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The Writing Life
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by Victoria Grossack
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July 18, 2013
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 give instruction about 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:
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, simply 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 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:
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:
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:
There are a number of ways to get away from such awkward language. The sentence could be re-written:
Or, to sidestep the "his or her" issue entirely, we could write using the plural as opposed to using the singular
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:
Everyone should do their homework themselves.
Occasionally some people try to get it both ways, and I've encountered compromises like:
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?
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:
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:
Here you can see that by adding the word do, 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.
appear everywhere, and the technically and grammatically correct versions often sound wrong -- unless you expand the sentence, which you can't do in every situation.
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 originally 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)
Here are a few more examples of nouns becoming verbs:
She gifted the hostess with flowers.
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 should!
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. Influences include texting; blogs; the internet; campaigns which adopt a word and change its meaning. Consider the word gay. I'm old enough that I learned the old, happy-go-lucky meaning, but now when I read literature from the nineteenth century I have to remind myself that back then the word had nothing to do with sexual orientation.
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 -- I love the "urban dictionary" with its particularly modern approach -- tend to follow current usage so our language remains fluid. We writers must continue to grope while continuing to push the envelope.
A version of this article appeared in Fiction Fix.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.