grammar, spelling and usage that borrows the template of a hit song from last year called ‘Blurred Lines’. You might want to watch or listen first, if you haven’t heard it, and you can read the lyrics here.

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Advice on the formal use of ‘advise’

July 3, 2014

I have a new article up at the Visual Thesaurus: Please advise your verb of choice. It was prompted by an instruction in a form my bank sent me: “Please advise your Country of Birth”.

My first reaction: Advise – really?

After suggesting alternatives and tracing the history of advise in its relevant guises (Shakespeare shows up a couple of times), I make some general points about tone in business writing and official language – specifically the tendency to be excessively formal:

It’s a frequent error of judgment to assume that plain language is unfit for business, that these transactions deserve more inflated expression. It may be a habit picked up by imitation — please advise, after all, is common in official and semi-official writing. But whatever the motivation, the results can sound starchy and pompous…

Writers with these habits may be unaware of the tonal problems in their prose, or they may be unsure how to fix them. This is where an editor comes in handy. (I specialise in plain English, making officialese and academese more accessible to general readers.)

Note: The article was published in April but for the first three months was available only to Visual Thesaurus subscribers, so I postponed mentioning it here until it was freely available. You can now read it here, and, if you like, advise your thoughts in a comment below.

Language police: check your privilege and priorities

April 2, 2014

Earlier this year Ragan.com published an article titled “15 signs you’re a word nerd”. Alongside a couple of unobjectionable items (You love to read; You know the difference between “e.g.” and “i.e.”) and some that didn’t apply to me (You have at least three word games on your phone) were several that I got stuck on:

Typos and abbreviations in texts drive you a little crazy.

No, not even a little. There are more than enough things in the world to be bothered by without getting worked up over trivial mistakes and conventional shortcuts in phone messages. (I assume texts here is short for text messages: obviously the “good” kind of abbreviation…)

It’s a question of register. How formally correct our language is, or needs to be, depends on context. Text messages seldom require standard English to be fully observed, and most people who text me have no difficulty code-switching appropriately. Nor do I have any difficulty coping with this informal variety of the language. Next!

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The creole continuum

June 4, 2013

The much-loved “jive talk” scene from the comedy film Airplane! is an amusing if slightly improbable demonstration of how a single language – in this case English – can accommodate varieties so divergent as to be mutually incomprehensible.*

A more plausible form of the phenomenon appears in John McWhorter’s book The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, in which the author recounts an incident that neatly depicts the existence of such varieties in a language, one perfectly transparent to him and the others increasingly unintelligible.

The dialects in question are Standard English and Guyanese creoles. McWhorter was at a conference when he entered an elevator with his dissertation advisor; another Guyanese man hopped in at the last minute:

They started out speaking Standard English, largely in deference to me, but as the elevator went up and their conversation became gradually warmer and more spontaneous, they started gliding into increasingly more creole layers of their speech repertoire. The higher we went, the less of their conversation I could grasp. I lost the first sentence above the fifth floor; by the tenth, all I knew was who they were talking about; by the eighteenth, all I knew was that something was really funny and that it probably wasn’t me. By the twenty-fifth floor, when we got out, they might as well have been speaking Turkish. Yet to them, they had never stopped speaking “English” – they had simply traveled along a continuum of creolized varieties of it leading away from the lone vanilla variety I grew up in.

What I like about this anecdote is the incremental but radical spontaneous morphing of the language, along with the readymade metaphor (an elevator) in which the continuous shift takes place.

Ethnologue’s page on Guyanese Creole English also notes the “continuum of variation from basilectal Creole to acrolectal English of the educated”.

* Sometimes this communicative shortfall hinges on a single word, as in the famous case of William Caxton’s egges/eyren.