Review: Punctuation..?

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punctuation

I’m delighted to be reviewing a book about punctuation, as this is the sort of thing I read for pure enjoyment. (Disclosure: Aside from a reviewer’s copy of the text, no other compensation was provided.)

This is a slender volume, 36 pages in length. It offers a brief explanation the 21 most common marks of punctuation, with humorous line drawings to accompany each item.

 

Who is this book for?

According to the marketing copy, the target audience is fairly broad, including “all ages, although especially for teenagers and people who do not like to read and feel reading a book is boring,” and for skill levels ranging from “emerging to expert.”

As I was reading each entry, checking it against my own understanding, it became apparent that this text applies to BrE (British English) speakers and does not align in certain respects with AmE. For example, in the section on quotation marks, the author states that in the UK, single quotes are generally preferred for quoted speech, and double quotes are used for speech-within-speech. That’s the UK style, but AmE follows the reverse pattern.

In the Oxford Guide to Style in “5.13 Quotation marks,” the same explanation is provided, with a note that in the UK, newspapers generally follow US style with respect to quotation marks.

If you are not a BrE speaker but do edit or write for a UK audience, then this book might be a good reference to have on hand. There are additional differences that might elude an AmE speaker, such as the use of (curved) and {curly} brackets, and em — and en – dashes. (Although, to be fair, most AmE speakers have difficulty with these in US style, too.)

I was surprised to see explanations for the use of interpuncts, pilcrows, primes, and guillemets. As these generally aren’t used in standard copy, their inclusion is (in my opinion) more for interest and comprehensiveness.

You could digest this book easily in one sitting, using it to further your understanding or refresh your memory. Professional editors need to know much more than what is included here, and to have a sense of which rules are more akin to style calls than hard-and-fast edicts. For the general writer or student in a BrE context, Punctuation..? covers virtually virtually everything you need to know on this subject.

 

How to use this book

Page 1 is the table of contents. Find the element of punctuation you want to review and flip to that page. If you have this text ready at hand, you’ll get your answer faster than a Google search. I could see this being an appropriate gift or stocking stuffer for a student.

(Note: The title of the book blends two points of ellipsis with a question mark, the bottom point of which amusingly completes the ellipsis. This is intentional on the part of the author, and a hint that the contents will be playful in tone.)

Title: Punctuation..?

Publisher: User Design (2nd ed., 2012)

Author: Thomas Bohm

ISBN: 978-0-9570712-2-3

Price: £10 (EUR 11.66, US $15.43)

Website: userdesignillustrationandtypesetting.com/books

Gearing up for battle

A man in business attire holding a Japanese sword

Happily, I’ve yet again transitioned from one editing desk to another. This is always a challenging task because these jobs don’t grow on trees and the competition for them is intense.

One of the first tasks when you land a new gig is to set up your workstation. How you do this is up to you and your working style. It will reflect the type of work you’re doing, but I thought you might want to see what I do in nearly all cases.

Ergonomics matter

You’ll be spending most of your day in the saddle, so you should be as comfortable as possible. Have a high-quality desk chair and position its height so that when your hands are on the keyboard, your wrists should be straight and flat—not angled upward or down. This minimizes your risk of carpal tunnel syndrome.

Position your monitor so that no light is shining directly on it.

Put pens, rulers, sticky notes, tape, scissors, stapler, all your stationery needs at hand. Use your desktop real estate wisely and keep some areas clear if you can so you have room for reference works and hardcopy when needed.

Wrangling Word

As often happens, I’ve got a fresh copy of MS Word installed on the company machine, and it takes hours (if not a full day) to get it customized for editorial work. Some of the things you’ll want to do straightaway:

  1. Turn off “auto” everything. Most of these settings are under FILE > OPTIONS.
  • Replace text as you type (off)
  • Automatic bullets (off)
  • Automatic numbered lists (off)
  • Show Paste Options button when content is pasted (off)
  1. Here are the options settings the way I like them. The goal is maximum control to avoid letting Word make decisions for you, as you’ll be fighting with it otherwise.

And select “Show all formatting marks.” When I hire new editors, they are often resistant to working with formatting marks visible. At first, it’s distracting, so that’s understandable. But eventually, within a week or so, it becomes natural. It’s much easier to catch stray tabs and spaces this way. If your author used the space bar to force a page break, this will reveal it on sight.

