Jonathon Owen of Arrant Pedantry fame tweeted a link to this piece at the New York Daily News.* It’s a discussion of the online open letter that George Zimmerman put up, explaining his current situation and asking for contributions to his defense fund. I’ll skip the details of the Zimmerman/Martin case here, because the Daily News piece is so tangentially related to it that it could just as easily be about a man inconsequentially accused of stealing kitties as it is a microcosm of American paranoia, prejudice, and gun laws.

What’s interesting about the letter, it seems, is that it is not well-written, leading one of the Daily News’s bloggers to critique its “really bad grammar”. Why is that newsworthy? I don’t know — something about how Zimmerman’s playing “fast and loose with the most basic laws of grammar” is only going to support the idea that he’s also “a careless vigilante who played fast and loose with the law”.

Of course, Zimmerman isn’t playing fast and loose with the most basic laws of grammar. If he were doing that, he would be writing things like “Me innocents are”, violating in three words English rules of word order, subject-verb agreement, noun-adjective agreement, and case assignment. No, the eight objections the author raises to Zimmerman’s writing are four word choices and four punctuation choices — three of them comma placement. Two of these (periods outside quotation marks and that/which) are American stylistic standards that are not uniformly followed even by Americans. As Jonathon noted, “Let’s be fair: George Zimmerman’s really bad grammar is no worse than most people’s”.

Such overexcited objections are old hat; what I found interesting was a question posed by the author of the post, Alexander Nazaryan. Zimmerman uses whom in one of his relative clauses where who is clearly more appropriate, to the confoundment of Nazaryan. Nazaryan asks:

“Why does Zimmerman use the outdated and notoriously tricky objective pronoun ‘whom’ when ‘who’ is correct and, in any case, would generally suffice? ‘Whom’ may sound more sophisticated, but it is wrong.”

Nazaryan has partially answered his own question by noting the whiff of sophistication around whom, but if he really wants to know the motivation, he need look no further than a mirror. As a preface to his piece, Nazaryan writes that when he was a high school English teacher, he would sometimes punish students by making them write letters of apology with “the only stipulation [being] that the grammar in such a missive had to be impeccable.”

Why? Not because it’s a useful learning experience, a hands-on application of the language skills he’s teaching them. Rather, it’s because Nazaryan claims “good grammar equaled a clean conscience”, which is first-order balderdash.**

He notes that it would take multiple drafts before the student got the letter to adhere to his grammar. That’s unsurprising; judging by his examples of the prescribed changes (no final prepositions!), his grammar contained a bunch of unmotivated edicts that were not accurate representations of English, written or otherwise.

So why would someone feel so compelled to try to use an outdated and tricky pronoun that they put it in where it isn’t needed? This isn’t tough to see; people are taught — by pedantic English teachers like this very author — that English has rules that one must use when writing correctly. Yet these rules, these supposedly critical rules, cause you to write in ways that feel unnatural and don’t reflect standard English. Whom, due to its rarity in informal and spoken English, sounds more formal than who. If I knew I didn’t know which to use, but I knew whom was formal and unfamiliar, much like the rules I was supposed to have learned in school, I’d probably choose it here.

Uninformed English teachers like Nazaryan have caused this, with his ill-explained (and often unexplainable) edicts that lead people to become so confused about what’s right and wrong that they try to use what sounds fancier in the vain hope of cracking the mysterious code that is their own native language. And tying good grammar to clean consciences or honesty or moral probity or good thinking only intensifies the problem, as people who’d normally try to stick to their natural form of English feel compelled to reach for a formal form that they’ve never been properly taught.


*: Jonathon’s since followed up with a post addressing the piece’s ridiculousness, especially its “explicit moralization of grammar”.

**: I know I harp on certain points, so I’m trying to be short about this, but really?! How in the hell would anyone ever convince themselves of something so patently absurd? I have to assume this is sarcasm, because otherwise, what?

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