117. Whomsayers

Several years after I learned to talk, I learned that I was doing it wrong. In junior high and high school, I took courses in English, and in most of these classes, my teachers taught me rules of grammar. These rules said that the way me and my friends (my friends and I) talked was incorrect. I believed my teachers, and learned the “right” way to speak.
Later, in college, I learned that language is run by democracy, and if enough people consistently use a language “incorrectly,” the “incorrect” way becomes the correct way. In one way, it was a relief. It meant that I didn’t have to fight the battle my teachers had fought; I didn’t have to insist on “different from,” rather than “different than,” or struggle to eradicate “the reason why,” a redundant but popular phrase.
But it also meant that rules I’d worked to learn could quickly become anachronisms – antiques. And they did. Notice that three sentences in this paragraph begin with conjunctions. Please don’t tell any of my English teachers. And two weeks ago, in my article about food, I wrote, “I didn’t know who to believe.” I really struggled with that sentence. I knew the “correct” thing to write, but I also knew that in this linguistic democracy, we whomsayers have been voted down by a landslide. It’s still okay to write “To Whom It May Concern,” and I suspect that that will last, but most of the whoms are gone from our language.
If, like me, you learned the rules of grammar, you may feel somewhat cheated, as I do. Why did we go through all that trouble if the rules were going to be amended or discarded by the phillistine masses? But that’s what has happened. Harry Reasoner, Edwin Newman, and others have spoken and written about the demise of “good” English.
I do like grammar, and it’s a little frustrating to know something that ought to impress people, but usually doesn’t. But language really is run by democracy, and though we whomsayers, as a minority, still have the right to say “whom” whenever we want, it’s going to start sounding funny.

Comments are closed.