The Exclusion Dictionary

This is your secret weapon to avoid blunders like “pubic” for “public,” and so forth. The exclusion dictionary will flag as incorrect any words you add to it. If you meant to write “assess” but accidentally typed “asses,” Word will alert you by underlining the word in red so you can confirm or correct it. Full instructions are given by Mike Pope here, and Sam Hartburn here.

If it takes you 15 minutes to do this, and it subsequently spares you the embarrassment of missing one of these errors, it will be time well spent.

The Macro picture

Macros are an advanced Word feature that you may have avoided because they are written in Visual Basic and aren’t easy to understand. The Macro Cookbook by Jack Lyon  and the extensive catalog of macros devised by Paul Beverley can help tremendously.

You can use their pre-written macros as-is or modify them to your needs. In addition, there’s a “record” feature so you can tell Word to create a macro and then do something you want it to do. Hit “stop,” name the macro, and it will replicate the procedure.

Some of the macros I use:

  • Hyphenate all selected words. If you have a phrase like “it was an all hands on deck situation,” you can set up a macro so that selecting “all hands on deck” and hitting [Alt]+[h] will hyphenate the term.
  • Superscript. One client I have requests that endnote references be superscripted and highlighted in yellow. I have a macro assigned to the F11 key that does that.
  • Insert row above. This normally takes a menu selection and click to perform. If you work with tables a lot, having a macro that does this with something like [Alt]+[t] is a time saver.
  • Notes unembed. This one is in Paul Beverley’s book. Copy it, add it to your macro list, and if your author has used footnotes that you want to change to endnotes, with a single click it will change all the Roman numerals to highlighted superscripted arabic numerals, remove the separater lines, and move all the references to the end of the document. The timesaving here is extraordinary.

Anything you do repetitively is a candidate for turning into a macro. If you have a lot of them (and I do), jot down the keyboard shortcuts for them on a sticky and put it somewhere you can access at a glance.

Bookmark all your standard online references, like Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, The Online Etymological Dictionary, and any other site you frequent for work.

UIX repair

Microsoft replaced the standard Word interface with the ribbon. They did this to make Word easier to use for new users, and to that extent they succeeded. At the same time, however, they changed the location of many menus and icons familiar to power users. If you want the classic interface back, there’s the UBitMenu patch available here.

This is free and works extremely well, with the caveat that some functions are disabled. I’ve not found it to be a deal-breaker. The gain in speed is worth it. Other patches may work better but you have to pay for them.

My workstation

Here’s the current setup.

 

If I can add a third monitor, I will.

Make it so


One of the signature features of Valley Girl–speak is the frequent use of the word “like.” It’s been subject to parody and ridicule, and you’ll readily find articles about how to improve your working vocabulary by excising like from your lexicon.

A new candidate targeted for removal is the word “so” in the initial position in sentences, which has been flagged as being an empty filler word. As one commentator on Twitter put it:

All kinds of people begin ALL their responses to questions with “So”. ‘So’ is a CONJUNCTION not a ‘filler’ & it’s used maybe 10% of the time as a conjunction. What’s up w/ that?

Over the past few years, you might have noticed a slight uptick in prefatory so and, as Geoff Nunberg puts it, while most people don’t care, some do care very much.
A chief objection, as shown above, is that beginning a statement with so is inelegant because it’s wrong to begin a sentence with a conjunction. That’s balderdash on two counts: One, it’s OK to begin a sentence with a conjunction. Two, so in such cases isn’t functioning as a conjunction.

Other objections are more along the lines of “I hate it.” Last year, NPR’s Weekend Edition asked listeners to list the most misused words or phrases in English, and sentence-initial so ranked second, only surpassed by “between you and I.”

So what is ‘so’?

According to Zipf’s law, the most common words in English tend to be short ones, and they’re the workhorses of the lexicon. So is a case in point. It can be
• An adverb expressing the degree of an adjective (I’ve never been so disappointed).
• A conjunction (I was upset, so I ate some red cherries).
• A pronoun (If you’d like to make a complaint, do so).
• An adjective (That isn’t so).
• An interjection (So we meet at last).

