Friday, May 18, 2007

To cite, or not to cite

OK, the kerfuffle has reached crazy levels now. You can read about it here, here, here, here. I'm sure I'm missing some of them, but if you check those posts, it should link to the others.

The claims, counterclaims, personality cults, purpose of footnotes, etc., has been enlightening. But, through it all, one thing has bothered me. The people involved in this debate (if it is a debate) are all learned, knowing at least one, if not more, inflected language. Jim knows Greek, speaks a fluent German, yet he fails in English. I am not picking on Jim, the others involved have also overlooked a very basic error in the whole thing.

My Latin and Greek teaching background is crying out, and I can't hold it in any longer! The topic was entitled "Who to cite." Now, students, what basic rule of English does this violate?

What, you don't know? Please, students, what is the subject of the sentence? That is correct, it is not stated, but implied. Now, class, what is the object of the verb? Again, you are correct, but how can a subjective case pronoun be the object of a verb?

Exactly! It can't; so what is the correct form of the word?

Class...class...hello; anybody there? Yes, you, the old codger in the back of the room. That is correct, we need to resurrect the word "whom" in order to clarify that the object of the verb is the person being cited! So the correct title should be "Whom to cite."

While we are on the topic, there is a homonym for cite that has made an appearance in this debate by mistake; what would that be? That is correct; site, a homonym with a very different meaning. Don't you just love English?


Jim said...

Whom rhymes with broom and that bespeaks witchcraft which is forbidden by the Bible so I refuse to use it. English grammar notwithstanding. But it is surprising that Heard hasn't made an entire book length refutation of it- I'm sure now he will, so thanks a LOT!


charleshalton said...

Whom is a relic of the case system which English for the most part discarded with. My philosophy of language is that to a large degree common usage determines grammar, not the other way around. Since hardly anyone except academics use "whom" I don't normally use it.

Mike said...

speaking of jim's grammar...i just have to point out his sentence:

"PS- If I weren’t allergic to cats I would be tempted to say that his new kitty were [I think this should probably be "is" - present singular...] cute."

tense and number...sigh...

...and i feel a little left out as part of the discussion/debate/kerfuffle/rediculousness/etc.

Christopher Heard said...

In my own defense, I would like to point out that I frequently mentioned the infelicitous phrase "who [sic] not to cite," but to my knowledge (which is, of course, fallible), I did not myself use the phrase in my own voice, but always put it within quotation marks. Fortunately, I do not feel defensive in the least about this issue. Equally fortunately, James did not take me to task for my split infinitives.

Jonadab said...

I'm afraid I have to agree with charleshalton on this one. I still use "whom" in the objective, but I grew up on the King James version of the Bible and am way more familiar than average with archaic forms. I also know how to correctly inflect English verbs in the second person singular. An awefully large number of people do not know the significance of the word "whom", thinking perhaps that it is a more formal version of "who", or part of a dialect. (I've had more than one person accuse me of having an English accent because I use it, although to my knowledge most Brits don't use "whom" in everyday speech either.)

For most of the English-speaking world, the case system is largely redundant (that's what we have word order patterns for) and has been dropping out of the language these past half a thousand years.

Except for the possessive, the only words I can think of off the top of my head that generally still inflect for case at this point are he/him, she/her, I/me, and they/them. There are a few hints that even these distinctions may eventually go the way of the second person singular. Usages like "Hi, it's me" and "John brought that over for you and I" are increasingly common in informal English, and since academia largely eschews use of the first person in formal writing, it is necessary to look at informal usage patterns to determine what is standard English. I believe most people still recognize the distinction between I and me at this point, but I do not know how many more generations that will continue to be the case.