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A Word, Please: A look at a couple incorrect corrections

No one ever tells me I’m wrong. In all the years I’ve been writing about grammar, I’ve heard from a lot of readers who disagree with me. Many have pointed out errors I’ve made. Some have pointed out errors I’ve made that I didn’t actually make.

But to the best of my recollection, no one has ever written to tell me I’m wrong. Instead, they tell me I’m WRONG. More often, I’m WRONG!!!! But I’m never just wrong.

Take, for example, someone called A.S. who posted on my grammar podcast site.

I had mentioned there that “whom” is often replaced with “who” at the beginning of a question. That is, instead of saying “Whom are you going with,” which is correct because the pronoun is an object of the preposition, they say, “Who are you going with,” which is also correct because it’s standard usage.

Here’s what A.S. had to say about that.

“WRONG! If ‘Whom was called into the office’ is a question then it’s the equivalent of asking ‘Him was called into the office?’ which is obviously wrong. If it’s a statement it’s still wrong. Look, it’s not difficult: Me, him, her, them and whom are objects. I, he, she, they and who are subjects. … Understand?”

I don’t like being wrong any more than I like being WRONG! It’s embarrassing. That’s why I get so much pleasure out of folks who, when writing to tell me I’m WRONG, are themselves wrong.

Here’s how A.S. blew it: The example he made up is in the passive voice, which turns the subject-object equation on its head.

Look at the sentence “The managers called him into the office.” In this example of active voice, the subject “managers” performs the action of the verb, and the object of that action is “him.”

Passive voice takes the object of the action and makes it the grammatical subject of the sentence: “He was called into the office by the managers.” Notice it’s the same guy being called into the office. But because he’s now the subject of the passive verb phrase “was called,” it’s in subject form, “he,” instead of object form, “him.”

“Who” and “whom” correspond to “he” and “him,” respectively. So anyplace you’d put “he” you use “who” and anyplace you’d use “him” you use “whom.”

A.S. is right that “Whom was called into the office” is as bad as “Him was called into the office.” I never said anything to the contrary. A.S. came up with an example that didn’t apply and then used it as evidence I was WRONG!

Around the same time A.S. was typing exclamation points, another reader wrote to correct me on how I had written the names Gomez and Mendez.

I screwed up, he told me, because I failed to use Spanish diacritic marks.

Here’s where he was wrong: Writers have no say in matters of style. A writer could be hopelessly in love with the Oxford comma, but if she writes for a publication that follows AP style, the editor will take them all out.

Similarly, writers have no power over a publication’s conventions for using foreign-language accent marks.

Most American publishing styles don’t use them. That may seem like a bad policy. After all, shouldn’t words be written correctly, true to their origins? Not if you think that through.

That would mean that every English language editor would have to know how to put a glottal stop in “al Qaeda.” They would have to put an accent-like mark in every mention of Hawaii and know where to put these marks in the names of every Hawaiian locale, landmark and food item.

It would mean diaereses. It would mean umlauts. Copy editing jobs would require fluency in dozens of languages at a time when most newspapers can’t afford an editor fluent in English.

American publications stick to English orthography. They’re right to do so.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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