It is the last sense, as an interjection, that’s under discussion here. As you focus more closely on so, you find that it has multiple functions. As with the word like, it briefly cues the reader or listener as to how what follows should be interpreted or it signals the desired flow of communication. Back to the word like, consider the following:

“So, I’m like, ‘Where did he go?’ and she’s like ‘I don’t know, I haven’t seen him.’”

This “like” has been described as working at several levels. It indicates that the speaker should not be interrupted as the narration is ongoing, and it suggests that what follows may not be verbatim but is a synopsis of what was said.

You may have noticed in old movies that, some 80 or 90 years ago, a common way to begin sentences was with the word say, as in, “Say, haven’t I seen you around here before?” Interjectory so can serve a similar function.

For example, if you’re out walking and suddenly realize you’ve forgotten something and have to retrace your steps, it’s customary to pause, make a kind of an “Aw, shucks, darn it” gesture and then turn around, because if you abruptly stopped and swiveled 180 degrees, it would look bizarre. An initial so can be like that, cueing the listener to prepare for a particular kind of statement or question, easing gently into the matter.

Speech acts

Let’s look at some of the ways prefatory so works in action:
• Considering what has been said thus far: “So, having said that, …”
• Expressing doubt: “So you’re telling me that you own a pangolin.”
• Indicating a question will follow: “So, what shall we have for dinner?”
• Requesting confirmation: “So before I install the software I should close all open programs?”
• Declaring a conclusion: “So you’re a liar.”

And, as noted, it can be a conjunction. In the prefatory position, it implies something unstated.

So you finally pulled it off. [You’ve been trying to do that for some time, and…]

In the song So You Want To Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star by the Byrds, what function is so performing? Conceivably it could be a synonym for “if,” but there’s a deeper nuance to it, something more akin to amused skepticism, i.e., “O-ho, you want to be a rock-and-roll star, do you?”

To be sure, some of these cases could be described as adverbial or adjectival, but labeling them as such isn’t as useful as determining what so is accomplishing in each given context. As shown, prefatory so does have discourse-marking functions and its removal can change the intended meaning:

You’re a liar. [Flat accusation.]
So you’re a liar. [I have demonstrated that you are lying].

Much in the same way that modems have error-correcting routines, discourse markers make communication easier. In formal writing, you can normally omit an introductory so, yet as Olivia Blair notes, “But if you spoke the way you write, people wouldn’t be able to understand you because it’s hard to process that much information.”

So-phisticated

In a meta-study of five papers on the topic, researchers noted that filler words like I mean, you know, like, uh, and um are used as pauses, and are seen at equal frequency across all genders, ages, and socioeconomic levels. Discourse markers, however, like I mean, you know, like, and so are more frequently used by women, young people, and “more conscientious” people. In other words, more sophisticated speakers use discourse markers to improve their intelligibility.

When so is used at the beginning of questions and answers, it can signal the desire to change direction or begin a new topic, establishing an “interactional agenda.” Intonation can also factor into this.

A long, drawn out “So…” slightly rising at the end indicates something approximate to “Given all the things I’ve said…” and is often apologetic. Whereas a short, clipped “So,” with a sharp, falling intonation, can signal to the listener that “discussion is over now and the matter is settled.”

The Business Insider link above posits that answering all questions with a prefatory so could be emergent from Silicon Valley, indicative of programmer lingo, in which it is common. It also casts doubt on this hypothesis. In my experience, people who habitually use prefatory so tend to be highly educated. Professors, doctors, lawyers, and similar professionals.

Ergo, it has become more commonplace because people want to sound educated and they take note of this expression as it is used by skilled speakers. Nota bene: If overused, so is a verbal tic and will generate opprobrium. Use it judiciously.

On the origin of specious

Occasionally you’ll see a writer use the word entomology (the study of insects) where etymology (the study of word origins) is meant. So let’s start by examining the etymology of etymology.

From etymon, “true sense, original meaning,” neuter of etymos “true, real, actual,” related to eteos “true,” which perhaps is cognate with Sanskrit satyah, Gothic sunjis, Old English soð “true,” from a PIE set- “be stable.”

This is from the Online Etymological Dictionary, a source worth bookmarking. The acronym “PIE” stands for Proto-Indo-European, the ancestor of most European languages, including Spanish, English, Portuguese, and Hindustani. The reconstruction of PIE is in itself a work of etymology because it predates written language and we’ve only learned about the culture that spoke it by way of comparative linguistics.

