Monday, January 5, 2009

Grammar Games

The title and byline for a New York Times article reads: "Who Owns Your Great Idea? That depends. Where did you have it and whom did you brainstorm with?"

"Whom did you brainstorm with" is an unusual use of half proper, half colloquial grammar that ends up sounding just plain odd.

In the author's sentence, the use of whom is correct. Whom is generally underused and misunderstood but actually not too difficult to master. Knowing when to employ it (and then actually using it effectively) takes you that last step into sounding like an intelligent, educated person. Which is what you want in a job interview, but not necessarily at the pub with your friends.

'Whom' is to object as 'who' is to subject. Whom stands as both direct object and indirect object: "Whom did you introduce to Evan?" and "To whom did you introduce Michaela?" The easy way to remember how to use it is to reword the sentence using 'him' or 'he.' He is a subject; its correct substitution is who. Him is the object; use whom. So, "Did you introduce him to Evan?" and "Did you introduce Michaela to him?" But "He introduced Micheala to Evan" becomes "Who introduced them?"

Please excuse the gender-biased use of 'he' and 'him' instead of 'she' and 'her.' I chose the male pronouns because the common use of m and the end of him and whom makes the pneuomonic that much simpler to remember.

My students in Upper Intermediate English told me that their textbooks taught them not to use 'whom' in any situation, calling it archaic and insisting that native English speakers never use it. I disagree. I was forced to learn who versus whom in high school English, and I have both used it and seen it used - usually correctly - ever since. Grammarians across the English speaking world take pride in the details of the language and how to employ them properly.

Referring back to the article's byline, we can dissect the positioning of 'with.' In proper, Strunk & White grammar, a sentence should never end with a preposition. In fact there should never be any lingering prepositions at all; a preposition is a linking word that must be followed by a noun or noun clause.

We ignore this rule all the time.

On one hand, all kinds of idioms and phrasal verbs have snuck into our language over time that throw wanton prepositions here, there, and every whichwhere. A phrasal verb is any verb + preposition that collectively takes on a new meaning. The components often don't clearly relate to the new meaning. Some common examples from my Business English course this fall include: hang up (the phone), put off (a meeting), call off (a meeting), put through (a connecting call), etc. For native speakers these are easy and intuitive because we've heard them since birth, but for someone learning English as a second language, these prove a big challenge. Some of these also become idiomatic expressions, like 'a hang up' which has nothing to to with the verb 'hang up.' Sometimes the phrasal verbs are followed by a noun to complete the prepositional phrase, although often we let the noun go unsaid, leaving the listener to fill in the difference. With idioms, however, the preposition lingers with no realistic partner at all. Look at the use of 'ends up' in my first sentence.

A British English teacher told me that phrasal verbs entered the language thanks to the Americans in World War II. Rising concern over lingering prepositions during this era would explain Winston Churchill's famous quote, "This is the sort of English up with which I will not put." Since hearing that bit of American defamation I noticed that both Alfred Lord Tennyson and even Shakespeare have examples of phrasal verbs in their writing. Clearly not all abuse of the English language is America's fault.

Another example of problematic prepositions occurs when we rearrange the order of a sentence. Variety is an important tool for any speaker or writer of English. The standard format, "We take pride in our school," needs some spice (or shall I say, spicing up) and might become, "It's something we take pride in," leaving 'in' lingering. The noun for that prepositional phrase came all the way at the front of the sentence ('it').

English always rearranges the order of questions, leaving interrogatives with prepositions a messy tangle. "I brainstormed with him" should translate into "With whom did you brainstorm?" but these days it's normal to say "Who did you brainstorm with?" even though there are two errors in the sentence.

Americans usually know these mistakes and choose to ignore them. We don't expect daily speech to be grammatically correct. Our most common errors then translate back into written language. High school teachers wade through these errors, trying to teach how to write proper English even if the pupils aren't going to speak it. Until ten or fifteen years ago most of what we read went through the filter of an editor who corrected those things, but with the internet, it usually rests solely on the author to consider whether her grammer is correct. Furthermore, language texts like New Headway are choosing to teach spoken, colloquial English rather than the proper language we learn in school. The text had my students practicing ending sentences with prepositions, which was even against what felt natural to them.

As casual language becomes more and more common, proper English sounds increasingly convoluted and eventually falls out of favor. It is still the standard for writing, but use it with your friends and they might throw something at you for being pretentious.

In the article's byline, the author has chosen a strange combination of what neither is correct nor feels natural. If she is going to use 'whom,' she should put 'with' also in the right place. Or she must embrace the casual nature of her online readership and stick with what she probably says in real life, "Who did you brainstorm with?"

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