Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Who(m) do you trust?

To keep my mind off last night's sprightly debate, and the coming election, I am focusing on grammar today. Or rather usage.

"Whom is not a real word," a 4-year-old told her mother when she had used "whom" correctly in a sentence. Kids are sharp; they know that language has to sound idiomatic. (This comes from a piece in The Economist.)

Years ago, when Johnny Carson was getting started on TV, he hosted a show called, "Who Do You Trust?"  There was a mild uproar in the media, with grammarians complaining shrilly that who should be whom (the direct object of the verb), as most of us over 35 were taught.  Just recently, when VP Joe Biden asked, in his debate with Mr. Ryan, "Who do you trust?" nobody, as far as I know, paid any attention to the normal/informal usage.

WHOM has mostly disappeared, except in formal usage.  Most users of English, says Geoffrey Pullum, using Normal English, steer clear of WHOM. Kids are rarely exposed to Formal English (found in books and highbrow journals) and so have never heard the word.  "Whom did you invite?" sounds stuffy; so today WHO is a standard way to start certain sentences, as in "Who are you talking about?" (or to introduce a relative clause: "Marge is the neighbor who rings my doorbell each afternoon").

The former example involving WHO is an interesting example of language change, of the way usage alters grammar. It takes place slowly.

We live in a culture that prizes spontaneity and ordinary, everyday talk, over the polished and old-fashioned. Who can blame them?  The problem is that, when people write, they carry over the highly informal style of speech they are accustomed to into their academic work, making it sound awkward, immature, or trivial. "History is not much of a turn on," one of my students wrote.

Many would say that the use of WHOM over WHO makes people uneasy, and so they avoid the standard form. Some misuse it when striking a formal prose, as in "He's the candidate WHOM I hope will win the election."  Here the "I hope" does not make WHOM an object; the clause (modifying "candidate") is "who will win the election." The "I hope" is merely inserted, an interpolation.

WHOM will probably remain with us in print, not in speech, where it has been slowly dying. No great loss. More problematic, as in the above election example, is the over-correctness of some people, leading them to make the non-standard grammatical choice.

A friend often says, "Mom gave Judy and I a Caribbean cruise," when he means "me" (the indirect object of gave: she gave to Judy and me). Even worse are the college students who develop the habit, uncorrected at home or school, of saying (and even writing), "Me and Judy are going on a cruise."

First, as I tell them, be polite and put yourself second; then think about the subject of the sentence:  I, not Me is used in the subject spot: It's "Judy and I."

Why, as Henry Higgins famously asked, don't the English learn to speak? Why are we so careless about our valuable inheritance, the rich English language? If we are to communicate effectively, we must listen carefully to the way words are used both in educated speech and in writing.

Tomorrow I am giving a talk, "Fractured English," on the many ways people can stumble in our complex language: the results are often unintentionally humorous, even hilarious.

1 comment:

Chris said...

I've seen this, too: "I and Judy are going on a cruise"----from an English teacher, too---yet I haven't taken the time to check on the incorrectness I perceive. Maybe it's only impolite, not incorrect.