grammar policeThey're off their game … unless maybe they've already thrown in the towel — because sometimes it feels like nobody's out there doing the dirty work, pulling in the perps. I'm talking about the Grammar Police.

Celebrities, politicians, pundits, authors, even the vaulted New York Times — all of them — are getting away with grammatical homicide.

This one came in today. It's subtle all right, but indicative of a downward slide into lawlessness. I count 2 "lock-em-ups" right off the bat. So let's read it and unpack it.

There's people that have been trying to line up for the opportunity.

 

1. THERE'S people
Oops: "people" is plural, so we say, "There are people" or "There're people." We don't say, "There is people" or "There's people."

  1. There're books in the library. — There's a book on the table.
  2. There're mice in the field. — There's a mouse in the house.
  3. There're lots of people. — There's a lot of people.


2. There's people THAT
Oops again: "people" are, well … people, and we use who when referring to homo sapiens. "That" or "which" refers to things.

  1. The person who gave me the book is my aunt.
  2. The aunt who gave me the book is my favorite.
  3. The people who read the book loved it.
  4. The ones who loved the book are my friends.

 



Both of these are common crimes. Pay attention and you'll start noticing how often you hear "there's" instead of "there're" … and "that" instead of "who."

Okay, then. Let's have another go at the sentence:

There're people who have been trying to line up for the opportunity.


Even better is this (try to avoid starting a sentence with "there"):

People have been trying to line up for the opportunity.


Let's face it, though: does any of it really matter? For me, it's like fingernails on a chalkboard, but in the larger scope of things … I'm not sure it does matter.

*Oops! Here's another one just in: "There’s help-wanted ads everywhere." —1/11/2018



trash the m2Don’t do math (can’t). But do do grammar. (Notice I violated grammar here because I can. I'm so good…the grammar police always give me a pass.)

I believe in grammar—its rules for clarity of expression—so others can make sense of what we try to say.

Nonetheless, there is one grammatical rule that needs to go: the "m" in the objective case of the pronoun "who" … that would be "whom."

That m is a nasty, pretentious little hold over from the days when Latin was the sine qua non (see "bees knees") of language.

It's along the same lines as that other silly rule about never ending a sentence with a preposition. And we all know what THAT led to: Winston's famous quip, "THIS IS SOMETHING UP WITH WHICH I WILL NOT PUT."

 

WHO WHOM—The test

THIS?     —    Give the award to  WHOEVER   deserves it.
Or this?  —    Give the award to WHOMEVER  deserves it.

THIS?    —   Give the award to those  WHO  you think deserve it.
Or this?  —  Give the award to those  WHOM  you think deserve it.

The who / whom imbroglio is overrated.  Clarity can be achieved perfectly well without that niggling little letter.  Who? Whom? Does it matter? We get the point.

 

The answers
Read at your own peril.

Answer:  Give the award to WHOEVER deserves it. 
“Whomever” is not the prepositional object of  “to.”  Rather, WHOEVER  is the subject of a dependent clause, “whoever deserves it.”  The entire clause is the prepositional object.  Phew!

Answer:  Give the award to those WHO you think deserve it. 
“Whom” is not the object of  “you think…whom.”   “You think” is parenthetical…you can remove it altogether. So the “who” becomes a relative pronoun for “those” and the subject of the relative clause “who deserve it.”

 

See what I mean? So much ink spilled over a measly m!

The rules of grammar, in this particular case, are uselessly arcane—like trying to figure out THE OYSTER FORK from the FISH FOR  from the SALAD FORM from the DESSERT FORK… at an EDITH WHARTON dinner party. 

So here’s my personal campaign for a better world: I say we TRASH THE M in whom!

indo-europeansOh, those feisty Indo-Europeans. Located some 4,000 years ago on the grassy steppes of Eurasia, just north of the Black and Caspian Seas, this ancient group of people gave us the English language—not just our language but nearly all of Europe's and India's, too.

So how did the language of an isolated tribe of nomadic herders come to dominate so vast a territory? The answer is horses—and a human genetic mutation.


indo-euro-map-a
Map by Louis Henwood for The History of English Podcast

Horses were indigenous to the Eurasian grasslands, and the Indo-Europeans used them for meat—at first. But some bright (and brave) soul figured out that horses could be ridden and used for herding sheep and cattle. Once on horseback, the Indo-Europeans found they could raise and control larger and larger herds.

Another bright soul realized that instead of killing off so many goats or sheep for food, they could spare some and use their milk. That idea happily coincided with the spread of an errant gene—a mutation that produced lactase, the enzyme enabling humans to digest milk.

As a result, the herds thrived—as did the tribespeople, who grew in number and stature. The increase in herds and people gave way to the need for more land—and thus began the trek eastward to India and westward to Europe.

indo-euro-map-b
Map by Louis Henwood for The History of English Podcast

And if you were in their way? Well, they had horses—and you didn't—so you can guess who ended up with the land. Nonetheless, historians aren't sure how warrior-like the Indo-European tribes were, whether they always conquered or sometimes settled in peacefully. Most likely both.

However it happened, the Indo-Europeans came to dominate the inhabitants of their new lands. Their language continued to spread eastward and westward over thousands of years and thousands of miles, morphing into separate dialects...and eventually into separate languages, including the early Germanic languages, the ancestor of our own.

What this means, astonishingly, is that today about 50% of the world's population speaks an Indo-European-derived language—3 billion of us—all from an ancient tribe of nomadic herders!

indo-euro-logo* This—and more, much more—is available on Kevin Stroud's wonderful podcast, The History of the English Podcast. Please take a week or two (or a month or two) to listen to his 50+ episodes. Stroud is a wonderfully lucid presenter and has put together a fascinating, detailed history of why our crazy language, English, is the way it is. If you love history and English, you'll be addicted. I am.

Also note the beautiful maps Stroud uses—two of which are included here. They were created for him by Louis Henwood. Thanks to both Kevin and Louis for their kind permission to use them.



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