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Issue for June 2015

The Word "Whom" -- Love It or Avoid It?

Posted on Tuesday, June 30, 2015 at 1:25 AM

A strict grammatical use of "whom" instead of "who" will set a formal tone. Is that what you want in every article? And is "whom" worth the effort?

By June Casagrande

I fielded a question recently about one of my favorite subjects: "whomever." Here's the email:

"Normally I have no difficulty with who/whom. I do when it comes to a sentence like 'Give it to who(m)ever wants it.' If the rephrasing would be 'he wants it,' it would be 'whoever.' If the rephrasing would be 'give it to him,' it would be 'whomever.' Which would you use?"

Avoid Whom!

This subject illustrates one of my favorite pieces of advice about grammar: Maybe it's best to avoid "whom" altogether.

"Whom" and "whomever," language authorities agree, are for formal speech and writing. If you're involved in a barroom brawl, no grammar book would insist you communicate in terms like "For whom was that obscene gesture intended?"

Setting an Article's Tone

What constitutes formal speech or writing? The language authorities leave that up to the writer. You choose whether or not your message should be formal the same way you decide whether to wear a sport jacket or to crack a joke in a business meeting. It's personal judgment, not rocket science.

But, unless you're writing a doctoral thesis or a speech for the queen, you might want to avoid "whom" altogether because, once you start using it -- once you send the message that you're being formal in an article -- you have to keep using it. And you may be getting in over your head.

Many people know how to use "who" and "whom" in simple sentences. "Who" is a subject pronoun. "Whom" is an object pronoun. Subject pronouns perform the action of the verb: Who wants cake? Who knows? Who is on the list? Object pronouns work as objects of verbs or prepositions. Whom did you see? With whom was she dancing?

See how, in the penultimate example, "whom" is what's being seen -- not what's doing the seeing? So it's the object of the action, not the doer of it. But in the last example, "whom" is correct because prepositions such as "with" and "to" take objects ("with him," not "with he"; "to us," not "to we").

An Easy Choice?

Once you understand this, choosing between "who" and "whom" can be as easy as choosing between "he" and "him." But "whoever" and "whomever" aren't as easy because often they sit in a strange position where you could make the case that they're both a subject and an object.

Look at our original example: "Give it to who(m)ever wants it."

Here we have a verb, "wants," which needs a subject ("he wants," not "him wants").

But we also have a preposition, "to," which needs an object ("give it to him," not "to he").

Or so it would appear. But there's a grammar issue at play here that goes beyond the basics. In a sentence like our example, the object isn't a single word. It's a whole clause. And clauses need subjects.

In our example, the object of the preposition "to" isn't just a pronoun like "whomever." The object is the entire clause that follows, complete with the verb "wants." That verb needs a subject -- a job that only a subject pronoun like "whoever" is equipped to handle.

So the correct form is "Give it to whoever wants it." Not whomever.

But watch what happens when we tweak the sentence a bit: "Give it to whomever you want." Suddenly, the object form is the right choice because the pronoun is no longer the subject of the verb. The subject of "want" is "you." "Whomever" is the object of that want, hence the M.

The shorter forms "who" and "whom" can sometimes work this way. Compare "the man whom I marry" with "the man who marries me." Both are correct. In the first, the pronoun is the object of the verb "marry." But in the second, it's the subject.


When you set a formal tone by using "whom," you need to know that sometimes whole clauses can be objects.

Or sidestep the whole sticky subject by just not using "whom" at all.

June Casagrande is an experienced editor and writer based in Pasadena, CA. She is author of The Best Punctuation Book, Period, available on Amazon.

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A Memoir from the Comma Queen

Posted on Tuesday, June 30, 2015 at 1:23 AM

Excellent advice for copy editors.

By Peter P. Jacobi

I urge you to give the copy editor part of your existence as editor a gift: Between You & Me, Confessions of a Comma Queen (W.W. Norton). It is a memoir by Mary Norris, a three-decade employee at The New Yorker and, for the last 20 years, a "page OK'er" there.

It is she who has helped determine what shape every to-be-published-in-the-magazine sentence should take, how to punctuate it, and whether, in her view, authors have chosen the right words within those sentences to express their written thoughts and narratives.

Not looking for fights, she has, nevertheless, courageously taken positions in countless arguments over the years in behalf of English, the language that she so obviously loves and has sought to protect from barbarian practitioners, the careless ones and the ruthless. She has made herself a judge and jury, committed to guard against cheapening and errors.

Sound serious? Well, yes, she's a zealot about language and has taken her job seriously. But she seems to have had fun all along the way. In her memoir, she comes off as fun and even funny. Norris sets the tone in her first paragraph:

"Let's get one thing straight from the beginning," she writes. "I didn't set out to be a comma queen. The first job I ever had, the summer I was fifteen, was checking feet at a public pool in Cleveland. I was the 'key girl' -- 'Key personnel' was the job title on my pay stub (I made seventy-five dollars a week). I never knew what that was supposed to mean. I was not in charge of any keys, and my position was by no means crucial to the operation of the pool, although I did clean the bathrooms."

Between You and Me

Norris does not always concentrate on herself. She devotes space to grammatical issues, such as the "Between You & Me" in the title, high on her list of peeves. "My fondest hope," she writes, "is that just from looking at the title you will learn to say fearlessly 'between you and me' (not 'I') whether or not you actually buy the book and penetrate to the innards of the objective case."

