Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Usage: Words Often Confused. U. W.

Question: How can I clarify words that are frequently confused?

Answer: Buy a manual of style and usage. The best I have found is The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, Times Books, 1990. In the meantime, I will conclude my summary of words most often confused with words beginning “U” and “W,” and I will end with the granddaddy of them all, “who” and “whom.”

With each item, I attach a “Scale of Distraction,” a measure of how many readers are likely to be distracted by the mistakes.

* Who cares.
** Some people you respect will be distracted by the mistake.
*** Many educated people will be distracted by the mistake.

“Unique”: has no equal; unparalleled. Don’t modify with “very,” “rather” or “almost.” (**)

“Unprecedented”: for the first time. Don’t modify with “very,” “rather,” or “almost.” (**)

“Worshiped,” “worshiper,” “worshiping.” Accent falls on the first syllable—“wor’shiped,” “wor’shiper” and “wor’shiping.” Therefore, you don’t double the “p.” Doesn’t look right though. I might try to write around it. (*)

On the other hand:

“Programmed,” “programmer,” “programming.” Depending on how you pronounce these words, the accent falls on the second syllable: “program’med,” “program’mer,” “program’ming.” Therefore the “m” is doubled. (*)

I know! you pronounce it “pro’gramed.” Well I guess most people don’t pronounce it with the accent on the first syllable. But enough who do confuse the issue: I have seen “programed,” “programer” and “programing.” Such is English.

And now—Ta da!—the granddaddy of all issues in English usage: “who” and “whom.”

“Who” is the same as “he,” “she,” and “they.” “Whom” is the same as “him” “her” or “them.”

The biggest problem with “who” and “whom” (and “whoever” and “whomever”) is subordinate clauses: “Anybody who orders now will receive a free gift.” “…who orders now” is a subordinate clause.

The amount of grammar I would have to teach to clarify the differences between “who” and “whom” and “whoever” and “whomever” would take several pages at least and, if you were in class, several class periods. You would have to know the subject (“who has…”) and predicate nominative (“…was who”) of a sentence. You would have to know the direct object (“...should remember whom”), “indirect object” (“…give whom a gift”) and object of the preposition (“…to whom”) in a sentence. If you already know all that, you will probably be able to figure out which to use.

All that grammar just to distinguish between “who” and “whom” does not seem worth the effort. [My humble apologies, Mrs. May.] A pretty strong move is already afoot to eliminate “whom” and “whomever” entirely anyway. The distinction between "who" and "whom" will disappear even before “lie” and “lay.”

If you don’t know all that grammar, write or speak around it.

Example: “The character whom the people hate in An Enemy of the People is Dr. Stockman.” Write around it: “The character the people hate in An Enemy of the People is Dr. Stockman.”

Example: “The son who closely resembles Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman is Happy.” Write around it: “The son most resembling Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman is Happy.”

Somehow, I am able to distinguish “who” and “whom” in subjects, predicate nominatives, direct objects, indirect objects and objects of prepositions. But it requires some thinking and figuring. You’re better off speaking and writing around “who,” “whom,” “whoever” and “whomever” if you are not certain which to use. Choosing the wrong one can make you look pompous and maybe foolish. (**)

Note: I took the preceding examples from English Grammar and Composition. Complete Course. Liberty Edition. John E. Warriner. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers. 1986.

All the best. RayS.

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