The practice of etymology sounds like a hard science. To understand the original meaning of a word, you just go back to its earliest form and that’s what the people who coined it meant it to be. Plato was a strong proponent of this idea. For example, our word “produce” roughly stems from the Latin pro (from, forward) and ducere (to lead). Thus to produce something you are leading or bringing it forward. Simple enough, right? Wrong.

Gustave Flaubert, in his Dictionary of Accepted Ideas, satirically gives this entry:

Etymology: The easiest thing in the world, with a little Latin and ingenuity.

Much like Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary, Flaubert’s text is one of those tongue-in-cheek affairs, but it contains a kernel of truth: Up until about the 20th century, etymology was largely the province of crackpots and armchair English pundits. Today’s linguists and lexicographers have access to digitized corpora of citations and databases, and extensive bodies of research that allow for greater accuracy in determining word origins.

The etymological fallacy

But why does etymology matter? People online will annoyingly chide you that “language is constantly changing, it’s a growing, breathing thing.” As if you were unaware of this fact. And this alludes to the Etymological Fallacy, to wit: An argument making a claim about the present meaning of a word based exclusively on its etymology.

The occasional angry letter to the editor regarding “decimate” is typical (@4ndyman tackles that one here). But in general you don’t see this type of argument often—and when you do it will concern a disputed usage. Just as there are no pure descriptivists or prescriptivists, people who only hew to the original meanings of words don’t exist either. Let’s look at some words that have changed over time:

Word Originally meant
orient to arrange something to face east
nice foolish, stupid, senseless
candid white, shining
black bright, shining, glittering, pale
transpire to pass off in the form of a vapor or liquid
knight servant
apology a speech in defense
lady kneader of bread
symposium drinking party
maneuver to work with one’s hands
explode drive out or off by clapping, booing
leave remain
gorgeous pertaining to the throat
Yule heathen feast
sycophant informer, slanderer

I doubt you’ve ever heard anyone contesting the modern meaning of these words. That being the case, why would etymology have any purpose beyond satisfying idle curiosity? As Howard Jackson puts it, in Lexicography: An Introduction:

Etymology does not make a contribution to the description of the contemporary meaning and usage of words; it may help to illuminate how things have got to where they are now, but it is as likely to be misleading as helpful. [It] offers no advice to one who consults a dictionary on the appropriate use of a word in the context of a written text or spoken discourse. It merely provides some passing insight for the interested dictionary browser with the requisite background knowledge and interpretative skills.

Also, here’s Leigh Kolb in Etymological Fallacy: 100 of the Most Important Fallacies in Western Philosophy:

Individuals should be learned enough and flexible enough to communicate within the time and culture they inhabit. Clinging to etymons while ignoring the evolution and everyday use of language is neither logical nor truthful.

Wait, back this thing up

Earlier, I recommended that you bookmark the Online Etymological Dictionary. This is because etymologies can be useful if, as Jackson says, you have the wherewithal to use the information appropriately. For example, take the word burgeon, which comes to us from Old French borjoner, “to bud, grow, sprout, blossom.” It would be unobjectionable in “America’s burgeoning hemp oil industry,” but questionable in “Amazon’s burgeoning dominance of the retail sector.” Given its roots in the sense of “budding,” it’s closely synonymous with nascent or inchoate, but less familiar in the guise of “growing” if applied to something that has been occurring steadily over a long period.

The adjective lachrymose derives from lacrima, meaning tears. It could be employed in some sense of “sad,” but deployed to best effect it should have a nuance of weeping, a turning on of the waterworks, as with Brian Johnson here:

If you come across a word that’s being used in an odd way, striking you as peculiar, a quick check of its etymology can (sometimes) give you a feel for the right nuance. It will be a data point; not a rock-solid answer you can take to the bank, but a clue that can inform your understanding in addition to other tools, such as the standard dictionary definition, a Google ngram search, and citations in literature. For writers and editors, this is a routine procedure.

A butterfly doesn’t look anything like a caterpillar, but you wouldn’t have a full understanding of butterflies without a grasp of their amazing life cycle, from larva to chrysalis to winged marvel.

Touché, cliché

One of the primary tasks in smart editing is to excise hackneyed, shopworn phrases like “first and foremost,” “each and every,” “part and parcel” and the like. In the normal practice of writing, an author gets into a flow and (should) write in a fairly conversational style so that the language looks natural and familiar.

