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.


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


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?”


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.


Q&A #1: Pride or Preference – Is It OK to Lowercase a proper name on Request?

Who are youToday I received this cry for help from a fellow writer and editor who is so conscientious that he did his research before knocking on my virtual door this morning. A summary of his plight, and my opinion, follow (with his permission). Comments are welcome.



Here’s another thorny question for my editorial guru.

I woke up at about 2:50 this morning with this lowercasing question rattling around my brain.

With one colleague’s opinion in mind, I remain reluctant to immediately comply with a request from two of our other colleagues to lowercase their names in our school’s publications.

Editorial conventions exist in order to ease communication, enhance consistency, and avoid confusion. That’s why it’s been our standard practice to initial-cap first and last names. And these days, when so much content is derived from databases and other online sources, it’s very difficult to make exceptions because of technical limitations that make it harder to comply with these requests—for example, LinkedIn and other social sites automatically put members’ names in initial caps in profiles. Even if this can be changed, the nonstandard request may be difficult for some sites to grant.

Two respected and reliable sources, however, differ somewhat in their advice about this matter:

— The NY Times and most other publications choose to go with convention.

— However, Chicago supports the opinion that we should respect people’s wishes and lowercase names if they wish. They advise rewriting so that such names don’t begin sentences.

Pen names, such as bell hooks, and stage names, such as k.d. lang, are usually immediately recognizable. But I’m not sure that what our colleagues are asking falls into either category . . . and maybe it doesn’t matter. However, I still see our problem as maintaining consistency and avoiding confusion in our publications. Suppose, for example, a recording engineer named Mike or Mic insisted on lowercasing his name—we would have a hard time keeping things straight when writing about his approach to setting up sound equipment.

I think we can encourage people to present their names as they wish in all personal communications, but I think we should abide by our decision to continue initial-capping in our institutional publications. But when I suggested this to one colleague, she responded:

Is it that my name cannot be lowercased because technology won’t allow it, or is it an editorial decision? If it’s the former, I understand. If it’s the latter, I think our preferences for how we represent ourselves should trump editing.

Ouch. Now I feel as if I’m in a power struggle. It’s not as if I don’t agree that people should present themselves as they wish, but, if they represent an institution or organization, I believe they should do so outside of office hours, so to speak.

Thoughts, dear colleague?

– r

Cary, Ralph, & Roz
Cary Grant, Ralph Bellamy, & Rosalind Russell in “His Girl Friday,” 1940.


Dear – r,

I have always believed that, friend to authors though editors may be, an editor’s primary responsibility is to the reader. Clarity is one of the BIG C’s of Expository Writing (which I will discuss at a later date).

Therefore, I tend to agree with you. The famous can stylize their names however they like with relative impunity. But for the not-so-famous, or just for the rest of us, this is harder to get away with—not only editorially, but technically, as you’ve already eloquently pointed out.

In personal use, such as invitations, correspondence, email addresses, signature lines, and whichever social media will let them, people should be permitted to style their names however they wish. In professional use, those who fly solo can also do whatever they like, especially in logos. But when employees are beholden to an organization, certain rules need to apply so that the institutional choir sings with one voice/One Voice/or ONE VOICE, as house style dictates.

If too much fur or too many feathers fly around your office as a result of imposing well-considered style guidelines, compromises can be sought. For example, in bylines, which stand apart from the text and are unlikely to cause confusion (perhaps just a momentary pause as readers decide whether the author is famous enough to lowercase his or her name), lowercasing might be generously permitted.

Or, using your earlier example, it might be an easy matter just to tell people what’s up, as in this entry from Wikipedia: “Kathryn Dawn Lang, known by her stage name ‘k.d. lang,’ is a Canadian pop and country singer-songwriter and occasional actress.” In your publication, you might consent to say: “Jane Peters, known professionally and personally as ‘janie peters,’ is one of our most successful alumnae.” However, if you have to notify HR that mic the guest speaker tripped over the mic during his talk and wants to file for workers’ comp or else sue sue the ceo for damages, this may present problems. . . .

Simpler still, you could just put the stylized name in parentheses and quotation marks, which is commonly done for nicknames: “In examining the issue at hand, Tobias Larkin (“tobias larkin”), director of Public Relations, says the goal was to dedicate the week to the matter of gender and racial equity, civil rights, socioeconomic class, environmental justice, and so forth.”

Such a compromise may or may not satisfy your colleagues, but a moderate approach ensures readability and allows readers to recognize a stylized name as a preference without actually stating it as such—which might start to sound like pride. If you simply acceded to your colleagues’ personal preferences without using an editorial device, such as one of the examples above, you would be doing your readers a disservice.

As far as the comment that technology limitations are understandable but that editorial decisions should give way to personal preferences, I would have to draw the line there. Flexibility is one thing; anarchy is another. Also, colleagues should not denigrate what you do for a living any more than you could (or would) deride their choice of how they stylize their names.

In brief, I would recommend retaining house style in most cases. But leave a little room for creative negotiation—as long as it doesn’t interfere with readability. If you get push-back, gently but firmly remind your colleagues that, no, personal preference does not trump editorial decision-making and that the latter is an essential part of your job—and your responsibility to your institution. Then chime in with a reminder about singing in one voice, which is part of institutional branding.

Hold firm to house rule, but consider a compromise that doesn’t interfere with what you offer your readership. Again, an editor is the reader’s advocate. That’s your job, and it needs to be respected.