Language changes through variation. Some people say sneaked, others say snuck. The two forms may coexist for a long time, almost forever, or one of them may be considered snobbish, and, once the snobs die out, the form will go to rest with them. Or the snobs may feel embarrassed of being in the minority and adopt the popular form. The life of language is a constant tug of war: some speakers emulate their superiors, others try to merge with the crowd. Regardless of the trend, change is effected through variation. What passed for a mistake yesterday is the norm today, but language does not always favor innovation; it often suppresses novelties and awards victory to conservative forms.
When it comes to usage, we have no difficulty noticing alternate variants. Otherwise there would not have been so many letters to word columnists of the type: “My husband insists that since data is a Latin plural, we should say data are, but I hear only data is from my colleagues in the department of statistics. Am I wrong in speaking like everybody else?” Other differences are harder to detect. For a long time I tried to understand the reason students call certain lengthy texts concise. I would probably never have guessed, but one day I asked: “Why do you think the explanation is concise? I find it rather long-winded.” The answer was: “Everything is said so clearly in it.” Then it dawned upon me my interlocutor does not distinguish concise and precise. Wait and see: in another fifty years people will believe that The Concise Oxford English Dictionary (by that time available only online) got its name for the accuracy of its definitions.
Similar things happen in grammar. Here is a quotation from a respectable newspaper. The article has a depressing title (but that’s fine: whatever we do, it is important to be depressed about something): “The American Reader: An Endangered Species?” This is what we, who still buy books and go to libraries, find there: “One in four adults say that they read no books at all in the past year….” The agreement is laughable, and editors are supposed to fight it, but alas and alack, most speakers of American English make the verb agree with the nearest noun or pronoun. As soon as adults (four of them) appeared in the sentence, one was forgotten. Hence one… say that they, an interpretation obvious to the meanest capacity, as they used to write in the Victorian era. And since most people say so, the right is on their side. We can bemoan their illiteracy, but blessed are those who speak as birds sing, for theirs is the future. We may not want to be part of it, and we won’t.
Another famous case of grammatical confusion is whom versus who. Every grammar book discusses it, but no one cares. The who-whom problem deserves a moment’s attention (revisiting, to use a buzzword trodden to death) only because not everybody realizes how old it is. Occasionally the non-discrimination of the two forms of the pronoun who is called an Americanism. Nothing can be further from the truth. What does the following advice to a young man mean: “Mind whom you marry”? “Look after you wife”? Or “mind who it is you marry”? In the year 1875 the ambiguity of that advice caused a fierce polemic in England. All the participants chose the second interpretation. But the trials of whom did not stop there. A verse from the Authorized Version was remembered: “…he asked his disciples, saying ‘Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?’” (Matt. XVI: 13). The meaning is: “Who do men say that I, the Son of man, am?” In this verse, the accusative also stands in Latin (quemnam) and Greek (tina). This explains why whom appeared in English but does not make the question, with its convoluted syntax, easier to understand. Compare a snippet from Milton: “I… shall instance… one… whom we well know was…” The sentence sounds as though it were a quotation from yesterday’s newspaper.
At the beginning of the 20th century, nearly every distinguished linguist’s ambition was to write a book called Language. Edward Sapir, an American, brought out his Language in 1921. He devoted five pages to the question why the pronoun whom is disappearing from Modern English. Many people prefer: “Who did you see?” to “Whom did you see?” Yet whom does not sound pedantic in such questions. By contrast, it is hard to catch anyone asking: “At whom did you look?” or “Whom did you look at?” Who did you look at has won out. Sapir offers all kinds of arguments that account for the ousting of whom in Modern English. His book was published two years before the appearance of the volume of The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) featuring wh-words. Perhaps if he had seen that volume, he would have felt less certain of his conclusions, all of them pertaining to Modern English, for the earliest recorded examples of whom for who go back to the 13th century, while who substituted for whom at least as early as the fifteen hundreds. The language has changed radically since the Middle English period, but the confusion has remained. In the OED, citations with who for whom and whom for who are marked as ungrammatical. Ungrammatical for 800 years! Despite the triumph of who over whom it is whom that takes over in sentences like the one I used in the title of this post. The situation is similar to that we observe in one of four adults say. The force that gets the better of logic can be called attraction. Say is closer to adults than one. Students, when asked why they write: “The mood of the fairy tales are gloomy,” answer diffidently: “It flows better.” It certainly does. In the girl whom you think lives here has left, think overshadows the girl, the subject of the sentence. I have discussed this grammar with students many times. As a rule, they find it hard to understand what I want. The usual reaction is: “Who… whom…Oh, I see,” but they don’t see anything. Who has not merely edged out whom (this would have been a regular occurrence). The two forms continue to live in a state of precarious symbiosis, and no one is sure who does what and to whom. Mind whom you marry, mind whom you trust, and, above all, mind your English.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”