Tag Archives: who/whom

What to do with old obsolete grammar rules?

I’ve weighed in on this very issue of grammar rules you may not really need! And here, for example. Many so-called rules come from dubious historical sources and, in use in context, are judgment calls. English isn’t Latin. It can’t be like Latin. Thanks, Jean Cogdell, for sharing and reminding us to make “good” use of the “rules.”

Jean's Writing

Do we throw them out?

Or do we realize some rules are made to be broken?

 Hooray! At last, a common sense post about what to do about hard and fast rules that make no sense in this day and time.

6 Old Grammar Rules That Are Finally Going Out of Style by KELLY GURNETT

Here is my take on her 6 rules:
  1. Ending sentences with a preposition.
    • Guilty, but I didn’t know this rule was attributed to Winston Churchill
  2. Starting sentences with a conjunction.
    • Oh yes, guilty. This gem was apparently courtesy of teachers in the 19th century.
  3. Sentence fragments.
    • Now honestly, I write…

View original post 159 more words

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under correct grammar, Editing, grammar, grammar rules, Learning to write, Myths and Truths, self editing, Self-publishing, style, Writing

Grammar Check! The Who/Whom Conundrum: When What’s Wrong is Right!

Who/Whom is kind of an odd choice. I call it a conundrum because you’ll do better, much of the time, to go ahead and get it wrong.

That’s because most people won’t even notice if you get it wrong—most of the time. But they probably will notice when you try extra hard to get it right and THEN get it wrong.

alarmed smiley

Simply speaking, only a rabid grammar termagant will rage if you just use ‘who” ninety-nine percent of the time.

After all, doesn’t it sound more natural to say, “Who did you give that to?” than “Whom did you give that to?”

The “whom” in the second is correct because it’s the object of the preposition “to” and objects have to be in the objective case (like “him,” “her,” “us,” and “me”). But our minds these days just aren’t trained to worry about all such distinctions.

What should you choose, who or whom?

Our rabid termagant will sputter that you shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition, but that’s another argument. People DO end sentences with prepositions, and the principle stands: the incorrect “who” sounds more natural than the correct “whom,” so most people won’t even blink at this “mistake.”

The only time most people will want “whom” is when it directly follows its preposition, and that usually happens in a question that’s been re-ordered:

  • To whom did you give it?
  • With whom were you going?
  • I don’t remember for whom I bought this hat.

But do you have to write these particular sentences?

Who cares if you get who/whom wrong?

I suppose you may if you are writing Downton Abbey fan fiction. But in my view, don’t bother unless you have one of those hyperactive grammar consciences that wake you up in the middle of the night to go fix that comma you misplaced.

But ordinary people will be perfectly okay with

  • Who did you give it to?
  • Who were you going with?
  • I don’t remember who I bought this hat for.

Happy editingThe problem arises when people assume that because “whom” sounds so much more formal, one MUST use it whenever one wants to sound formal. One word for making choices like this is “hypercorrectness”: going so gaga trying to get it right that we actually get it wrong. For example:

  • Whom is going with us?

Ouch, that really grates. Subjects of verbs are always in the “subjective case”: I, you, he, she, it, we, and they. And “who.”

  • Who is going with us?

Who/whom solution

The messier­—and understandably more confusing—situation occurs when the who/whom pair has to be sorted out at the beginning of a dependent clause acting as an object. The handbook rule is that you choose “who” or “whom” depending on what it’s doing in its own clause, not in the larger sentence.

  • Did you say who is going with us?

(Correct: “who is going with us” is a noun clause acting as the direct object of “say,” but “who” is the subject of its own verb, “Is going.”)

  • Did you say whom the hat is for?

(Again correct:  Again, “whom the hat is for” is a noun phrase acting as the direct object of “say.” “Whom” is the object of the preposition “for.“).

The hypercorrectness bullyBut the troll of hypercorrectness comes charging out from under the bridge to wreak havoc on your writing when a writer gets paranoid and decides that “whom” sounds like what a smart person would say regardless of the role “who/whom” is playing in its own clause. Then we end up with

  • Did you say whom is going with us?

(Incorrect: yes, once again, “whom is going with us” is the direct object of “say.” BUT “whom” is holding the place of subject of the verb “is going” IN ITS OWN CLAUSE and should be in the subjective case—that is, “who.”)

  • Don’t give money to whomever asks for it.

(Again, incorrect. Yes, “whomever asks for it” is the object of the preposition “to.” BUT IN ITS OWN CLAUSE, “whomever” is trying to be the subject of “asks” and therefore should be in the subjective case—that is, “whoever.”)

Brain reeling? Too hard to sort all this out?

I agree.

Getting who/whom right!

And to repeat the point of this post, THERE IS NO REASON ON EARTH not to go ahead and use the perfectly natural-sounding”who,” and quit worrying about whether it is technically a mistake. Then you will say

  • Did you say who is going with us?

or

  • Don’t give money to whoever asks for it.

And you’ll not only be right, you’ll sound right. and the bonus is, you’ll sound right even if you say

  • Did you say who you bought the hat for?

So just kick “whom” out of your vocabulary rather than sticking it where it doesn’t belong (here’s a wise soul who agrees!).

Book open to the stars

3 Comments

Filed under correct grammar, ebooks, Editing, grammar, grammar rules, indie publishing, Learning to write, Myths and Truths, self editing, Self-publishing, Writing

Is the Hypercorrectness Troll Gobbling Up Your Grammar?

Writer with questions I remember one of the humorist Dave Barry’s satirical “Ask Mr. Language Person” columns years ago, in which the all-too-sure-of-himself Mr. Language Person opined that “‘me’ is always incorrect.” Barry was referring indirectly to an example of the phenomenon of “hypercorrectness,” which I’d argue leads to almost as many grammar slips as does its opposite, carelessness. I say “almost as many” because these slips are so common!

In a nutshell, a writer slips into hypercorrectness when he or she isn’t gut-sure about what is correct and inoculates him- or herself by making a grammatical choice that sounds just a teeny bit “fancy” and thus “must” be what an educated writer ought to opt for. Books and ladder

As with all grammar choices, whether or not a hypercorrectness slip will hurt you with that editor or agent you hope to impress, or whether it will get your prose chewed up in red in your business report, depends on whether or not your particular audience knows the difference or, for that matter, cares. I’ve seen so many kinds of errors, including just plain careless ones, in so many “erudite” places that I know it can be a toss-up whether your slip costs you an acceptance or gets ignored.

But I argue that knowledge is the power to choose with confidence. The “correct” choice sounds funny to you, so you’d rather go with the “incorrect” one because it feels more natural? Go for it. But it’s really nice to make that choice because you know what you’re doing and why you want it that way.

Free runners sport concept illustration

The single most ubiquitous hypercorrectness error, as Barry recognized, may be the prejudice against poor little “me.” And the single most common example of that prejudice is “between you and I.”

What? That’s wrong? Well, if you’re a purist, yes—for the same reason it’s wrong to write “the zombies were chasing George and I.”

Why? Because, in both cases, the pronouns are “objects” and should be in the “objective case”: that is, “me.”

There’s really a simple test. Strip out or move the proper name or problematic pronoun and see what you have:

  • Between I and you
  • The zombies were chasing I

See?Explosive set

Case two: Sometimes what sounds natural is better. E. g., the who/whom conundrum

I’ve suggested in a prior post that if choosing between these two options leaves you sweating, go with “who.” The situations in which “who” won’t work for almost all readers are rare: say, when you’re inverting the sentence or inserting the pronoun behind an actual preposition:

  • To whom are you speaking?
  • This is the person for whom I was waiting.

If you are writing Downton Abbey fan fiction, okay, you’ll have to master these forms. But in most cases

  • Who are you talking to?
  • That’s who I was waiting for.

will pass muster with almost everyone, even if they are technically incorrect. But as I wrote in my earlier post, the correct forms,

  • Whom are you talking to?
  • That’s whom I was waiting for.

Sad Editing!can actually sound more jarring in many contexts than the errors.

 

 

But the troll of hypercorrectness comes charging out from under the bridge when a writer gets paranoid and decides that “whom” sounds like what a smart person would say. Then we end up with

  • He didn’t say whom would be going to lunch.
  • Don’t give money to whomever asks for it.

cartoonguns

In both cases, the correct choice—and the more unobtrusive choice regardless of what’s correct—is “who.” (For those who enjoy these kinds of things, the rule is that the case of the pronoun is governed by its role in its own clause, not the clause in which it’s embedded.) You can actually apply the same test as for the “I/me” choice: you wouldn’t write, ” He didn’t say her would be going to lunch.” It’s clear you need the subject case.

Case 3:

I came across this usage (though not this exact sentence) in a self-published book just the other day:

  • Our worries lied in the way he was behaving.

emoticon face

Obviously, I can’t know what prompted the writer to make this choice. But I suspect it’s another instance of hypercorrectness, based on the Mr.-Language-Person-type precept that, in this case, “‘lay’ is always incorrect.” We’ve heard and heard and heard that people don’t “lay,” chickens do. So it must follow that anywhere our uneducated ears order us to say “lay,” we must really need “lie.”

Uh, no.

Confused business man, short term memory loss

There’s really no test or easy fix for this one. If you aren’t sure but really want to be, you have to look it up. I will say that the use of “lay” as in “I’m going to lay out in the sun for a while” has become so universal that many an otherwise persnickety person will read right past “lay” in this usage. They’ll probably read past “we laid out in the sun yesterday” (yes, “lay” is the correct past tense of “lie”). But I suspect that most readers would hiccup at “We lied out in the sun yesterday.”

Moral? Sometimes it’s better to be technically wrong than hypercorrect. If you really want to be correct, don’t guess. When in doubt, find out!

Magic book

 

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under correct grammar, Editing, grammar, grammar rules, Learning to write, Myths and Truths, novels, self editing, Self-publishing, style, Writing

Which Grammar Rules Do You Ignore?

Typewriter publishAs I noted a few posts ago, in his article “The Phenomenology of Error,” Joseph Williams categorized errors by type. Among his more interesting categories, in my view, were those errors that the experts make even as telling us not to (and nobody notices). He also had a category of grammatically correct constructions that sound so odd when we use them that we generally prefer the error.

These categories change with time, since language and usage do, of course. But his discussion of them made me think about the kinds of errors we can and maybe should ignore and, in fact, the kinds of rules we should ignore.

Here are three of my “rules I can ignore” (if I want to). Do you agree with me on these? What are yours?

Three question marks printed on a typewriter

The “that/which” distinction.

Okay, I don’t ignore it, but from what I’ve seen, a whole lot of people do. It’s the one Jacques Barzun didn’t catch himself ignoring, as Williams documents. It depends on knowing the difference between a restrictive and nonrestrictive (or an essential versus nonessential) adjective clause (which you can read about here), and yes, I’m using “which” correctly here:

The house, which had just been painted and re-roofed, sat on a cozy cul-de-sac. (Nice info but you could lift if out and not miss it.)

The house that had the new paint and new roof was the best deal of the three. (Allows you to distinguish the best deal from the others; take it out and see how much is lost.)

The point is, only a very few termagants (like me) would even notice if you replaced the “that” in the second sentence with “which.”Typewriter and flowers

The “whom” challenge.

I call this a challenge because the error is a lot less noticeable when people commit it than when they try to get it right and get it wrong. Simply speaking, only the above referenced termagant will rage if you just use ‘who” ninety-nine percent of the time.

After all, doesn’t it sound more natural to say, “Who did you give that to?” than “Whom did you give that to?” The “whom” in the second is correct because it’s the object of the preposition “to” and objects have to be in the objective case (like “him,” “her,” “us,” and “me”). But our minds these days just aren’t trained to worry about all such distinctions.

A sign of our downfall? Actually, putting that “m” on “who” is an “inflection,” and English has been discarding inflections when they don’t really add any information for centuries.

Actually, the only time most people will want the “whom” form is when it directly follows its preposition, and that usually happens in a question that’s been re-ordered: “To whom did you give it?” “With whom were you going?” “For whom did you buy that hat?” Do you have to write these particular sentences? In my view, not unless you feel compelled.Happy editing

The problem arises when people assume that because “whom” sounds so much more formal, it is compelled whenever one wants to sound formal. So I’ve actually encountered sentences like “Whom is going with us?” Ouch, that really grates.

The messier­—and understandably more confusing—situation occurs when the who/whom pair has to be sorted out at the beginning of a dependent clause acting as an object. The handbook rule is that you choose “who” or “whom” depending on what it’s doing in its own clause, not in the larger sentence.

“Did you say who is going with us?” (correct) and “Did you say whom the hat is for?” (again correct–note that little preposition “for” controlling the choice). But “hypercorrectness”—going gaga over sounding upmarket—leads to “Did you say whom is going with us?” As a sort of sub-termagant, I submit that more than a few of the erudite people writers hope to impress WILL notice that one (though I’m willing to be corrected).

In my view, you should go ahead and make the “mistake” of the perfectly natural-sounding “Did you say who the hat is for?” and just kick “whom” out of your vocabulary rather than sticking it where it doesn’t belong (here’s a wise soul who agrees!).pile of letters

Singular “they.”

This one is a lost cause. It’s been a lost cause, according to Dennis Baron of the Web of Language, just about forever. English simply has no singular, gender-neutral pronoun—except “it,” of course; just try choosing “it” in this sentence: “Everybody should bring his/her/its lunch to the meeting.”

The conundrum, of course, is that “everybody” wants so badly to be singular; we say “everybody is,” not “everybody are.” Certain people who shall not be named think there’s really no problem. Just pick “his,” and who’ll care? After all, everybody is a “he,” n’est-ce pas?

For quite a while, “he” and “his” were the preferred options among those who got to do the published writing. Because more kinds of people get to do published writing now, the masculine singular won’t do. As Baron points out, efforts to creatively solve this problem of a singular “antecedent” with no acceptable gender-neutral singular pronoun have gone nowhere.

And “his or her” (or “her or his”), the only option that is even remotely close to acceptable, gets old in a hurry (“Everybody should open his or her notebook and take out his or her homework. . . .”). Baron writes that Vanderbilt University has actually declared singular “they” perfectly acceptable in its formal documents. So ignore this baby at will.

letter scatter novel

Those are a few of the rules I think we should ignore a) because people notice them less and less and often never; and b) trying to follow them results in sentences that will offend even people with certified tin ears.

So what are your rules to ignore?Woman writing

31 Comments

Filed under correct grammar, Editing, grammar, grammar rules, Myths and Truths, self editing, Self-publishing, style, Writing