Wednesday, March 16, 2011

WhomWatch #2 - Sometimes the comments are the best part

For the second post in the WhomWatch series I have decided to soften the tone a bit. I'm not going to rant at anyone this time. Instead I would like to discuss two newspaper articles I've read recently, one in the voice of liberal America, the New York Times, and the other in the voice of conservative England, the Daily Telegraph.

The NYT has a column - After deadline, where they have the admirable practice of washing their dirty linen in public, grammarwise that is. Although sometimes it doesn't seemly particularly dirty to me.
In one such case, the writer quoted something that had been published in the paper connected with the Libya crisis
The break by General Abidi, who has family roots near the revolt’s eastern origins, encouraged other disaffected police, military and state security personnel to change sides as well. "We are hoping to use his experience," said Mr. Terbil, who some called the linchpin of the revolt.
And went on to say:
They called “him,” not “he,” the linchpin, so here it should be “whom.” If that seems too stuffy — though there’s no reason it should — a simple rephrasing would avoid the issue, e.g., “Mr. Terbil, considered by some the linchpin of the revolt.”
You will very often see this guideline being used on American grammar websites - if you would use him rather than he as the personal pronoun, then you should use whom not who as interrogative or relative pronoun.
The problem is, this usage is becoming increasingly rare, to the extent that TEFL books don't teach it at all, only whom after prepositions. And rightly to my mind, because if you started speaking like that, you would get funny looks.
But I was beginning to wonder if I was seeing it from a particularly British viewpoint, because so many American websites push this usage. But the clue is in that - If that seems too stuffy - the writer is admitting here that it might sound a bit old fashioned or formal.
What most interested me was a couple of the comments, both from New Yorkers. One wrote:
Whom is seen as stuffy because it fell out of common usage 5 decades ago - claiming there is no reason it should seem stuffy is more than a little disingenuous.
And another:
Most of what you call here “grammar gaffes” are just stylistic preferences ... Similarly, I don't understand this bizarre obsession with strict separation of the uses of “who” and “whom.” To the extent it ever existed, that distinction has almost entirely disappeared from contemporary English usage.
Although I have to admit there were also comments from supporters of whom. But it does seem to confirm that the gradual disappearance of whom, except in pretty formal contexts, isn't just a British phenomenon.
But this 'bizarre obsession', it has to be admitted, sometimes exists on our side of the Atlantic as well. In a recent article in the Daily Telegraph, Charles Moore, a former editor of the paper, was reviewing a new book on the English language, 'The Language Wars', by Christopher Hitchings, theatre critic of the London Evening Standard.
As I understand it, the focus of the book is that many of the 'rules' that cause so much discussion today, who/whom, less/fewer, that/which/who in defining relative clauses for example, were originally simply the preference of one grammar pundit or another.
While admitting it is an excellent book, Moore seems to disagree with most of its ideas. But it's Moore's own language that interests me. For example I learnt a new word - lambent (which isn't even in Oxford Advanced Learner's), meaning:
  • shining gently - a lambent glow
  • lambent wit - the ability to use words in a clever and humorous way without being unkind
as in:
Clever, lambent, ironic, super-educated people like himself [Hitchings] ...
I also learnt that Mr Moore seems to be rather fond of the word whom, which he uses three times in the article.
  • But it tells you a lot about a book to identify whom the author sees as the enemy.
  • But in attacking the people whom he sees as pedants ...
  • All those begowned men whom I am just old enough to remember ...
In fact he must really like it, because two of these are defining (restrictive) relative clauses where there isn't even a who/whom dilemma, we can simply use that or as we probably do more often, just leave it out altogether.
  • But in attacking the people (that) he sees as pedants ...
  • All those begowned men (that) I am just old enough to remember ...
For me these 'whoms' just jump out. It's like when you're watching a film and you're lost in the story, and then the camera pulls away and up and you suddenly become aware of where the camera is and thet it's on a crane or a helicopter or whatever, and that you are just watching a bunch of actors on a set. I really hate it when that happens. It's the same with these 'whoms'. You suddenly become aware of the language he is using as much as what he is actually saying.
And so I start noticing things. For example Moore graciously concedes:
In a way, Mr Hitchings is right. Language always changes – none more so than English – and it is owned by all its users, not by any priest, politician or professor.
Now I may be wrong here, but I see a little grammatical problem with the part:
Language always changes – none more so than English
The word language has two meanings:
  1. the use by humans of a system of sounds and words to communicate (uncountable)
  2. the system of communication in speech and writing that is used by people of a particular country or area (countable)
Now I know we can use none with uncountable nouns, for example:
I have a lot of experience in business, but none in retail.
But am I being pernickety in thinking that the word language in Language always changes has the first uncountable meaning, whereas none more so than English refers to the second countable meaning. Wouldn't Languages always change, none more so than English have been better? Or is he simply using clever word play? I can't make up my mind.
Then there are these sentences:
Mr Hitchings eschews the rules: he can do that only because he knows them. The majority is not so lucky.
The majority here presumably refers to people - the majority of people. The word majority can be used with a singuar verb or plural verb, depending on context. But when it refers to a plural noun it usually takes a plural verb, whereas Mr Moore has used a singular one, and again it just jumps out at you. It may be grammatically correct, but instinct tells you it just doesn't sound right. I'll leave the last word to someone who left a comment on the Telegraph website.
"The majority ( ie plural number) are not so lucky" and the majority (proportion) of what is contained within this article is of scarcely any interest.


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