“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.

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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.

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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.


Signing and sociolinguistics in Ed McBain’s ‘Axe’

December 9, 2014

I went on a binge of Ed McBain’s crime fiction recently, enjoying his keen ear for language and tight storytelling style. Below are three language-themed excerpts from Axe, written in 1964, which features detectives Steve Carella and Cotton Hawes investigating a grisly murder.

First, to continue the theme of whom usage, is a doorstep encounter the detectives have with an old woman of unsound mind:

‘We’re detectives,’ Carella said. He showed her his shield and his identification card. He paused a moment, and then said, ‘May I ask who I’m talking to, ma’am?’

‘Whom, and you may not,’ she said.

‘What?’

‘Whom,’ she said.

‘Ma’am, I . . .’

‘Your grammar is bad, and your granpa is worse,’ the woman said, and began laughing.

The ellipsis in Carella’s last line, which shows he’s being interrupted, is a stylistic device known technically as aposiopesis. An em dash is also commonly used in this context.

Carella later meets his wife, Teddy:

Teddy Carella watched his lips as he spoke because she was deaf and could hear only by watching a person’s lips or hands. Then, because she was mute as well, she raised her right hand and quickly told him in the universal language of deaf mutes that the twins had already been fed and that Fanny, their housekeeper, was at this moment putting them to bed. Carella watched her moving hand, missing a word every now and then, but understanding the sense and meaning, and then smiled as she went on to outline her plans for the evening, as if her plans needed outlining after the kiss she had given him at the front door.

‘You can get arrested for using that kind of language,’ Carella said, grinning. ‘It’s a good thing everybody can’t read it.’

ed mcbain axe - pan books cover 1964Leaving aside the naive reference to the “universal language of deaf mutes” (signing, far from being singular, comprises many languages and dialects), it struck me as a laudable description, presenting signing as a normal activity and showing its potential for humour and seduction. I don’t read enough such accounts in fiction.

The final excerpt has Detective Hawes visiting an accountancy firm where he talks to Mr Cavanaugh, a portly businessman “born in Philadelphia and raised on that city’s brotherly South Side”, about someone previously employed by the firm:

‘We’re investigating a murder,’ Hawes said flatly.

‘You think Siggie killed somebody?’

‘No, that’s not what we think. But certain aspects of our information don’t seem to jibe, Mr Cavanaugh. We have reason to believe Mr Reuhr is lying to us, which is why we felt we should look into his background somewhat more extensively.’

‘You talk nice,’ Cavanaugh said appreciatively.

Hawes, embarrassed, said, ‘Thank you.’

‘No, I mean it. Where I was raised, if you talked that way you got your head busted. So I talk this way. I got one of the biggest accounting firms in this city, and I sound like a bum, don’t I?’

‘No, sir.’

‘Then what do I sound like?’

‘Well, I don’t know.’

‘A bum, right?’

‘No, sir.’

‘Okay, we won’t argue. Anyway, you talk nice.’

I liked this exchange a lot too. That McBain, he writes nice.


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 pedantic, censorious quality of “sic”

April 29, 2014

Jessica Mitford, in The American Way of Death,* quotes a text that uses compliment when complement was intended, and adds [sic] to indicate this. What’s of interest here is the footnote she then appends:

I do not like the repeated use of sic. It seems to impart a pedantic, censorious quality to the writing. I have throughout made every effort to quote the funeral trade publications accurately; the reader who is fastidious about usage will hereafter have to supply his own sics.

This “pedantic, censorious quality” is sometimes insinuated and sometimes unmistakeable. Sic – not an abbreviation but a Latin word meaning thus or so – can usefully clarify that a speaker said or wrote just as they are quoted to have done. But it can also serve as a sneer, an unseemly tool to mock a trivial error or an utterance of questionable pedigree.

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Touchous about “whom”

April 9, 2013

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. The first, Touchous, honeyfuggle, and whoopensocker, celebrates a few regional terms in US English, and suggests some good sources for learning more about them:

A curious recent example is unthoughted, meaning thoughtless, with the related adverb unthoughtedly and noun unthoughtedness (heard mainly in the South and South Midlands, according to DARE). Given another spin of the language-change wheel, it’s easy to imagine this being the normal morphology and thoughtless the obscure one.

