Normal and Formal

It is time to address the commenter whose reaction to my remarks about they with singular antecedents was to say this:

Too bad this article about pronoun agreement has a grammatical error in the first sentence: “… who I will call Mary” should be “whom I will call Mary”. Even the lead-in had a similar error: “Who are you supposed to trust on grammar if you can’t trust a native-speaking grammarian’s own considered usage? Geoff Pullum wonders.” Shame on you, New York Times and Geoffrey Pullum.

My post concerned the riddle of why some people are so extraordinarily reluctant to take anything they read, even well-edited prose by expert native speakers, as evidence about English, rather than evidence that some inarticulate clod has mangled it. But even as I try to explain why such dogmatism is a conceptual error, people commit it again. Those I am trying to reach seem unable to understand or even hear me. It is like talking to a cat.

Nevertheless, let me make one more attempt, even if the only result is a placid feline stare, or more appalled cries of “Shame on Pullum.”

The “grammatical error” that the commenter thinks he can detect is that I did not use the accusative form of who: He wanted “… whom I will call Mary” in the post and “Whom are you supposed to trust …” in the lead-in (the newsletter trailer line). The accusative form whom (recently discussed by my colleague Lucy Ferriss) is a classic marker of elevated style level in contemporary Standard English. The style that most of us use in e-mail and conversations is clearly distinct from a strictly formal one that is appropriate for official occasions or particularly solemn prose.

For brevity, I will call the two roughly characterized styles Normal and Formal. Every grammarian knows the differences. I know them far better than most because of my actual grammar-writing and grammar-teaching activities. To cite a few elementary examples:

Normal Formal
don’t do not
can’t cannot
would’ve would have
which he sneered at at which he sneered
who we’re so proud of of whom we are so proud
people who you don’t meet much people whom one does not often meet
he’s better than me he is more accomplished than I
because it wasn’t him for it was not he
a bag you can throw up into a bag into which one may vomit


I am perfectly competent to make such substitutions, of course. Rest assured, I can do pompous. (Do not hesitate to request it should you so desire.) It is hard to believe that my troll truly imagines that I am unable to identify the places where Normal has who and Formal would have whom.

But proper use of English is not defined by relentless use of Formal — by unthinkingly substituting the red-column expressions for the blue-column ones in all contexts. Formal can sound very clunky indeed. (Strict compliance with New York Times style means sticking almost entirely to Formal, and that’s not necessarily a good thing about the Times.) The point is to decide on the impression and tone you’re aiming for. And I’m writing a blog post, for heaven’s sake, not an inscription to be chiseled into a college president’s headstone. I’m chatting with you and a few thousand other close friends and colleagues. I want to sound roughly the way I would in conversation. We’re all educated, but we use Normal in our everyday interactions and office meetings, and (I certainly hope) in our teaching.

In such contexts, the actual frequency of clauses beginning with whom in contemporary English conversations and e-mails approaches zero, especially for main clauses. Things have been headed this way for more than a hundred years. When Lord Henry asks Dorian, “Who are you in love with?” in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, it doesn’t mean Lord Henry flunked grammar; it means he speaks in Normal style, like most of us.

I thought carefully before choosing to write who in the two sentences at issue, and I chose the style I wanted. I decided I was not going to write something as unnatural as “Whom are you supposed to trust” on Lingua Franca just to discourage self-important twits from heckling me. And the editor concurred.

Anyone who thinks that writing in Normal rather than Formal style reveals grammatical incompetence is a fool. And I’m not worried about my posts being nitpicked by a fool.

I am, however, worried at the thought of people out there in America’s colleges and universities teaching students that everything that they write for any purpose must be in Formal style. That’s worse than just giving bad grammar advice. It amounts to teaching a falsehood.

[Thanks to the commenters for noting the mistyping (that for than); it is fixed now. —GKP]

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