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Rosie Right


Who (whom) do you know?

A friend has sent a clipping of a Merrill Lynch advertisement that offends her by using who where her grammar teacher would have insisted on whom: "So who do you want on your side?" Merrill Lynch asks in The Economist. "Wrong" says our reader; who is the object of the clause and clearly should be whom.

The problem is that it is not clearly so. I consulted several grammar books; they took a while and a lot of space, but didn't seem to come to a conclusion about the problem.

Miss Thistlebottom (of "Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins" by Theodore Bernstein) would probably agree with our reader, but many experts make a distinction between formal writing and conversation. As long ago as 1977, my favorite grammarian Frederick Crews wrote in "The Random House Handbook": "You shouldn't use one form when the other is strictly correct, and you shouldn't use either of them if the right form sounds like a forced attempt at good English."

Often whom sounds like a nervous attempt at proper English. Indeed, Patricia T. O'Conner has written in her grammar book "Woe Is I": "Poor whom! Over the years wordsmiths from Noah Webster to Jacques Barzun have suggested that maybe we should ditch it altogether and let who do the job of both." Her conclusion: "With a few minor adjustments, we can get away with dropping it in our speech. … But since written English is more formal than conversational English, anyone who wants to write correctly will have to get a grip on whom."

Maybe so. Webster's Dictionary of English Usage manages to take three and a half pages to make the same point, starting, as usual, with examples from Shakespeare, that magnificent master of inconsistency. Webster's concludes that in speech you don't need to worry about who and whom -- just go with what seems natural. In writing it's better to be careful. If you find yourself dithering, do what most editors do: Rewrite.

Where does that leave The Economist ad? Probably because it is meant to be informal, we should allow who to remain.

Talk the Talk

We've heard a lot recently about this:

Ninja loan — "No income, No Job or Assets. A poorly documented loan made to a high-risk borrower." Source: The New York Times.

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