Saturday, 25 August 2012

The False Gods of Grammar

In a recent tweet Conan O’Brien asked:

One reply was from Grammar girl, (mignon Forgarty) author of “quick and dirty grammar tips”. Grammar Girl is a grammar expert and is an editor and an MS graduate in biology,  -not linguistics, and while this shouldn’t matter, I’ll explain later why it does. Her reply was:

First of, it's important to say that this is absolutely correct and she presents a completely accurate explanation of the differences on her website too. My issue is with the rule itself. A grammar expert can repeat learned rules but it strikes me that someone with a background in science, like Grammar Girl, might want to peek a bit further behind the curtain and think about why those rules exist and if they are worth following at all. These kind of language ‘rules’ along with splitting infinitives and ending sentences with prepositions, only exist because people in authority have decided they should exist, and a small band of self-proclaimed “experts” (from the 16th Century at least) have pronounced on their particular proclivities.

What’s wrong with who/whom?

A good place to start would be this piece about John McWorter’s (professor of linguistics) take on Who/whom. "Whom” is a fossilized piece of old English which is somehow still clinging to life. In  "myths, lies and half truths of language usage" he notes that many language experts, including the influential Robert Lowth fought for the survival of "whom". However, McWorther notes, Lowth also fought for the survival of Sitten (sat), spitten (spat), wert (was) and Chicken as a plural (I have two Chicken). How many of these strike you as worth keeping?

If we look at other similar pronouns we can see how odd "whom" is:

pronoun use















General all purpose



 Linguistics quirks like this serve no purpose, as far as I can see, but to intimidate others and give people the chance to demonstrate their superior learning. The whole thing works like something of a catch 22. You can willfully split your infintives or refuse to use "whom", despite knowing the "rules" but the maven you're talking to may judge you as being less well educated, so you might feel obliged to use it anyway. It's also worth noting that who/whom has been a source of mistakes throughout history, with errors appearing in The Bible, and works by Shakespeare, Dickens, Churchhill and Swift. So if you are confused, you're in good company.  It's certainly no indicator of stupidity.

The Grammar

In grammatical terms, who/whom are pronouns, they often appear in relative clauses such as:
        The person who/whom you’re talking to is a blithering idiot.

Grammar "experts" would tell you that because the word is an object here, then it “ought to be” “whom” not “who". If we follow Grammar Girl's rule (above) we would say "I'm talking to him" and thus use "whom". This “ought to be” is what is called prescriptivism. But what does that mean?  Steven Pinker ( linguist and cognitive scientist) defines it like this:

The contradiction begins in the fact that the words "rule," "grammatical," and "ungrammatical" have very different meanings to a scientist and to a layperson. The rules people learn (or, more likely, fail to learn) in school are called prescriptive rules, prescribing how one "ought" to talk. Scientists studying language propose descriptive rules, describing how people do talk. 

Most of what I write here has been said before, notably by Pinker in his 1994 book The Language Instinct. Although this is a lengthy quote it is worth reproducing here:

[who/whom] is one of the standard prescriptivist complaints about common speech. In reply, one might point out that the who/ whom distinction is a relic of the English case system, abandoned by nouns centuries ago and found today only among pronouns in distinctions like he/him. Even among pronouns, the old distinction between subject ye and object you has vanished, leaving you to play both roles and ye as sounding completely archaic. Whom has outlived ye but is clearly moribund; it now sounds pretentious in most spoken contexts. No one demands of Bush that he say Whom do ye trust? If the language can bear the loss of ye, using you for both subjects and objects, why insist on clinging to whom, when everyone uses who for both subjects and objects?

It also follows that if a person believes "whom" to be necessary when in an object position, shouldn't they also extend that rule to spoken English? Look at the following sentences:

Who are you looking at?

Who do you think you are?

Both of these, according to the "rule" are incorrect. They should read “whom are you looking at” and "whom do you think you are". Now if you think that this sounds odd and would rather say “incorrect” things like “who are you talking about?” then why on earth would you insist on using whom at all?

