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Rules and Preferences

There were fervent protests from readers reacting to “Old Superstitions Die Hard.” The article established that the relative pronoun that refers to people as well as to things and has done so for centuries.

Never was an essay more aptly named.

“I don’t care what all of your quoted sources say,” wrote a fiery businesswoman. “Executive-level communications candidates who use ‘that’ do not endear themselves to this veteran headhunter.” One can understand her passion—the raw anger and frustration we all feel when a principle we’ve lived by for years is exposed as an old wives’ tale.

Meanwhile, we’ll leave it to you to decide whether those responsible for the following quotations are English-challenged hacks …

  • “I am he that walks unseen.” —J.R.R. Tolkien
  • “I am he that aches with amorous love.” —Walt Whitman
  • “… children that belonged to a man I didn’t even know.” —Mark Twain
  • “A man that hath friends must shew himself friendly: and there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother.” —King James I, the Bible, Proverbs 18:24

Another reader took issue with Kingsley Amis’s preference for the man that I spoke to rather than the man whom I spoke to—but for a different reason: “I would have written ‘the man to whom I spoke.’ ”

The gentleman who wrote this believes that prepositions should not end sentences. It’s another of the myths about English that just won’t die, right up there with “Do not split an infinitive” and “Do not begin a sentence with And.” Amis set a trap, and this person fell into it. There is no living English scholar who will defend “Do not end a sentence with a preposition,” yet the superstition is still believed by an alarming number of intelligent people.

Here is what the snarky Mr. Amis himself had to say about it: “This is one of those fancied prohibitions dear to ignorant snobs … It is natural and harmless in English to use a preposition to end a sentence with.” Amis goes on to quote H.W. Fowler, the dean of English scholars, who wrote, “The power of saying People worth talking to instead of People with whom it is worth while to talk is not one to be lightly surrendered.”

We are all entitled to our preferences—even our prejudices—but declaring them rules everyone else must live by is crossing a line.

 

Pop Quiz

Pick the correct choices. Answers are below.

1.
A) This is the man who got away with murder.
B) This is the man which got away with murder.
C) This is the man that got away with murder.

2.
A) She is not someone to whom you want to be rude.
B) She is not someone whom you want to be rude to.
C) She is not someone that you want to be rude to.
D) She is not someone you want to be rude to.

3.
A) I just saw Vada, who looks distracted.
B) I just saw Vada, that looks distracted.
C) A and B are both correct.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. A and C are both correct.
2. All choices are correct.
3. A is correct.

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Posted on Tuesday, September 16, 2014, at 1:09 pm


Old Superstions Die Hard

People that try hard usually succeed. Is that sentence grammatical? Some nitpickers say the relative pronoun that should never refer to humans. Here is an interesting piece of mail that arrived recently:

Please review your “rule” about the use of “who” and “that” when referring to persons. The use of “that” when referring to people is very poor English and, unfortunately, has become today’s vernacular. I wonder if you could review your work here, so that students are not confused. I teach graduate students and I do not permit the distinctions you are making re this particular word usage. I cannot refer my students to your site for that reason.

The writer went on to say that using that instead of who, while “common today in vernacular English,” is “still eschewed in academic writing.” If we doubted this, we were advised to consult an online site called The Purdue Owl.

That is what we did.

According to the Owl, one may substitute that for who in informal English, but who is “more common in formal written English” and is “preferred”—although the Owl does not say who prefers it. Look at the wording: “more common” and “preferred.” The Owl is conceding that even in formal usage, that sometimes replaces who.

We language fussbudgets like to demonize “today’s vernacular,” but it won’t work in this case. Many authorities past and present would beg to differ with the Owl, and with our correspondent’s assertion that that for who is “very poor English.” The Chicago Manual of Style—the publishing industry’s bible—says, “That refers to a person, animal, or thing.” In the 1990s, author and literary critic Kingsley Amis wrote that he found the man that I spoke to preferable to the man whom I spoke to. In the eighties, English scholar John B. Bremner wrote “that may refer to persons,” with no mention of formal or informal. In the seventies, the renowned editor Theodore M. Bernstein wrote, “You may say either ‘the boy that lives next door’ or ‘the boy who lives next door.’ ” In the mid-sixties—half a century ago—an eleventh-grade textbook called Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition said, “That may be used to refer to either persons or things.”