Then, the editor comes along and eyes every word and checks to see if it deserves to live. If a word doesn’t justify its existence, it gets the “thumbs down.” Let’s look at a real-life example.

Taking it up a notch, have your receptionist ask patients as they are paying the bill at the conclusion of their visits, “How did everything go today?” When asking such a question, it’s important to hold eye contact with the patient and look genuinely interested.

This looks normal and fluid, but let’s interrogate the words. “Taking it up a notch” is a likely candidate for execution. And “as they are paying the bill” and “at the conclusion of their visits” is redundant. The phrase “it’s important to” is almost always a candidate for assassination.

Procedural language

Let’s focus on this last part. “It is important to” and “You should remember that” and “Bear this in mind,” and “Never forget that,” and any variant of these and similar phrases are examples of what I’ve dubbed procedural language, phrases that direct the reader how to feel about the text. Here’s Chandler on Hammett:

He was spare, frugal, hardboiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.

Procedural language fails this test. As Paul Gallico said, “It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader.” If you are writing at that level of intensity, there will never be cause to plant verbal signposts exhorting the reader to “pay close attention here because all the other stuff can be safely forgotten.”

Pew Research finds that somewhere around 25 percent of American adults haven’t read a book in whole or in part in the past year. It’s a safe bet that a larger number haven’t taken the time to write something more substantial than a grocery list.

Those who do set out to craft words to be read and savored ought to be making them shine and sing with vibrancy. Admittedly, if you’re working on a bomb-defusing manual, it might be worthwhile to inform the reader to “remember to cut the blue wire first.”

The sing-song threes

Another verbal tic to watch for is a repetitive cadence of trios: “The campaign is big, bad, and bold,” “She was classy, sassy, and brassy,” “He owned it lock, stock, and barrel,” and the like are common. Many rhetoricians are fond of anaphora, the steady repetition of an introductory phrase, e.g., “People don’t want to be lectured, people don’t want to be harangued, people don’t want to be treated like children…” and the sing-song threes are in this camp.

In most cases, truncation will improve the text if you can isolate the most important term and let it stand alone: “The campaign is bold,” “She was sassy,” and “He owned it in full.”

There are instances where clichés and jargon are not only permissible, but de rigueur. Particularly in works by professionals directed at others of the same class. These serve to hug the reader tightly while concomitantly excluding outsiders. This is more common in technical writing, and you’ll see it in works directed at hobbyists of all stripes.

It’s been said before

When a writer is unconfident, it’s logical that he or she will lean on shopworn and hackneyed phrasing because it’s familiar. If others have used this language, then it has the pedigree of commonplacedness. In general editing, the task will not require the insertion of brilliance, but more often the removal of pedestrian locutions. With any luck, there’s a diamond underneath the shale and you’re whittling away to reveal it.

Ex-cues me

A cueball on a pool table

It’s time to talk about that.

There appears to be a tendency in journalism schools to train students to delete the word “that” in virtually every instance in which it appears. On occasion, I’ve had to put them back into a text to resolve a miscue—an case where a “that” signals the structure and meaning of a sentence and aids the reader. For example: 

The movements that have arisen to honor the dignity of both women—movements to end mass incarceration and mass deportation—are separate streams feeding the same river.

Here, “that” is the subject of a relative clause, so it has to stay. But without the clause, then “movements” is the direct object of the relative clause:

The movements are separate streams feeding the same river.

But: These are the movements that caused the hashtag to go viral.

Now “that” is signaling the subject of the verb, so it stays. As a demonstrative pronoun, it’s equivalent to “you” or “she,” etc., and removal is impossible:

We gave that to you already.

Where things get trickier is when “that” functions as a subordinating conjunction:

The mummy is terrified that it will never escape the tomb.

Here, you could snip out the “that,” but doing so would make the sentence a bit clunky; that is, the cue “is terrified that” signals to the reader “now, whatever follows will be the thing that terrifies the mummy.” In some cases you might delete “that,” as it’s optional in most cases of this sort:

I am shocked that there is gambling in this café.

Assess the ease of the read and then render your judgment.
If “that” is the subject of the sentence, well, of course it’s essential:

That I love beef jerky isn’t open to discussion.

