By Henrik Krogius
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Ouch! That’s wrong, isn’t it? But why is it wrong? Can’t you say that “who” is the subject of the clause “who it may concern” and therefore it should be in the subjective case? But no, it is not the subject but the object. If you revise the word order it becomes “it may concern whom.” “Who” and “whom” are two of the words most mixed up by people writing today. Most people simply have no understanding of the logical structure underlying our English language — its grammar — and they often end up writing unclearly, even confusingly. It’s not just that “who” is often used when it should be “whom,” but that the reverse also happens.
To take an example from the June 20 New York Times, correspondent Helene Cooper, writing about the Obama-Putin encounter it Mexico over the Syrian uprising, described the Russian president “saying that no one country has the right to tell another people whom their leader should be.” Okay, here the subject of the clause was misunderstood. It should have read “who their leader should be.” If the writer (or the asleep-at-the-switch Times copy editor) had worded it as “whom they should prefer as their leader,” that would have been fine. In that case “whom” is the object of the verb “prefer.” The writer (or copy editor) evidently took the whole clause as an object of the verb “tell,” whereas actually “another people” is the object, and the modifying clause keeps its own grammatical logic.
Well, maybe this is all too tricky. To take the less dense example of a very common error, many people will say, “They gave it to her and I,” or even, “They gave it to she and I.” It’s as if a compound of two pronouns automatically takes the subjective case. But if you eliminate the second person, no one says, “They gave it to I.” Adding the second person doesn’t change the case, and it should be: “They gave it to her and me.”
There is of course a big debate over language between the “prescriptivists,” who say the established old rules should be followed, and the “descriptivists,” who simply report and accept the way the language is commonly being spoken. If people disregard the rules of grammar, so be it; let the language evolve. To date most newspapers and magazines try to follow the rules, with occasional slippages like the Times example cited above, but in a world of texting any sense of grammar is quickly being lost. I think we are starting to pay a price in lost precision, lost clarity, more ambiguity.
In the May 14 New Yorker, Joan Acocella tackled the issue of prescriptivism vs. descriptivism. Her piece dealt essentially with words, not grammar. She wrote about the growing pretentiousness of language, of people “talking about ‘parameters’ and ‘life styles,’ saying ‘disinterested’ when they meant ‘uninterested,’ ‘fulsome’ when they meant ‘full.’” She also remarked on social-class differences in the use of words, as in upper-class people saying “house” instead of “home,” or “curtains” instead of “drapes.” Upper class usage was described as choosing simpler and more direct words, where others lean toward euphemisms. Perhaps she felt they were too obvious, but she didn’t mention such common American euphemisms as “restroom” for “toilet,” or “pass away” for "to die."
What I missed in Acocella’s piece was anything more than passing reference to how grammar provides the structure behind language and enables it to express ideas that aren’t simple. She did quote a descriptivist (whose book she was criticizing) as admitting: “There are rules, which are really mental mechanisms that carry out operations to combine words into meaningful arrangements.” Subject and object, preposition and indirect object, restrictive and non-restrictive clauses, pronouns and their antecedents — these are not just arcane words; they are elements of the clear, effective and powerful use of language. (Speaking of pronouns, one of the least understood is “its” as the correct possessive for “it.”)
Three-quarters of a century ago the general semanticist A. K. Korzybski pointed out that mathematics is the language closest in structure to the universe, enabling science to predict the behavior of physical properties and natural forces. He argued that more direct, less abstract speech would improve communication and understanding among humans even if it couldn’t match the precision of mathematics. Alas, not only have we been losing our grasp of the very structure of the language we speak, but at the same time we have been loading it up with pretentious, abstract and euphemistic words that are clumsy on the ear and clog up our discourse with empty blather.
— Henrik Krogius is editor of the Brooklyn Heights Press