Great essayists, novelists, and poets have been substituting that for who for centuries. A famous quotation from the Gospel of John begins: “He that is without sin among you …”

Many words have been used to describe the Bible, but it’s a safe bet that “informal” is not one of them.

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Posted on Thursday, September 11, 2014, at 4:15 pm


We the People, or…?

For much of the last two months, we have been analyzing why the subject pronouns I, he, she, we, they and the object pronouns me, him, her, us, them are chronically misused and confused.

In this final installment, we’ll deal with flawed sentences like Politicians should respect we the people and It’s a happy outcome for he who laughs last.

Formal writing requires “us the people” (object of respect) and “him who laughs last” (object of for), even though we instinctively resist tampering with venerable expressions like we the people and he who laughs last.

If being correct would ruin the mood, there may be creative ways around the grammatical buzzkill. In the first case, we could probably avoid censure by using capitals: Politicians should respect We the People. This signals the reader that the well-known phrase is sacrosanct and must not be altered.

In the second example, we could write: a happy outcome for “he who laughs last.”  The quotation marks grant the words special dispensation, like the title of a book or movie.

So now, here is a summary of the chief causes of pronoun confusion.

• All forms of the verb to be. Informal sentences (It was me, It must have been them, It seems to be her) wrongly use object pronouns instead of what are called subject complements. (The correct pronouns respectively would be I, they, and she.)

• Compound subjects and compound objects. In everyday speech, when and or or links a pronoun with other nouns or pronouns, the results are often ungrammatical: Joe and him went fishing, Sue invited my friend and I for dinner, Her or I will meet you there. (The correct pronouns respectively would be he, me, and she.)

• Comparative sentences using as or than. Sentences like You’re as smart as her and Eddie ran faster than them sound fine but are technically flawed. (The correct pronouns respectively would be she and they.)

• Infinitives and verbs ending in -ing. They change subjects to objects. An infinitive such as to be turns I believe he is honest into I believe him to be honest. A verb ending in -ing, such as going, gives us the option of saying either I saw he was going home or I saw him going home. This can be especially confusing with compound subjects and objects, or when who-whom is involved.

• Idiomatic phrases containing subject pronouns (we the people, he who laughs last).

 

Pop Quiz

Correct any sentences that are formally ungrammatical.

1. LaTroy knew it was him who everyone preferred.

2. According to witnesses, it had to have been we.

3. The receipts were always safe with Maria and I.

4. May him and his friend join us for a nightcap?

5. She’s every bit as confused as me.

6. Your cousin’s wife looks older than he.

7. Who do you suspect was hiding something?

8. Who do you suspect to be hiding something?

9. This has been a bad week for we citizens of the United States.

10. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

Pop Quiz Answers

1. LaTroy knew it was he whom everyone preferred.

2. According to witnesses, it had to have been we. CORRECT

3. The receipts were always safe with Maria and me.

4. May he and his friend join us for a nightcap?

5. She’s every bit as confused as I.

6. Your cousin’s wife looks older than he. CORRECT

7. Who do you suspect was hiding something? CORRECT

8. Whom do you suspect to be hiding something?

9. This has been a bad week for us citizens of the United States.

10. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.

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Posted on Tuesday, November 12, 2013, at 6:54 pm


Shape-shifting Troublemakers

No nouns in our language behave like pronouns. The most common subject pronouns (I, he, she, we, they, who, whoever) all become different words (me, him, her, us, them, whom, whomever) when they are objects.

Colloquial English has always thumbed its nose at proper English. A seemingly innocent everyday sentence like It’s me is Exhibit A.

As we discussed last time, in formal English, It’s me is wrong, and It’s I is correct. In such sentences, pronouns linked by any form of the verb to be are equivalent to subjects—but me is an object pronoun. If It’s me were correct, then we’d also have to say, “Me is it.”

