A Word, Please: Just because you can doesn't mean you should

Most of the questions people ask me are easy. Can you use "nauseous" as a synonym of "nauseated" to mean "sick feeling"? The answer is right in the dictionary under the listing for "nauseous," and that answer is yes.

Is it true you're not supposed to end a sentence with a preposition? No, that's a myth, as any grammar reference from Fowler's to Strunk and White will quickly prove. Can you use "their" to refer to a singular person even though it's supposed to be plural? Again, the answer is right in the dictionary. Yes, according to the entry for that word, you can.

But recently I had to field some questions that aren't so easy. They came via a Twitter chat hosted by Copyediting.com and attended mostly by working copy editors. A lot of their questions eschewed the easy "can you?" business to focus on a tougher question: "Should you?"

Take for example "their," which one user asked about. As noted above, the dictionary allows its use as a singular. So you can say, "Every attendee should lock their car" with the normally plural "their" referring to the singular "attendee."

But should you? That's another matter entirely. Most people who know their stuff would probably agree that "his or her" is better in this sentence. So a lot of editors, myself included, would change that to read "Every attendee should lock his or her car."

But in passages where the need for a gender-neutral pronoun comes up a lot, this approach gets old fast. You can only say "he or she," "his or hers" and "him and her" so many times in a single paragraph before it becomes a mess working against the reader. In these cases, I answered, every editor has to make a judgment call, factoring in context, readability, the formality of the piece and the sensibilities of the target reader.

Sentence-ending prepositions pose another "should I?" conundrum for editors. It's a myth that you can't end a sentence with a preposition, but it's a very widespread myth. So when you do, some people will think you're wrong.

That could explain the following passage, which I came across in the Los Angeles Times: "Pasadena techies band together to relaunch the city as a tech hub with which to be reckoned." See how the editor or writer flipped around the well-known term "to be reckoned with" so the preposition "with" wouldn't come at the end? Interesting choice. Certainly not one I would have made. But it illustrates how the "should I?" question plagues everyone.

Perhaps the biggest "should I?" conundrum in English involves "whom" and its cousin "whomever." The pronoun "whom," experts agree, is reserved for formal writing and speech. But those experts don't define "formal." They leave that up to us.

If you deem a written piece to be informal, there's nothing wrong with using "who" as an object pronoun, as in "The man, who we will call Joe, gave a report." In more formal contexts, that would be "whom."

But "whom" is risky. If you start using it, you should be consistent throughout the piece. And when "whom" or "whomever" appears in the middle of a sentence, the average writer doesn't realize he may be in over his head.

For example, here's a sentence penned by a friend of mine: "A free meal and much gratitude goes to whomever volunteers." My friend made the mistake of thinking that "whomever" is the object of the preposition "to." It's not. The object of the preposition is the whole clause that follows, complete with the verb "volunteers." Clauses need subjects. So "whoever," a subject pronoun, would have been correct. "Whomever," an object pronoun, was not.

Had my friend just gone for the less formal "whoever," he would have gotten it right by accident. So if the "should I?" question involves "whom," the answer is: Only if you're sure you know how to use it.


JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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