As 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?
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 “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.
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!).
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.
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.