More exotically, consider the BFG-esque honeyfuggle, an old-fashioned term meaning (among other things) “to flatter, sweet-talk; to wheedle; to ballyhoo”. There’s a related noun, equally fun to say: honeyfoogler, meaning a flatterer. [Read the rest.]

While I’m on the subject: DARE – the Dictionary of American Regional English – has hit financial trouble and is seeking help. It appears, as far as I can tell from samples and reviews, to be a masterwork of modern lexicography, and deserves rescuing.

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Next I revisit the fuss over whom, in To whom it deeply concerns. This was triggered by an article at the Atlantic that quotes me and other usage specialists on the word’s declining status. Some of the comments there were, shall we say, on the alarmist side.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that language is somehow not supposed to change, when in fact change is one of its central qualities. English has survived the loss of umpteen inflections, with no significant effects on its expressiveness. People who lament whom’s decline, and protest that they like the word, may continue using it – they needn’t stop just because it’s becoming less popular.

Nor is whom sure to disappear: there’s every chance it will persist in set phrases (for whom the bell tolls) and, more generally, right after prepositions, especially in formal settings (The applicants, all of whom live locally, will be notified today). Tellingly, COCA (1990–2012) has 17 examples of all of who versus 1429 of all of whom.

I also discuss why whom has fallen from favour, among other things.

Comments, as always, are welcome at either location, and my archived articles are here.


Grammar and style in recent reading

October 4, 2012

This post is a hotchpotch of items of grammatical interest from books I read recently. Sections link to older posts and other articles, to distract from the fact that I’m currently too busy to blog as regularly as I’d like.

First up: Heroes and Villains: An Anthology of Animosity and Admiration (1994) is a mixum-gatherum of articles assembled and introduced by John Walsh from a regular feature in The Independent magazine. It has some good lines: “I would like to write the way Fred Astaire danced” (Gilbert Adair); “a breath of rank air” (Beryl Bainbridge on Rasputin).

Of more interest grammatically is the following instance of faulty parallelism, similar to the “as much, or more, than” construction I analysed before. It’s from Russell Hoban’s tribute to Walter de la Mare:

There are moments and people in literature that become as real (and sometimes realer than) the moments and people in one’s own life . . .

There’s little if any effect on comprehension, and surely no possible confusion, but some editors would insert as before the parenthesis to make the syntax more rigorously logical. Other usage authorities, though, consider the shorter construction to be idiomatic and wholly unobjectionable (see my earlier post for details). What say you?

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Item 2: The Fragile Species, Lewis Thomas’s 1992 collection of essays on medicine, biology and the human condition, contains the notable phrase “space space”:

Within another century it is likely that we will have swarmed everywhere, pole to pole, covering almost every livable acre of land space and water space. Some people are even talking seriously of space space, theorizing about the possibility of launching synthetic cities and countrysides enclosed in huge vehicles to sail the galaxy and perhaps colonize other celestial bodies.

This is a nice example of contrastive focus reduplication, whereby outer space is contrasted with terrestrial space through immediate repetition of the polysemous word. Similarly, a review of The Raid: Redemption says it’s “the sort of film for which the phrase ‘movie-movie’ was coined”. I guess a movie-movie is one made primarily to excite and entertain us rather than challenging us or making us think.

(My Tumblr blog has another passage from Thomas’s book, on the subject of extinction events and the future of life on earth.)

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Finally, a book I’m reading at the moment, Rebecca Skloot’s admirable The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010), contains this sentence:

She had dozens of “spiritual sons,” who she treated no different than her six biological sons.

Note the informal who where sticklers would insist on whom. I’m a little surprised an editor or proofreader didn’t change it – unless they did and it was stetted – but I certainly have no problem with it. See my earlier post on who and whom, and Lane Greene’s recent report for Johnson of a four-year-old girl’s reaction to whom (“mama, sometimes you say a weird word”).

There’s also the interesting phrase “treated no different than”. Some readers might expect the adverb differently, and some will balk at the preposition than being coupled with different. I’m OK with different than, but the line is a little different in that its different functions not as an adjective but as a flat adverb: an adverb with the same form as its corresponding adjective. The OED labels adverbial different “chiefly jocular or dialectal”.

Here’s Emily Brewster with an excellent summary of flat adverbs: