Friday, March 4, 2011

It's (Inter)National Grammar Day

The highlight of National Grammar Day, John McIntyre’s “Grammarnoir” serial, goes international this year. The gripping finale is here; Parts 1, 2, and 3 are here, here, and here. A wider scope for the holiday is only fitting, says R.L.G., posting (from London) at Johnson: “After all, there are other countries with grammar, even ones that use English grammar.”

Other observances include Gabe Doyle’s annual mythbusting foray at Motivated Grammar, this year with defenses of anyways, center around, and dove (past tense of dive); Nancy Friedman's post, at Fritinancy, on companies that can’t tell lay from lie; and fev at Headsup: The Blog, advising you to ignore the whole thing, but at the very least, not to be “the goofbag who gives ‘grammar’ a bad name by conflating it with the sort of obsessive hyphenation that leads to [a headline like] ‘High-school graduation rates jump.’ Grammar wants you to be clear. It doesn't want you to be silly.’"

I wasn’t planning a party, but I couldn’t help joining one over at Visual Thesaurus, where a debate over inanimate whose -- as in “two diseases whose symptoms are nearly identical” -- has been bubbling since mid-February, when a pair of columnists declared this time-honored usage wrong, wrong, wrong. Well, they were wrong -- as they were in trying to limit that to nonhuman referents -- and fellow Visual Thesaurus contributors have been explaining why ever since. Linguist Neal Whitman is here, with tips on how to research such usage peeves, and Erin Brenner, editor of, has a two-part rebuttal, here and here. (If those links are dead to you, it's time to subscribe to Visual Thesaurus!)

Brenner shows conclusively that inanimate whose is good English, and ends with H. W. Fowler’s delightful comment on the usage: "In the starch that stiffens English style, one of the most effective ingredients is the rule that whose shall refer only to persons; to ask a man to write flexible English, but forbid him whose 'as a relative pronoun of the inanimate', is like sending a soldier on 'active' service & insisting that his tunic collar shall be tight & high."

But are her readers persuaded by evidence? Of course not. Brenner asks whether they use inanimate whose in their own writing, and most of the commenters willfully ignore the point -- that it's a matter of taste. “It seems wrong no matter what historical precedent exists,” says one. "Rewrite!" urge several other holdouts. Finally I had to chime in with my own little rant:
Erin is using those dusty old facts [a 1382 Bible quote] to show that inanimate whose has been standard English for more than six centuries -- surely evidence in its defense.

And she isn't asking us readers if it's wrong; she has shown that it ISN'T wrong. She asked if we cared to use it ourselves. We are free to avoid it, or any other usage, but there are simply no factual grounds for calling it an error.

As Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage notes, a few (by no means all) usage writers in the 18th and 19th centuries -- a peak time for inventing peeves -- decided to disapprove of it. This does not mean it was ever widely repudiated; I'm surprised Garner even rates it on his Language-Change Index, since its acceptability was never seriously in doubt.

Some more dusty old evidence from MWDEU:

"I could a tale unfold whose lightest word / Would harrow up thy soul" (Shakespeare)
"The fruit /Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste /Brought death into the world" (Milton)
I recommend reading actual literature instead of dodgy usage advice; you can't possibly hold onto the illusion that inanimate whose is wrong when you find it in all the books you love and respect. Can you?
That sounds crankier than I thought it would (as comments no doubt often do, once passions  have cooled), but I guess it counts as my contribution to National Grammar Day. I hope to be in a jollier mood next year, but if the winter of 2012 is anything like this one, weatherwise, I may not show much improvement, temperwise.

1 comment:

Kay L. Davies said...

I had to laugh about you being "cranky" because I know the feeling. I get irrationally irritable when I talk about grammar, especially when people try to correct me.
-- K

Kay, Alberta, Canada
An Unfittie's Guide to Adventurous Travel