From Solzhenitsyn: “Throw open the heavy curtains which are so dear to you—you do not even suspect that the day has already dawned outside.” Here, “that” is functioning as a predicative complement; what do you suspect? The thing that follows “that.”

I suspect that the cat did it.

The difference between this example and the Solzhenitsyn one is largely length and complexity. As a sentence grows longer and the number of clauses increases, a deftly placed “that” helps the reader parse the meaning.

And with reporting verbs, “that” is generally a good idea.

We [assumed] that she was hiding in the closet.

I already [explained] that I was stricken with the rickets.

She didn’t [notice] that her cape was getting sucked into the escalator.

When you [said] that the dog was rabid, I didn’t take you literally.

Depending on your terminology, you might disagree with some of the above. You might refer to some of these constructions in a different way. The point is there are various flavors of “that,” and the grammatical function of “that” in a given instance will determine how easily it can be excised (or not).

About gender-neutral “guys” – an explainer

Recently, the matter of gender-neutral “guys” was raised again by this article at Slate. I recommend you give it a look. At several companies, with family members and friends, with colleagues, I’ve been asking people of all ages and backgrounds what they think about it.

A multi-dimensional rule set

As it happens, English has a number of words to refer to a generic person of some sort. “Human,” of course, and “man” in the sense of “the works of man.” Feminist criticism from the 1960s onward has challenged these usages, and careful writers will generally be sensitive to that.

“Guys,” interestingly, has been increasingly adopting a gender-neutral use case, but it isn’t acceptable in all cases as a referent to women-only or mixed-gendered groups. It seems happier in cases where the speaker and referents are of a peer group, and generally younger persons. It trends informal, such that a junior is less likely to apply it to address seniors – whether in age or status.

There may be regional affects as well. The Chicago dialect, for example, is noted for constructions like “youse guys,” where the Southern dialects hew toward “y’all.” The various forms of “y’all” like “y’all’s” and so forth are not salient here; the point being that “y’all” cannot stand in for “guys” as an acceptable alternative outside the South as it is a class and educational marker with a considerable amount of criticism regarding its use.

A parent might storm upstairs and rail at a girls’ slumber party, “You guys knock it off!”

Here you see that gender-neutral “guys” is virtually always second-person. In the third-person it doesn’t work at all, e.g., “I saw a guy standing in our driveway” would never be construed as possibly implying a woman so disposed.

“Guys” is perforce informal. A Nobel laureate would be unlikely to thank “all the guys I worked with.”

Self-conscious langauge

Note also that few speakers are acutely aware of their usage choices. Those who rail against “singular they” will be seen to employ it routinely in their own writing. In a like guise, if you query a person, “Do you use ‘guys’ to refer to women in groups or in mixed groups?” you’ll usually get a blank look at first because he or she has not considered this problem before.

The native speaker sorts out the appropriateness of the usage on the fly. While possible, it is unlikely that a teenager would address a group of elder family members as “you guys,” but would readily do so among peers. Asking speakers to self-report is thus somewhat unreliable, as most will not be aware of how they are using language but respond to such requests in terms of what they think should be the “correct” answer.

Hurt feelings

To conclude this discussion, it would be remiss to dodge the question of how LGBTQI persons might feel if being addressed in a group as a “guys.” The linked Slate article above has some anecdotes expressing the sentiment that this could be a triggering event. Given the way language works in practice, if the speaker and the referents are in accord with how the term is used naturally and fluidly, it’s unlikely it would cause offense.

Whom do you love?

image

We need to talk about “whom.” It is exceedingly common on language discussion boards for grammarists to opine that this word is on the way out. That in 10 years it won’t exist. That it’s useless, needless, and if used is so stuffy and stilted as to virtually shame the person who uses it.

First. let’s check with H.W. Fowler. His entry under “who and whom” runs to four pages in the 2nd ed., so it’s obviously something he felt strongly about. After citing a number of great authors mistakenly using “whom” where “who” would be correct, including Shakespeare, he gives this:

After reading these we can perhaps conclude that the decisive influence is probably the vague impression beforehand that whom is is more likely to be right; but it need hardly be said that slapdash procedure of that kind deserves no mercy when it fails.That every whom in in those quotations ought grammatically to be who is beyond question, and to prove it is a waste of time since the offenders themselves would admit the offence; they commit it because they prefer gambling the probabilities to working out a certainty.

