Q&A #2: Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Press clueless as to “whom” should take over . . .

Calling Extra_NY Times

Recently I received this cry of outrage and a request for clarity from a fellow book lover and avid reader of magazines and newspapers who is dismayed at the state of English usage in the media. A summary of her complaint, and my thoughts, follow. Comments are welcome.


QUESTION

Hi, Pam.

Tell me if I’m wrong to object to the state of English usage in print and online media. I realize that I am either getting old or that I have read so much grammatically incorrect material that I don’t trust my own judgment anymore.

Case in point: I recently read this headline on the front page of the Star-Ledger: “Poll: Clueless as to whom should take over after Christie.”

My reaction when I read this was that when the paper reorganized they must have fired every editor. Did I overreact? I never thought I had trouble with “who” and “whom,” and my gut says “who” is correct because it’s the subject of “should take over.” But, again, the errors that make it into the media these days have become so prevalent that I’m no longer confident.

Obviously, I’m turning into a grump when I read, but I have found a few examples of sentences that are so bad they are incomprehensible. Here is another marvelous example, also from the Star-Ledger: “…the conviction should be reversed because the trial was wrought with errors.” This is a case of a “big word” heard somewhere that was not distinguished from the correct one it sounds like. I have been keeping little notes of these. In yet another example, it seems as if the CNN anchors have a particular predilection for trying to sound educated without knowing what the words they use mean.

Yes, I have become a curmudgeon, and I “hone” right in on the mistakes! (This error is so common it’s hardly worth mentioning—or is it?) Publications today are not only poorly edited, but they may not be edited at all. It seems the Star-Ledger is copying articles from its NJ.com site verbatim to the next day’s print edition—it’s fun to see first thing in the morning that there was flooding in North Jersey this afternoon. No editing is done for the transition to print, and since the material was first hastily prepared for online news, probably none then either. Increasingly, I wonder why should I waste my time reading what these uncaring journalists produce.

At some future date I plan to write a blog rant about examples of why it is no longer a rational idea to tell young readers to peruse news, printed or online, in order to improve vocabulary and grammar. When I went to school and they told us to read newspapers and magazines to improve our English usage, the teachers could never have foreseen that this would become disastrous advice.

But before I make a fool of myself in my own rant, tell me if I’m wrong. Sometimes I am afraid I may be out of touch with the times.

Thanks for your help!

~ M


Leonard Cohen_New Skin for the Old Ceremony
In “Who by Fire,” Leonard Cohen got it right on 1974’s New Skin for the Old Ceremony

ANSWER

Dear ~ M,

Oh, my. You address so many worthwhile examples of deteriorating language usage that it’s hard to know where to start.

Let’s begin with your first example: “who” versus “whom.” You are correct: “who” is the subject of the sentence, the one that “should take over.” Kudos (which, by the way, is a singular noun, not a plural—but I’m sure you knew that) to Leonard Cohen, who got it right in his lyrics to “Who by Fire” from the 1974 album New Skin for the Old Ceremony: “And who shall I say is calling?”

The use of the objective pronoun “whom” in place of the subjective “who” is a case of overrefinement, or the incorrect use of grammar or terminology because it seems to “sound better” or “sound right” to the uninformed writer. This is somewhat surprising in the case of “whom,” which sounds almost hopelessly archaic and stilted in most contexts. Yet we have Tony Soprano’s Jersey paper trying (albeit not succeeding) to sound refined!

Another example of misguided overrefinement is, “I feel badly whenever I read a sentence with incorrect grammar or word usage.” No, I don’t—I feel “bad” because “feel” is a statement-of condition-verb and therefore takes an adjective, not an adverb.

You may be interested in reading the lengthy discussion of “who” and “whom” in Garner’s Modern American Usage (which is available online via subscription to the Oxford Dictionaries). Similarly, reading Leonard Cohen’s explanation of his “Who by Fire” lyrics should drive the point home that “who” is subjective. But, briefly, “who” is equivalent to the nominative pronouns “I, he, she,” whereas “whom” is equivalent to the objective pronouns “me, him, her.” But “you” can never go wrong (at least in English grammar) by resorting to “who” in contemporary usage. It’s much better than making an “arse out of oneself” by sounding archaic and overrefined.

As to your other examples, and more significantly your general complaint about the sad state of English-language usage, I can but sigh in commiseration. I understand very well through my brief study of linguistics (and by just being alive) that language does and must change. But “change” is not a synonym for “deteriorate.”

As amazing and wonderful as electronic media are, they make it so easy to create errors and to not care that you’re doing so. Even our smart phones auto-correct—or at least auto-retype, and not always correctly. (And we won’t even mention spellcheck. My spellchecker wanted to change “whom” to “who” in the title of this post, which is good; but later it wanted to change Leonard Cohen’s song to “Whom by Fire”—although maybe this is understandable out of context because of the use of “by.”) But the print media are not off the hook. For example, I just started reading a contemporary mystery book that was gorgeously produced to be a visual treat, designed with lovely typography and even printed on fancy patterned and deckled paper. Yet I found this on pages 17–18:

“. . . what is the matter?”

“THREE MURDERS ARE THE matter.”

Why on earth would they have capped everything but the last word? All you need to do is read this aloud to hear how the emphasis is totally lost in the error. I found other mistakes as well, and even though they were likely proofreading oversights, they marred what otherwise is an enjoyable book. These things distract me terribly, and just about every book I pick up is fraught with errors.

The one thing slovenly writers and careless editors don’t get is that their work loses credibility when they degrade language instead of elevating it. I try to be careful in any medium in which I write, including texts and emails—and of course this blog. Yet I recognize that the sheer speed that is available to us electronically is contributing to haste and sloppiness. Back in the day when you and I were in school, we were taught handwriting with fountain pens and typewriting on manual machines, both techniques requiring care and precision. Say “cursive” to kids in school today and they’ll likely think you’re swearing because your touch screen has you writing “Love to my little duster” when your phone attempts to “correct” your mistyping of “sister.” (To this day, my sister calls me “Big Duster.”)

The last bastion of good writing in print and online may be the remaining premier newspapers, such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, and certain high-level magazines, such as National Geographic, The New Yorker, and The Economist.

Let’s home in on this in a future post. I hope you will contribute further examples not only of mistakes, but of excellence in writing. I know it’s out there somewhere. And we can at least set a good example in here.

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