Sunday, November 8, 2009

Whom Cares?

A friend wrote to tell me I was wrong-headed to fuss over the difference between who and whom. Who cares, he asked. No meaning is lost when the wrong form is used. Change is inevitable, he says. Let it go.

Who cares?

Who/whom cares indeed?

He chided me for being such a prescriptivist. Aren’t linguists supposed to be descriptivists instead?

Well yes and no.

Here’s my response to his note:

Dear X:

Just because there is no way to achieve complete sterility in the operating room doesn't mean you operate in a sewer.

I'm not asking for their heads to be removed. I'm expressing an esthetic preference. If you want to put beautiful china plates on Mickey Mouse plastic place settings, be my guest. But don't ask me to call it pretty. Or pretend I didn’t notice.

Descriptively speaking, there is a difference between written and spoken discourse. We are less fussy about the spoken language because we allow for all kinds of idiosyncratic verbal expression. And it's tacky as hell to interrupt somebody while they're talking to hound them on their grammar or word choices. If you want to say, "I spoke to all the people who I had been previously introduced to" instead of whom, it won't even register on my radar.

But when you're writing, and have time to edit your work, I'd really like you to capitalize the days of the week, make the sign on your door say Accounts Receivable and not Recievable, and learn not to say "between you and I...less people today than yesterday...the smoke went up the chimbley" and "irregardless."

I repeat. I don't want to remove your right to satisfying sex if you do these things. I just want to feel free to think of you as a lazy uneducated dolt.

I’m not asking you to join me in kvetching about the current tendency to use it's for its or day's for the plural of day. But why are you asking me to turn away from this slop?

What’s wrong with expecting young people to give up their seats to old people, children to learn please and thank you, and the next generation to see some value in learning a variety of spoken and written registers in their native language and follow the conventions? If you make the effort, a whole world of possibilities opens up to you when you understand the effect you have on the world around you when you follow the rules and when you break them. And what the difference is between breaking the rules for artistic effect and breaking the rules because you never bothered to learn them.

I love the fact that the English language has both...

"Almighty and most merciful Father; We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done: and there is no health in us…”


“Jesus, I fucked up.”

Two different registers. Both good. But imagine how the first one would sound if it ran:

"Almighty and most merciful Father; We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheeps... and there ain't no health in us..."

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