Those who say or write "between you and I," she reasons, may be trying to sound refined and polite by "putting another person first." Her solution: People shouldn't be "so f______ polite; if they occasionally put themselves first, they would know they had it wrong. No one would begin a confidence with 'Between I and you.'"


Gender neutrality was also on her mind while writing the book. The absence in our language of a gender-neutral singular personal pronoun as an opposite to the plural "they" leads us to singular/plural conflicts that mess up the grammar or confine us to the use of "he/she," a yucky partway solution.

High Standards

Norris reminds her readers that we all make mistakes, and that to do so is forgivable. But standards are important, she argues, meaning it is still part of a copy editor's job to distinguish between "that" and "which" and "who" and "whom." The distinctions "may be on the way out," she says, "but so is Venice, and we still like to go there."

Grammar Does Not Deserve to Be Ignored

I must admit to spacing out when Norris digs into more arcane and yet appropriate grammatical subjects such as clauses (restrictive versus nonrestrictive) and verbs (transitive versus intransitive). So, you -- like I -- may turn past some pages quickly while lingering on others. Still, the way she handles them may be different or lively enough to win your loyalty. She fights for your attention, believing that no aspect of grammar deserves to be ignored.

And that includes profanity, to which she devotes a full chapter. And it includes punctuation. From the comma to the exclamation point, she discusses the different marks and how and when they should or should not be used. Just in case you care, she tells you that the comma was invented by Aldo Manuzio, a Venetian printer, and that the year was 1490.

Love of Pencils

She preaches about sharp pencils as the proper tool for copyediting and that the Magic Rub eraser helps to keep things clean and clear. And if you love pencils the way author Norris does, you may want to know there's a Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum in Logan, Ohio. More than a handful of pages in the book are devoted to the museum; Norris took the trouble to visit it so she could describe the place in depth for you.

I think you'll enjoy the trip laid out by tour director Mary Norris in Between You & Me. Along the way, you'll be reminded beneficially of the questions our dear language poses as we use it in ordinary life and, in our case, on the job. The book makes for pleasurable learning.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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The Fog Index

Posted on Tuesday, June 30, 2015 at 1:22 AM

Assessing the readability of a WSJ.com article.

This month's sample text comes from a June 26 WSJ.com blog post ("Artificial Intelligence Machine Gets Testy With Its Programmer" by Amir Mizroch). Here's the sample text:

"The exchange sheds further light on the latest work carried out by large technology firms in the field of artificial intelligence, a booming field as data availability rises and computing costs plummet. This specific work is part of recent developments in what's known as cognitive computing -- teaching computers to mimic some of the ways a human brain works. Much work in this field is being done in natural language processing -- taking text or speech as it spoken by humans or as it appears in books and documents and teaching machines to extract meaning and context from it. The Google app, Apple's Siri and Microsoft's Cortana personal assistants are all products of this natural language research."

--Word count: 115 words
--Average sentence length: 29 words (32, 26, 39, 18 words)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 11 percent (13/115 words)
--Fog Index: (29+11)*.4 = 16 (no rounding)

We have some longer sentences that are fogging up the text. Let's see if we can clear it up with some minor edits to address this issue.

"The exchange sheds further light on the latest work carried out by large tech firms in the field of artificial intelligence. It's a booming field as data availability rises and computing costs plummet. This specific work is part of recent advances in cognitive computing -- teaching computers to mimic certain ways a human brain works. Much work in this field involves natural language processing. Using speech as it spoken by humans or text as it appears in print, we can teach machines to extract meaning and context from it. The Google app, Apple's Siri, and Microsoft's Cortana personal assistants are all products of this natural language research."

--Word count: 106 words
--Average sentence length: 18 words (21, 12, 21, 9, 25, 18 words)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 9 percent (10/106 words)
--Fog Index: (18+9)*.4 = 10 (no rounding)

The major change here is the number of sentences. The original sample had 4; our version has 6. In breaking up the longer sentences and making some other minor edits, we cut 6 points from the original Fog score.

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A Changing Media Landscape

Posted on Tuesday, June 30, 2015 at 1:21 AM

In the news: Reevaluating the very definition of magazine content.

For many magazine brands, the very concept of content continues to reinvent itself in the digital age. Earlier this month, content marketer Michael Winkleman discussed the "the changing seas that take us in new directions each time we think we've found our way" on Folio.com. Over the last few years, has seen a sea change in the form his content takes. He writes, "Instead of magazines being the mainstay of our operation, we're not producing a single magazine. Instead, we've been creating white papers, annual forecasts, blogposts, infographics, microsites, advertorials, native ads, toolkits, display ads, webinars and even a retro ViewMaster reel."

Winkleman draws upon his recent experience reinventing award categories for the Content Council's Pearl Awards to reflect how much the industry has changed. Read more here.

Also Notable

An App to Find Print Editions

As print distribution dwindles and newsstand presence wanes for many print brands, readers are having a harder time finding the print editions they want. Here to save the day is MagFinder, a recently launched app from MagNet that helps readers find nearby retailers that carry their favorite print magazines. The app comes at an important time. As reported on Folio.com, MagNet itself posted some pretty bleak numbers: as of Q1, "there were 8,000 fewer stores selling magazines than a year ago." Read more here and here.

Iconic Pop Culture Magazine Covers

Earlier this month, EOnline.com posted its picks for the most noteworthy (and notorious) celebrity magazine covers in history. The retrospective takes readers through the decades, from the 1940s through the present, featuring covers from Life, Harper's Bazaar, and Vanity Fair. See the collection here.

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