Horton Hears a Whom?

December 31, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

In discussions of  language and grammar the word correct should usually be in quotes.  Either that or it should be amended to “currently correct.” That goes for pronunciation and spelling too. The trouble is that language prescriptivists seem to think that what is currently correct has always been so and always will be. They’re wrong.

NPR recently asked listeners for their language gripes – “the most misused word or phrase.” Topping the list was “I and “me.”  (The full list is here.)

Strictly speaking, “the gift is for you and I” is wrong. We have objective pronouns (me) and subjective pronouns (I). Putting a couple of words between the preposition (for) and the pronoun doesn’t change that. If you wouldn’t say, “The gift is for I,” then don’t say, “The gift is for you and I.”*

Strictly speaking, it should be “between you and me.”  But we don’t speak strictly. Language changes. Yesterday’s solecism becomes today’s standard usage. I don’t like “between you and I,” but wishing people would stop using it is like wishing they’d stop texting. (Need I point out that text as a verb did not exist until very, very recently?)

At #9 on the prescriptivists list is
Saying someone “graduated college” instead of “graduated from college.”
They don’t have too much to worry about. Their preferred form is ten times more common, at least in books if not in speech.

But not too long ago, “he graduated from college” was itself a grammatical error. NPR, in the very next sentence, says,
A college graduates a student, not the other way around. The “from” makes a big difference.
But while NPR sees why this makes “he graduated college” incorrect, it fails to note that by this same logic, “he graduated from college” is also wrong.  If it’s the college that graduates the students, we should say “he was graduated from college.” And in fact, we did say it that way.

Imagine a newspaper in 1900 asking the NPR “most misused word or phrase” question. High on the readers’ list of grammar gripes: “Even our best educated are now saying, ‘I graduated from Harvard,’rather than the correct, ‘I was graduated from Harvard.’”

“Was graduated from” was never the most popular way of saying it, but it held its own up until about 1950. Since then “I graduated from” became the clear winner and is now, at least among the NPR complainers, the “correct” form.

Coming in at #5 on the list is
Ongoing confusion over “who” vs. “whom.”
The confusion is easily cleared up: get rid of whom. Reserve it for a few special occasions.  In fact, that’s what’s been happening.

The graph from Google Ngrams shows the frequency in books, i.e. formal writing. The misuse of whom can escape copy editors even at the Times :
The defenders of the interrogation program say little about two men whom are portrayed especially harshly by the Senate report

Surely whom is fading even faster in everyday speech. I’m surprised that NPR could find even a few dozen people who mourn its passing. I am certainly not among them. (Or should I say that I am not amongst them?)

* The root of the I/me problem is that English lacks a disjunctive pronoun. The French, thanks to  moi, toi, etc., never make these mistakes.

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