Monday, January 6, 2014

Unlearned Pedants Part 1 - Jon Gingerich

I have said many times in my blog and I say it again that I fervently believe that the everyday spoken language only has the function of communicating one's thoughts to one's listener.  That is all. It does not matter one bit to me if the communication lacks artistic charm. Neither does it matter if it does not accord with standard English usage.  I'm perfectly aware how fluid standard English is. What was considered ungrammatical when I was a boy is today standard English and the updated editions of good grammar books all bear testimony to its correctness now. Anyone who corrects another person's grammar in the course of his speech is rude and should not be allowed into society and I have never been guilty of violating such a basic rule of etiquette.  

But putting a captious person in his place is an admirable exercise and I have, on numerous posts in this blog, done precisely that.  I get all the more annoyed when those who love to pontificate on what they believe proper grammar should be usually know almost nothing about English grammar.  They sometimes create grammar rules where none exists.  I have in several posts in this blog exposed their ignorance of even simple rules of grammar.  What amazes me is the audacity these people have to arrogate to themselves the right to tell others what correct grammar should be when they themselves are not able to come to grips with even the rudiments of English grammar.

While I'm totally indifferent to the rules of language, I am usually annoyed when I see these ignorant pedants going all out to slam and vilify those who they claim write or speak badly.  These are the people I address whenever I expose their ignorance and error in this blog.  These are people who think they are a cut above the rest of us.  In a haughty tone, they purport to tell us never to misuse a word because that particular word does not have the meaning we wrongly think it has. They used to go round giving us a rap on the knuckles for splitting our infinitives (who among us have not experienced that from our schoolteachers?) although grammar books for almost a hundred years consistently say it is all right to do so.  Grammar books are of course as foreign to these people as the I-Ching and it is only very recently when most of them finally discovered their error and stopped using that blank round in their arsenal.

Alas, apart from their former weaponry against split infinitives there are many other blank cartridges that they fire today as these obnoxious nitpickers stubbornly continue to cook up new grammar rules.

I was on google+ when I stumbled upon this webpage - "20 Common Grammar Mistakes That (Almost) Everyone Makes".  It's written by someone called Jon Gingerich, an editor of an American magazine.

This has prompted me to start a series of blog posts under the title "Unlearned Pedants" in which I will feature people like Gingerich - grammar pedants who don't know grammar.  I'm sure once I'm through with Gingerich, there will be others worthy of being similarly featured.

The first mistake he brings up is the common confusion over who and whom.  After stating the broad principle, Gingerich, like a typical primary school teacher, gives us the usual standard formula how we can be sure whether to use "who" or "whom" but unlike most competent primary school teachers, he is hopelessly unable to apply his own test correctly.  This is what he writes:

When in doubt, substitute “who” with the subjective pronouns “he” or “she,” e.g., Who loves you? cf., He loves me. Similarly, you can also substitute “whom” with the objective pronouns “him” or “her.” e.g., I consulted an attorney whom I met in New York. cf., I consulted him.
Here is the clearest proof that English grammar is as alien to Gingerich as Swahili grammar is to me.  For the sentence "I consulted an attorney whom I met in New York", he tells us that since it's "I consulted him", "whom" is the correct word.  But that's nonsense.  Let me alter the sentence slightly and you will see where Gingerich has gone wrong.  "I consulted an attorney who came from New York".  If you follow Gingerich's erroneous reasoning, the correct word should be "whom" because it's "I consulted him" and not "he" and so, it should be "whom" and not "who".  Nobody will say it's correct to write "I consulted an attorney WHOM came from New York".  The reason for this error is Gingerich obviously has never done any parsing exercise and he does not know a thing about clauses and how they should be broken down.  I know the likes of such ignoramuses to whom an antecedent is probably the name of a prescribed drug and the pluperfect a Peranakan cake.  Like Gingerich, they are very quick to tell someone he's wrong but they really know little more than the person they seek to correct.

Any young student of English grammar who is properly schooled and who knows his clauses and has tried his hand at sentence parsing will tell you that for the sentence "I consulted an attorney whom I met in New York" to show if "who" or "whom" should be used, you should break the sentence down to read "I met HIM in New York" and because it's "him" and not "he" you should say "whom" and not "who".  Similarly, in my slightly altered sentence, "I consulted an attorney who came from New York", it's "he came from New York" and not "him" and so "who" is correct and not "whom". What a disgrace!  Gingerich can't even apply the test correctly.

It is not my wont to quibble over correct usage and I'm naturally hesitant to point out Gingerich's other faults in that excerpt alone but I should perhaps remind him that he would be better off using the word "replace" rather than "substitute" in his sentence "When in doubt, substitute “who” with the subjective pronouns “he” or “she”.  Grammarians today are still uneasy with the common but inelegant use of "substitute" when "replace" is meant.  Instead of harping on non-existent grammar rules of his own making, Gingerich would do well to choose his words wisely and stay away from a usage that may cause a grammarian as respectable as Burchfield some discomfort.

I have only covered the first of Gingerich's 20 common grammar mistakes and there are many more that I have to deal with.  Many of the alleged "common grammar mistakes" are either not mistakes in the first place or Gingerich is wrong in his explanation of how the mistake ought to be corrected. I will continue with the rest of his mistakes in Part 2.

Gingerich speaks of himself superciliously as "someone who slings red ink for a living".  As far as I can see, the only thing red that he may legitimately have is his face - he ought to blush with shame now that I have exposed him as one more of those unlearned pedants whose mission in life seems to be to irritate the rest of us with their incessant drivel.

For the second and final segment of my analysis of what Jon Gingerich wrote, please click here.

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