or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


If you want to know what it was that finally broke me, here it is: a Slate.com article which answers the crucial question of whether you can absorb enough cocaine from performing oral sex on a drug user to test positive for the drug.

Here's the sentence that did the job on me--the very first sentence in the article:

A Manhattan cop who tested positive for cocaine claims he got the drugs in his system by performing oral sex on his girlfriend, whom he later discovered was a regular user.

"Whom he later discovered."

The rule is so simple. Reconfigure the sentence and replace the pronoun "who" or "whom" with the pronoun "him" or "he" as appropriate: if it's the object pronoun "him", use objective-case "whom", and if it's the subject pronoun "he", use subjective-case "who": m=m, vowel=vowel. You may also use "her"/"she" with the same results: consonant=consonant, vowel=vowel. (You don't even need to know that they're objective or subjective case pronouns: I just like to toss that in in case someone cares.)

I concede that this is not always easy to do when you're speaking, but when you're writing, there is nothing easier. There's no reason to ever get this wrong, ever, in writing. In this case, the reconstructed sentence contains the clause "he later discovered she was a regular user" (because it is not even conceivable that any native English speaker would ever say "he later discovered her was a regular user"), and therefore the correct word would be not "whom" but "who".

So this is how broken I am: I am finally ready to say that maybe it's time to just retire "whom" altogether from the language. Nobody seems to know how to use it correctly, nobody really seems to give a damn, and it probably causes more trouble than it's worth. English sounds nicer with it ("To whom am I speaking?" is lovely), and its loss will leave a tiny but perceptible gap in the language, but if hardly any users can ever get it right, not even a paid writer who has the time and the incentive to do so, then maybe it's time we just scrapped it altogether.


Something I am not willing to give up, though, is certain gendered words. You may not like that we have different words for male and female massage therapists ("masseur" and "masseuse") or yellow-haired people ("blond" and "blonde"), but we do have them, and they have a history in the language, and are still useful because they convey information that may be relevant. And so I object strongly to this sentence from a silly gossip item about a soon-to-be-jailed Briton, once again the first sentence in the article:

Jack Tweed, widow of Jade Goody, has been sentenced to 12 weeks in prison for assaulting a taxi driver.

A woman is a widow. A man is a widower. Jade Goody was a woman. Jack Tweed is a man. He was her husband. She has died. Ergo, he is a widower.

Now, how hard was that?


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