This fault is termed “hypercorrection.” As in “They came with the officer and I.” The native speaker will often select a form as envisioned more formal, and thereby go astray. Now, let’s see what Theodore Bernstein has to say in The Careful Writer:

The errors in spoken language arise chiefly from two causes. One is the tendency to regard a noun toward the beginning of a sentence as being in the nominative rather than the objective case; this produces such solecisms as, “Who did you wish to see?” The second is the fear of committing such solecisms; this leads to overrefinement, as in, “Whom shall I say is calling?”

What I wish to zero in on here are the opinions of language experts regarding this matter. As the zeitgeist is now strongly in favor of descriptivism, the standard take is that whom is a hoary relic of a bygone age, and the sooner it is tossed on the scrapheap of unwanted and unloved words the better.

Yet I’d argue that whom is not some elitist marker of educated speech. At least, not in all cases. There is the grammatically difficult whom that is difficult to parse. For example, here’s Bernstein again, in his Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins:

One can be a champion of correctness in usage and still maintain that no one should be compelled to work out an intricate puzzle to determine whether his construction is correct; correctness should be something that is obvious instanter.

Let’s get down to business. When “who” follows a preposition, it is perforce in the objective case and only whom will sound correct. In such constructions, who will be viscerally ungrammatical and few if any native speakers would make a mistake with it, e.g., “I’d like to know for whom you bought this gift.” We can ignore the argument that people would hew toward “who you bought this gift for.” If that’s the way you were running the sentence, then you’ll get there. Fine. But if you use a preposition and stick a who after it, only whom will sound natural and correct. Lily Tomlin’s “Ernestine” telephone company character was famous for her tagline, “Is this the person to whom I am speaking?”

Not only would “to who I am speaking” sound off, but the ooh sound followed by ai is awkward, while the em sound followed by ai as in my is much more fluid. So, no, whom isn’t going anywhere.

In practice, the native speaker will generally get whom right in forced cases as when following a preposition, and often get it wrong when it’s the first word in a sentence, suggesting it’s the subject and therefore nominative. In that case, it tends to sound correct (who did you see at the party?) and doesn’t cause the listener to dive on the fainting couch.

In almost every case, the person who tells you whom is a dead word will be someone who understands how to use it perfectly without fail. He or she thinks that you can’t.

No text, please. We’re British.

We’re at a point where observations like “We say ‘elevator’ but in England they say ‘lift’” are ridiculous. Yes, we all know the differences among crisps, chips, boots, bonnets, lorries, trucks, washrooms, loos, films, movies, and so forth.

This is because Americans, at least up to the age of 70—perhaps even older—have grown up with TV shows like “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” “The Dave Allen Show,” “The Two Ronnies,” “Masterpiece Theatre,” “The Prisoner,” and many more. Since the British Invasion of the late ‘50s, popular music has been inundated with British vocabulary and slang.

There is probably no American alive who hasn’t read works of British literature, read Shakespeare, and the younger generation has been weaned on Harry Potter. British English? We’re soaking in it.

For a truly deep dive into this subject, Lynne Murphy’s The Prodigal Tongue explores the matter in more detail, but for the purposes of this argument, suffice to say that most people in the UK likely understand Amercanisms, and most Americans grasp the major distinctions between these two styles of English.

Personally, I can tell the difference among Geordie, Welsh, Scottish, Scouse, Cockney, and Essex accents. Rhyming slang, while not native to my idiolect, is at least familiar to me: “Let’s rabbit at the nuclear” is clearly enough “Let’s talk at the pub.” These are not brain-busting linguistic news-flash-worthy points of order.

The fact is that on both sides of the pond, we generally grasp our linguistic differences and, even when presented with a novel utterance, context alone generally gets the meaning across. The same goes for Canadian, Australian, New Zealander, and South African dialects.

The Beatles, for example, introduced us to the adjective “gear,” meaning au courant, and many more such Liverpudlianisms. Mastering English means mastering all forms of the tongue, and most of us do, to a greater or lesser extent. Now, all that said, phrases like “cheeky nandos” have proven difficult for Americans to grasp, as some of our terms, like “graveyard shift,” might stump your average Brit.

But by and large, reasonably educated speakers in all dialects of English understand one another. Fluency in the language means not just mastering your native dialect, but that of other speakers, too.