Endangered Species of Evolving Language


Fatalists out there are giving up. Proper use of the English language is a lost cause. Standardizing bodies are surrendering to more and more common but inaccurate usages, some of which I’ll admit I’m guilty myself. But as deeply as I know that grammar and language are the epitome of social constructs, I desperately hold on to so many bits and pieces I hold dear.

The article linked above mentions one of my favourites – keeping in existence “whom”, the objective counterpart to the subjective pronoun “who”. I’m very lenient on other people’s usage in this case. I accept that “who” is commonly used in both contexts and I’m okay with that, whether in formal or informal writing. For stylistic reasons I still use “whom” when appropriate. What I cannot stand, however, is, for “stylistic reasons”, people using “whom” when not appropriate, thinking that it’s just a fancy professional version of “whom”. I commonly see, unfortunately, a particular person use it as such, i.e. “anyone whom calls”. If the difference between subjective/objective usage is lost on you but you still want to use “whom” correctly, there are easy tests. Replace who/whom with they/them and see if it works. “Whom calls” would then become “Them call” which does not sound right to any fluent English speaker’s mind. “Who calls?” “They call.” The question is answered, without a single “m”.

Another item on that list that bothers me but is still doomed to get usurped by the amoeba of misuse is “begs the question”. The “begs” part in the proper meaning of the phrase is more along the lines of “begs the question to change its meaning because the person is desperate to be right even when they’re wrong”. It is a person, somebody making an argument, who is begging the question – not some factor in an issue that calls for further scrutiny. But alas, the latter use is so widespread that only a small minority of stubborn pedants actively bother to use it properly and correct those using it improperly.

I acknowledge the fact pointed out in the article that these rules are relatively new, and the language will change as the people who speak it change, along with the contexts therein. I agree with throwing out arbitrary rules that most linguists haven’t upheld – splitting infinitives (“to boldly go”) and ending sentences in prepositions (“the word the sentence ends with.”). Regarding the second one, my own style approaches that in similar ways to who/whom: I like writing around ending sentences with prepositions (“the word with which the sentence ends”) but I won’t correct people who don’t.

And for the record – no worthy bloc of legitimate grammarians ever demanded a sentence never begin with a coordinating conjunction (and, but, if, so, yet, for, or, nor). Also for the record – a proper complete sentence wouldn’t begin with a subordinating conjunction (because, if, since, as, where, while, etc.). There are some style-based exceptions to these rules, to be defended at your own discretion, but keep in mind – personal discretion is typically what makes writing worth shit.


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