Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Five things people should worry about more

David Marsh at

1 To who it may concern
The use of whom – the objective form of who – is dying out, especially in speech. It sounds affected and stiff. Hyper-correct use of whom for who is common, as in Graham Greene's The Quiet American: "There was a big man whom [sic] I think was an hôtelier from Phnom Penh and a French girl I'd never seen before."
To avoid this, mentally replace who or whom with the third person pronoun: if you get a subject – he, she, it or they – then who is correct; for an object – him, her or them – whom is right. In the Greene example it would be "I think he was an hôtelier" not "I think him was an hôtelier" – so who, not whom, is correct.
When John Donne wrote "for whom the bell tolls" and Bo Diddley asked "who do you love?" who was right – Donne or Diddley? The answer is both of them. It goes back to formal and informal registers. Bo's got a cobra snake for a necktie. Not the kind of guy, I suggest, who would say something wussy like "whom do you love?" (It's the same with theGhostbusters, whose slogan, you may recall, was not "whom you gonna call?")
The relaxed tone we prefer these days makes whom increasingly optional, unlike in Donne's day. The elegant formality of his prose has an eloquence and resonance that "for who the bell tolls" lacks. Good title for a book, though.

2 That's the way to do it
The traditional definition is that that defines and which informs (gives extra information), as in: "This is the house that Jack built; but this house, which John built, is falling down." Note that the sentence remains grammatical without that ("this is the house Jack built") but not without which.
Don't be alarmed by the unhelpful terms, but restrictive relative clauses (also known as defining, best thought of as giving essential information by narrowing it down) are not enclosed by commas, whereas non-restrictive relative clauses (non-defining, giving non-essential information) are.
"Which John built" is non-restrictive. It gives extra information, is preceded by a comma, and if you try it with "that" it sounds odd ("this house, that Jack built"). It's not the same the other way round: although that is more common in restrictive clauses, you can use which: "This is the house which John built."
To simplify things, here's my easy-to-remember formula:
Restrictive clauses: that (desirable), no comma (essential).
Non-restrictive clauses: which, comma (both essential).

3 Nothing compares 2 U
Prince was right; so was Shakespeare ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?). Compare to means liken to; compare with means make a comparison. So I might compare Lionel Messi with Diego Maradona to assess their relative merits, then conclude that Messi can be compared to Maradona – he is a similarly great player. The two phrases have usefully distinct meanings and, although "compare to" can be replaced by "liken to", it's clumsier to replace "compare with" with another phrase.

4 A singular problem
"Agreement" or "concord". Yes, more off-putting terms for what is a straightforward enough rule: be consistent. Gerry Goffin and Carole King, who composed the Monkees' 1967 hit Pleasant Valley Sunday, wrote: "The local rock group down the street is tryin' hard to learn their song." It jars.
But wait, I hear you cry. Who says a rock group are singular? There were, after all, four of them, too busy singing to put anybody down. Quite so. If I had wandered into the Brill Building in New York and caught Goffin or King's ear at the time, I would have politely suggested "are tryin' hard to learn their song" as the answer.
Collective nouns can be singular or plural. Treat as singular when the noun is a single unit, but plural when it is more a collection of individuals, for example: "The family can trace its history back to the middle ages; the family were sitting down, scratching their heads." Once you've decided whether the noun is singular or plural, make sure the verb agrees, or people will conclude you is sloppy.

5 Lie lady lie
Confusion between the verbs lay and lie arises because the present tense of the former is the past tense of the latter. The easy way not to mix them up is to remember that lay is a transitive verb (it takes an object); lie is intransitive. If you lay a table or an egg, or you lay something down, the past tense is laid. If you lie down, the past tense is lay. You will note that strictly – as Bob Dylan was inviting the lady in question to lie down across his big brass bed, rather than reporting that she had done so in the past – he should have sung "Lie Lady Lie" rather than "Lay Lady Lay". If you try singing it like that, however, it sounds Australian, which would not really have worked on an album called Nashville Skyline.