or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, October 20, 2007


I rag on Salon writers a fair bit, though I suppose I shouldn't blame them too much, because it's obvious--isn't it?--that there isn't a single copy editor or proofreader anywhere to be found in the entire enterprise.

Here's the newest Ask The Pilot column. There's absolutely nothing wrong with it: it's just fascinating. You really ought to read it. The Pilot answers some questions that you've almost certainly asked if you've ever traveled by air: why we aren't allowed to stand up until the plane has come to a complete and final stop (as they always seem to redundantly say), why there aren't parachutes in commercial airplanes, and more.

But after reading that, I came to Stephanie Zacharek's review of a new film, "Gone Baby Gone". Here's half a sentence:

Even Casey Affleck, an actor whom I don't think has much presence (and who needs enunciation lessons, badly), is reasonably believable here....

There is a thing called "hypercorrection", which is what happens when a person, afraid of making a grammatical or other linguistic error in an everyday usage, overanalyzes the situation, applies what sounds like the correct rule, and gets it wrong. One example that's particularly common among Americans is the pronunciation of "vichysoisse": having learned that French sometimes omits that final consonantal sound--look at "ballet", for example, or "escargot"--they will guess that that's a universal feature of French imports pronounce it "vishy-swah" (it's "vishy-swass", more or less). (The rule is actually that many consonants are silent at the end of words, unless there's an "-e" at the end, which forces their pronunciation: masculine "aimant", "lover", for example, has a nasalized "-n" as the terminal sound, whereas the feminine version, "aimante", pronounces the "-t".) A grammatical example is Winston Churchill's parody of the "rule" that one ought not to end a sentence with a preposition: "That is something up with which I shall not put."

A lot of people evidently don't know the very, very simple trick for choosing between subject and object pronouns when using "who" and "whom", and that is this: replace the pronoun in question with "he" or "him" (something which no born English speaker would get wrong), reversing the order of the sentence if need be, and if you would use "he", use "who", and if you would use "him", use "whom". If one ends in a vowel, so does the other: if one ends in an em, so does the other. It always works. You can usually do this quickly in your head when you're speaking, though in casual speech it's not desperately important. In writing, however, where you have the luxury of time, there really isn't any excuse for getting it wrong. The reversed sentence above would run, "I don't think he has much presence", requiring the pronoun "who", not "whom".

The odd thing is that there are two examples of the pronoun in the sentence, and she gets the first one wrong and the second one right. What happened here? Why didn't she say "...and whom needs enunciation lessons", since the structure of the clauses is identical? And why wasn't someone around to catch it before this was unleashed on the world?

Unfortunately, writing "who" when "whom" is intended sounds subliterate, and doing the reverse, hypercorrectly, sounds pretentious. That's just a fact.


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