More expertise

Bill Bryson is another such language expert. His popular style guide troublesome words, shows again how keen people are for an authority figure to tell them what the "rules" are. People seem to crave this kind of stuff (judging from the reviews). The section on Who/whom is typical of much of the book. Bryson has done his homework and seems to understand the arguments against this kind of rule but inexplicably always chooses to support the rule anyway, because...well...he's fond of it:

English has been shedding its pronoun declension for hundreds of years; today who is the only relative pronoun that is still declinable. Preserving the distinction between who and whom does nothing to promote clarity or reduce ambiguity. It has become merely a source of frequent errors and perpetual uncertainty. Authorities have been tossing stones at whom for at least 200 years. -Noah Webster was one of the first to call it needless- but the word refuses to go away. (Bryson 1984: 216)

Bryson then goes on to say, right after this barrage, "I, for one, would not like to see it go".

As an interesting aside, Bryson also notes Grammar Girls "him/he" rules but then points out that it doesn't always work. He offers the example of:

“They rent in to whoever needs it”

Apply the rule and we get “they rent it to him” him = whom (but who is correct) 

In order to apply this “quick and dirty” rule you have to have the grammatical knowledge that the clause “whoever needs it” is the object of “rent”, not “him”.That is you should say “he needs it” to reach the correction pronoun “who”.


Language Experts


The problem again with advice like this is that it is not based on any empirical findings, but rather, as throughout history, on the predilections of “authorities” and the recitation of commonly accepted “rules” which usually again originate in the predilections of “authorities” or a mistaken/superficial understanding of how the English language works. The real experts, professors in applied linguistics for example, are usually ignored and words like "whom" are kept alive on the artificial respirator of prescriptivism.

I have shown above that linguistics like Pinker and McWhorter have quite a different take on who/whom than "language experts" like Bryson and Grammar Girl.  The difference is that  Bryson and Grammar Girl are essentially more involved with journalism and publishing than linguistics.  Writers and editors get their ideas from style guides like the Chicago Manuel of Style and Strunk and White who are again often just rehashing of previously held prejudices and blackboard grammar rules.  McWhorter comments that Strunk and White "made decisions based on how nice they thought something looked or sounded, just like arranging furniture."  And while Grammar Girl and Bryson have made notable leaps forward, accepting, for instance, split infintives, there is still a tendency to let personal preferences dictate rules:


She also tends to accept the word of authorities without questioning them.  In this interview She notes that "like" is frowned upon but she uses it:

MF: I tend to use “like” as a conjunction. Technically, we’re supposed to say “It looks as if it’s going to rain” or “It looks as though it’s going to rain.” I tend to say “It looks like it’s going to rain.” That’s wrong, but I’ve been saying it that way my whole life and it’s a hard habit to break. I’m constantly correcting myself.

To a linguist, the idea of you using something your whole life which is "wrong" is an astonishing notion and one which Pinker gently mocks here:

Imagine that you are watching a nature documentary. The video shows the usual gorgeous footage of animals in their natural habitats. But the voiceover reports some troubling facts. Dolphins do not execute their swimming strokes properly. White-crowned sparrows carelessly debase their calls. Chickadees' nests are incorrectly constructed, pandas hold bamboo in the wrong paw, the song of the humpback whale contains several well-known errors, and monkeys' cries have been in a state of chaos and degeneration for hundreds of years. Your reaction would probably be, What on earth could it mean for the song of the humpback whale to contain an "error"? Isn't the song of the humpback whale whatever the humpback whale decides to sing? Who is this announcer, anyway?

I have nothing against Grammar Girl personally. She’s a popular, talented and successful person, if anything I’m a bit jealous, -but I do wish she turn over the grammatical rocks and look a bit deeper underneath. It’s fine knowing the “rules” but it’s more important to know where those rules come from and if they are worth following. Admittedly the facts are perhaps not as crystal clear or as neat and satisfying as the “rules”, but surely the facts are more important.


References (not hyperlinked)

Bryson, B 1984 Troublesome words London: Penguin











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