In last month’s column I listed some of the common grammatical
mistakes that annoy me the most. I may have come across as hard-nosed,
rule-loving, a pain in the posterior, and all too sure of myself.
But I am not that sure of myself, and not just because I have trouble
remembering the rules for which and that, or because
capitalization schemes are applied so arbitrarily these days that I can no
longer determine which rules are valid. No, my difficulty arises from the
changing nature of the English language. Sometimes a usage that was
considered wrong in the past is now being used so frequently that the rules
– as decided by the voice of the people, to whom the language belongs, after
all – are shifting. In this column I will describe a few of those
gray areas that cause me to grope grammatically.
Who or whom?
Older grammar books instruct upon the word whom, which is supposed
to be used in place of who whenever you’re using a direct or indirect
object, as opposed as a subject. For example:
Who is coming to dinner? (Subject)
Whom are you taking to dinner? (Direct object)
For whom are you giving the dinner? (Indirect object)
Unfortunately, the word whom – no matter how much I like it, for
the understanding and correct utilization of cases in a language adds so
much power to the language! – sounds stuffy. There’s the prim proper
schoolmarm in me saying that I must, must use the word whom, if only
to prove that I studied my grammar – and there’s the rest of me saying that
if I use the word whom I will come off sounding like a prim and
proper schoolmarm. Dilemmas, dilemmas! The schoolmarm inside me is very
strong, but so is the recognition that schoolmarms comprise only a minor
part of the population.
Their for the singular
A couple of decades ago, people finally realized that women make up more
than half the world and that it was kind of odd to write as if they did not
exist. I’m referring to sentences such as:
Does everyone have his ticket?
Women were supposed to be implied in the sentence above, just as they
were supposed to be implied in words and phrases such as workmen’s
compensation, mankind, and mailman. Occasionally they were not implied at
all, such as in the word paperboy. In my youth I had a paper route, and
customers couldn’t figure out whether to call me a paperboy or a papergirl –
a word that wasn’t really used then – none of them seemed to come up with
the phrase paper carrier. (I had no intention of being a feminist or a
trail-blazer – I always assumed that women were equal – I just wanted to get
the job done and to make some money.) However, people began to realize that
women were not implied in sentences such as the question above, and they
started suggesting alternatives. The one that was used at first was:
Does everyone have his or her ticket?
This sentence is grammatically correct, and for a while this solution to
the problem dominated – and it’s still applied frequently today.
Unfortunately, this approach is inherently cumbersome, as it involves more
words, and occasionally its application can be particularly awkward:
Each person should do his or her homework him- or herself.
There are a number of ways to get away from such awkward language. The
sentence could be re-written:
Each person should do his or her own homework.
Or, to sidestep the “his or her” issue entirely, we could write using the
plural as opposed to using the singular
People should do their homework themselves.
The plural works well and can be used in many situations. The problem is
that the speaker or the writer needs to plan ahead, and begin the sentence
in the plural. Most people seem to be accustomed to speaking or writing in
the singular, and so they begin sentences in the singular, discover that
they’ve got a gender issue later, and switch to the plural later within the
sentence. Therefore one encounters sentences like these:
Does everyone have their ticket? and Everyone should do
their homework themselves.
Occasionally some people try to get it both ways, and I’ve encountered
Everyone should do their homework themself.
Microsoft Word objects to the word themself but the preceding two
examples made it through without any protest on the part of my word
processor. Perhaps eventually the language will change and the word
themself will become acceptable, too.
You know better than me: or do you?
You know better than me.
is another common instance of incorrect grammar. Some of you may have
heard or read or said or written it so often that it has begun to sound
correct – and perhaps it has already passed into the realm of acceptable
speech; I’m not sure. I admit that the sentence:
You know better than I.
sounds stuffy. In case you’re wondering why it is correct while the first
version is not, the problem lies in the case of the pronoun. As the two
people (you and I) are being compared through the use of the word than, they
should both be in the same case – in this instance, the subject.
Unfortunately the explanation, relying technical terms, may be confusing.
So let’s expand the last example:
You know better than I do.
Here you can see that by adding the word do, that there’s a reason that
the pronoun I belongs in this sentence. The word do – or some other verb –
is always implied, so I is always grammatically correct. You can see this if
you look at the sentence:
You know better than me do.
still seems strange and wrong to most readers and speakers, and it shows
why me is not the word that belongs in the sentence!
On the other hand, sentences such as
You know better than me.
He’s older than her.
We’re richer than them.
appear everywhere, and the technically and grammatically correct versions
often sound wrong – unless you expand the sentence, which you can’t do in
What to do, what to do? If I only knew! Actually, I will make some
suggestions later, but these suggestions don’t rid us of the fact that there
is a grammatical dilemma.
Nouns and verbs
Another area in which the English-speaking peoples tend to push the
envelope – or rather, tend to push around their words – is in how they use
their words. Words which were nouns are used as verbs, or nouns start
behaving like adjectives, and so on. In this section, however, we’re only
going to look at nouns being transformed into verbs (“verbified” nouns).
Here’s our first example: access. The word access used to
only be accepted as a noun, originating in the 14th century; according to
the online MW dictionary, access officially became a verb in 1962.
Here are sentences illustrating the different usages:
The peasant had no access to the king. (Access as noun)
The Alzheimer patient could no longer access his memories.
(Access as verb)
Here are a few more examples of nouns becoming verbs:
She gifted the hostess with flowers.
The mayor architected a solution to save the city.
I’m not yet at ease with these instances, but perhaps time and experience
will make me more comfortable. And despite the fact that not every
experiment is pleasing to the ear, I admit that I have a sneaking admiration
for these sorts of “abuses” to the English language. They remind me of
Humpty-Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass, who
maintained that he made words work for him and not the other way round.
So, whether you like it or not, the English language is changing – as it
How should this affect your writing?
First, I think you should be aware of these grammatical gray areas. This
awareness allows you to make informed choices.
Second, you should consider your audience. If your audience will be
happier with whom rather than who, why not use it? Unless, of
course, you want to annoy your readers!
Third, the changing nature can be used to differentiate your characters’
voices. An older, formally educated person might use the expression him
or her while a younger person would prefer them.
Fourth, within the non-dialogue portions of your story, decide which way
you prefer to write and be consistent.
This column has given only a few examples of how the English language is
changing. These sorts of changes happen in other languages, too, although in
some countries there are groups that make rules regarding the tongue. In
English, however, dictionaries tend to follow the use so language remains
writers must continue to grope while some of us push the envelope.
Questions or comments or you want to use this article? You can contact me
at grossackva at yahoo dot com. See you next month!
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