Down through the years, correct pronoun usage has been of little concern to the masses, who would rather drink from Lake Erie than say, “The culprit was they, but we thought it might be he.”

Having dealt last week with the havoc that the verb to be wreaks in sentences with pronouns, let’s look now at another disruption to correct English: compound subjects and compound objects that contain pronouns.

A compound subject is two or more nouns or pronouns joined most commonly by and or or. Joe and I is a compound subject. It is correct in Joe and I went fishing.

Joe and her is a compound object. It is correct in The group chose Joe and her.

Here is an easy, foolproof way to get such sentences right: Remove the noun and say the sentence with just the pronoun. Without the nouns, the two sentences are a breeze: I went fishing and The group chose her. Using this method exposes incorrect sentences such as It was up to Joe and I and Either me or Joe will help, because we’d never say, “It was up to I” or “Me will help.”

One more thing: It is always wrong to mix subject and object pronouns, such as “her and I.” In an oft-heard sentence like “Her and I arrived,” it’s clear that I arrived is correct, but no one would say “her arrived,” so the sentence requires she, the subject pronoun: She and I arrived.

More on finding the correct pronoun next time…

Pop Quiz

Correct any wayward compound subjects or objects.

1. Me and him went to the game.

2. The dog was always with Vinnie and I.

3. May my wife and me join you for dinner?

4. Either you or him must be willing to help.

5. Alice and me were who it was meant for.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. He and I went to the game.

2. The dog was always with Vinnie and me.

3. May my wife and I join you for dinner?

4. Either you or he must be willing to help.

5. Alice and I were whom it was meant for. (whom is the object of the preposition for)

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Posted on Monday, October 21, 2013, at 5:25 pm


I Subject, Your Honor

Last month, in discussions of who-whom and whoever-whomever, we passed along a handy memory aid: who (and whoever) = he; whom (and whomever) = him.

That’s fine as far as it goes, but it goes nowhere unless we can tell a subject (he) from an object (him).

One reason that distinguishing between subjects and objects is so difficult can be traced to what’s called the subject complement, a fancy term for the B in A = B. In the sentence It is you, the word you is a subject complement: it = you.

Math teaches us that if A = B, then B = A. If it = you, then you = it. In the sentence It is you, the word you is a kind of secondary subject.

However, you stays the same whether it’s a subject or an object. Things get trickier with the subject pronouns I, he, she, we, they, who, and whoever, which all change forms when they function as objects (me, him, her, us, them, whom, and whomever).

A conversational sentence like It’s me is technically wrong, because me is the object form of I, when what we need is a subject complement. Therefore, It’s I would be proper English (it = I). Remember, if It is I, then I am it. Since no one says, “Me am it,” It’s me can’t be correct.

Look at these everyday sentences: It’s us. Wait, it was him. No, it has been them all along. But it could’ve been her. We hear these all the time—and every one of them is technically incorrect. In such sentences, informal speech tends to prefer object pronouns like me, her, and them over the formally correct I, she, and they. Who knows why? They just sound better, or something. For whatever reason, not many folks we meet on the street would say, “It’s we.” “It was he.” “It has been they.” “It could’ve been she.”

But no one can ever master whom and whomever without knowing when object pronouns in everyday speech should be changed to subject complements in formal English.

More next time…

Pop Quiz

Make the following colloquial sentences consistent with formal English.

1. She’s just glad it turned out to be me.
2. The way I see it, it must have been them.
3. The culprits were Joe, Jack, Jake, and whomever else.
4. It ended up being her who the group could count on.
5. It seemed like them, but it was him.

Pop Quiz Answers

These answers are academically correct. But if you talk to your friends like this, you’re on your own.

1. She’s just glad it turned out to be I.
2. The way I see it, it must have been they.
3. The culprits were Joe, Jack, Jake, and whoever else.
4. It ended up being she whom the group could count on. (whom is the object of the verb count on)
5. It seemed like them, but it was he. (them is the object of the preposition like)

This grammar tip was contributed by veteran copy editor and word nerd Tom Stern.

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Posted on Monday, October 14, 2013, at 2:55 pm