Tuesday, 16 November 2021

Grammar angels

If you hear that, it's a sign that your butler is a Parker rather than a Jeeves. Because, of course, it should be: 'Who shall I say is calling?'

People who don't think it through assume that the person who is being referred to is the object of the sentence. That's not so. You wouldn't say, 'Shall I say him is calling?' The 'who is calling' is a subordinate clause. A coder would get it where the tyro writer might not:

Butler.out.println("who is calling")

Recently I heard an even gnarlier example of the same mistake on a highbrow podcast:

Wrong again, of course. You wouldn't say, 'He hoped her would see it.' That unspecified she is not the object of the verb to hope, but the subject of the subordinate clause 'who would see it'.

Does it matter? We're told that people have had enough of experts, that feelz are what matter, and that correcting spelling is an act of aggression. But if you want to be a writer, or even if you care about expressing yourself clearly, then you have to accept there are common protocols of communication -- grammar, spelling, punctuation -- and not bothering to learn them not only risks misunderstandings, it signals to other people that you don't have a mind capable of thinking things through. In the examples above, for instance, you don't need to have studied English at school or to know what a subordinate clause is, you just need to reframe the sentence to see immediately whether it should be who or whom.

That's all good writing is: thinking of interesting things to say and expressing yourself clearly. Now go and do thou (not thee) likewise.