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Short takes

The pain is coming from a higher location than normal for someone working with professional journalists: My spine has gone on one of its periodic protest demonstrations against upright posture, sedentary habits and advancing age. So today You Don’t Say deals in fragments.

Get Mitty!

Arnold Zwicky has posted at Language Log about the exchange he and I had on who and whom at Visual Thesaurus. The most depressing outcome was our realization that readers of my post may not have understood the reference to a James Thurber piece as humorous because they didn’t know who Thurber was.

I’m manfully resisting the growing temptation to develop into some cranky old party inveighing against the monstrous decline of everything of value, but James Thurber! Those cartoons! “All Right, Have It Your Way—You Heard a Seal Bark” Those family memoirs! “The Night the Bed Fell.” Those stories! “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” tells you something essential about American masculinity. Are we letting a treasure of American humor slip away?

And for what? A colleague mentioned the other day that he intended to see the new Adam Sandler film. I told him that I’m waiting to see Sandler’s movies until I have Alzheimer’s and it won’t make any difference.


One commenter at Visual Thesaurus chided me for my “defeatist attitude” about who and whom. But the linguists have a point: If the distinction is one that native speakers have such difficulty mastering, why should anyone insist on it?

Each semester during the grammar review component of my copy editing class at Loyola College, I go over who and whom. My students have no difficulty distinguishing between subject and object with other pronouns — he, him, she, her, they, them — but this one usually flummoxes them. My colleagues at The Sun get the pronoun right about half the time (somewhat more frequently on the copy desk). But generally, in speech or writing, they have to think about which form to use.

Yes, there are distinctions to be learned about usage. I can tell my students that there is a useful distinction in meaning between imply and infer; once it is explained to them, they have no further trouble. But the who/whom issue involves fundamental grammar, the grammar that we all use in speech and writing without having to feel our way through a sentence.

I’m still holding to the distinction in formal writing, while thinking that maybe there are more urgent issues to occupy an editor’s attention.

Distinguished pedigree

The fuming critic mentioned in yesterday’s post, Giles Coren, is, I discover, the son of the late Alan Coren, an editor of Punch and the author of several books of killingly funny articles, among them the sublimely titled Golfing for Cats.

The elder Coren on gardening: “This is the week, according to my much-thumbed copy of Milly-Molly-Mandy Slips A Disc, when Winter officially knocks off for a few days, the swallows return from Africa to foul the greenhouse roof, and you and I be a-diggin’ and a-stretchin’ and a-sweating’ as we work away with that most indispensable of gardening tools, the wallet.”

On the various European nationalities: “Germans are split into two broad categories: those with tall spikes on their hats, and those with briefcases.”

The scholar’s life, from “This Don for Hire”:

“I walked out of the bookshop. The fresh air felt good. For about two seconds. That’s how long it took for a black sedan to pull away from the kerb. I hurled myself sideways. There were twenty years of scholarship in that hurl.

“When I got up again, there was a cop standing beside me. The car was long gone.

“’Leavisites,” I said. I dusted my fedora. ‘They don’t give up easy.’” *

New to the blogroll

It’s worth your time to have a look at a couple of blogs on writing and editing that have recently come to my attention: Brian White’s Talk Wordy to Me and Editrix.

Enough for now

Back to the heating pad.


*F.R. Leavis, famed for his dogmatism and denunciations of anyone who presumed to hold contrary views, was more thoroughly mocked as “Simon Lacerous” in “Another Book to Cross Off Your List,” a chapter in The Pooh Perplex, the delightful send-up of 20th-century literary scholarship by Frederick Crews.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:35 AM | | Comments (5)


It might be that James Thurber is mostly an American thing. But in this country he should be labeled a National Treasure. (Of course, I've been a supporter of The Thurber House in Columbus, Ohio, since it was created as an institution.)

(I do also treasure my copy of The Best of Alan Coren (1980), and was pleased to see him lauded here.)

I still say, the biggest reason people didn't follow you on your reference to Thurber was that they are unused to seeing "to burlesque" as a verb.

And of course, fewer people know who Thurber was.

Perhaps so, but surely "burlesque" as either noun or verb should telegraph a sense of "not serious."

Also, people just don't read that closely, especially online, I believe.

(probably I'm just projecting, though)

I will NEVER stop fighting the who/whom battle, dear father. I respect your decision, and the linguists do have a point. But there is something to preserving our language's history.

The answer to this problem (and to every problem, as far as I am concerned) is my favorite five-letter word: LATIN.

Thank you, and goodnight!

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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