Uncharted Territory

June 4, 2009

Fewer Says Who

Filed under: BBC, Language, Media — Tim Joslin @ 9:23 am

Maybe my ears deceived me, but I could have sworn that yesterday morning on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme I heard a statement of the form:

“They are conspiring against Gordon Brown, whom is in a precarious position.”

It’s not just media hyperventilation at continuing personality politics (anyone out there seen a policy? Hello? Hello?), there appears to have been a recent surge of enthusiasm for the word “whom”.

Only a year or two ago the BBC – as if this institution is not otherwise suffocating public debate enough in this country they seem to be unofficial custodians of our language as well – suggested “who” could safely be used most of the time. In 2006, University Challenge even claimed “whom” was virtually obsolete”. Now, in what could be a clip from a 1960s class comedy (wherein the cheeky chappy looks lovably foolish in his mistaken attempts to speak proper), Alan Johnson seemed on the same BBC Radio 4 a few weeks ago to take a deep breath before producing the word “whom” as proudly as a baby pooing.

I suspect the “whom” epidemic is caused by an oversimplification of grammatical rules. The majority school claims that “who” should be used as the subject and “whom” otherwise. This rather ignores the subtleties of direct and indirect objects of verbs, let alone the accusatives, genitives and so on so important in Latin. My initial position was that “whom” correctly replaces indirect but not direct objects. E.g. “That’s the player who was kicked by Fabregas”. “That’s the referee of whom Drogba spoke”. The trouble is, it’s not quite so simple, if we’re to clarify whether we should refer to “the player who Fabregas spat on” (allegedly) or “the player whom Fabregas spat on” (allegedly) – the former seems correct to me. Maybe we do need to go back to those Latin cases, but a more practical minority position is occasionally referred to in online forums. This is that “whom” is the form to be used after prepositions.  So use the word in constructs such as “of whom”, “to whom” etc, but not elsewhere.  This is what appeared to be the consensus until the recent outbreak of grammatical correctness.

The affectation of “whom” is nothing compared to the change in pronunciation of “says” and “said” over the last couple of years.  for decades we’ve all been content to rhyme “say” with “hay”, but “said” with “Fred”.  “Says” is pronounced “sez”, alright?

While the English police direct their resources at supposedly mistaken “who”s and supposedly mispronounced “said”s, “fewer” falls ever more into disuse.  The Guardian’s otherwise brilliant columnist Lucy Mangan even wrote recently that she couldn’t:

“think of an example where abolition of the distinction [between “less” and “fewer”] would cause confusion, but my heart mourns its loss.”

What?

Consider the ambiguities arising from the lack of a moreish equivalent to “fewer”.  Here’s one: “There are more dangerous snakes over there”.  Are there more snakes thither or are the ones there more dangerous?  If we were there rather than here we could be clear: “There are fewer dangerous snakes over there” or “There are less dangerous snakes over there.”  Trouble is, now that the language has eroded, to make yourself understood you’d have to say something like: “The snakes over there are less dangerous.”

So we’re making people concentrate on supposed, but dubious, correctness when it makes no difference to understanding, but paying no attention to language rules that are necessary to avoid confusion.  As usual we’d rather play little social games than actually solve any problems.

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