Whom Is Destroying the Language?
by Stephen Cox | Posted September 08, 2011
Mankind’s zest for the inaccurate knows no bounds. It's not surprising that it constantly manifests itself in errors of diction and grammar. Sometimes, though, you wonder how people who are ostensibly educated and intelligent — and who, in many cases, have achieved the power to rule over others — can actually say the things they do.
A good example appeared on July 18. The culprit was British Home Secretary Theresa May. She was discussing the possibility of “police corruption” in the scandal that enveloped News of the World. She told fellow members of Parliament that "it is natural to ask whom polices the police."
Michael Schein, a longtime friend of this column, immediately sounded the alarm: “Shouldn’t that be who polices the police?”
Right! The reason is that the case of a pronoun is governed by its grammatical function within its clause. May was using “whom” as the subject of a clause in which “polices” is the verb. Subjects always take the nominative case. Therefore, the correct word is “who,” which is nominative. The clause in question happens to be embedded in a larger clause, of which the subject is “it,” the verb is “is” (never mind what Bill Clinton would do with this), and the complement is “natural to ask,” followed by the direct object of “ask,” which is the clause “who[m] polices the police.” (“What did you ask?” “I asked, ‘Who polices the police?’”)
That explanation was a little complicated. Indeed, the grammatical rule that the home secretary violated is said to be the hardest to explain in the English language. Yet this merely indicates how easy English grammar really is. English word choice can involve extraordinary difficulties, because English has many more commonly used words than any other language, but English grammar just ain’t that hard.
Well, it must have been the embeddedness of the clause that misled — indeed, addled — the home secretary. But you don’t need to be able to diagram her sentence to see that something went wrong. You just need to be aware that someone is pictured as asking a question, and the question is, “Who[m] polices the police?” After that, your ability to read and listen should guide you in the right path. You already know how to form a question in the English language. Did you ever hear anybody ask, “Whom hit the ball?” or “Whom killed Cock Robin?” No, and you never will, unless you hang out with the British home secretary.
There was a time when British politicians were far above this sort of thing. Some of them, in fact, were among the greatest masters of English prose. Still, you would expect that anyone, anyone at all . . .
But let’s return to Michael’s astonished protest. “According to a non-Tea Partied version of Wikipedia,” he says, “this woman graduated from Oxford University!” He’s right again — although Oxford may be able to avoid some of the blame. May’s father was an Anglican priest. Such people, though sometimes daft in other ways (notice their frequency in mystery novels), are supposed to be fluent in English. But perhaps this one wasn’t. After being born, May worked at the Bank of England, where proper English used to be spoken with great naturalness. Perhaps it isn’t now. She even became “a senior advisor in international affairs.” Perhaps English isn’t necessary in such a job; perhaps her associates discouraged its use. At one time, when the Conservatives were out of power, she was their Shadow Education and Employment Secretary. Education! Now we’re really getting someplace. “Education” is where you can expect the worst influences to be exerted.
So we can understand the social forces that may have led Theresa May to illiteracy. But when she questions whom polices the police, the rest of us must still ask, with Michael Schein, “Where are the grammar police?”
When those police show up, May will be arrested — not for simple ignorance, but for ignorance in one of its most aggravated forms: snobbery. She is evidently one of those people who believe that “who” is a low, mean, common word, used only by the voters who keep you in power, while “whom” is a high-class word, reserved for the loftiest bureaucrats. Similarly, people like May — and people like President Obama, graduate of Columbia University and Harvard Law School — always say “just between you and I,” never dreaming that the working-class “me” is actually the correct form.
When the grammar police show up, May will be arrested — not for simple ignorance, but for ignorance in one of its most aggravated forms: snobbery.
It’s striking, the extent to which the British language has decayed. Its decadence is usually attributed to the influence of street slang, and this plays a part. But the ignorance of snobs is almost as influential as the stupidity of yobs. I’ve just finished reading a book called The Winter War (2008), by a Brit named Robert Edwards. It’s a history of the Russo-Finnish conflict of 1939–40. Its analysis is intelligent, and its perspective is firmly anticommunist, so I learned from it and sympathized with it, too. But its language is smarty, rather than smart, and its approach is unrelentingly arch. The writer always acts as if he were above his subject — despite the fact that he is often far below the common rules of sense and grammar.
Watch this passage as it struts across the stage. It’s about the Soviets’ prewar attempts to intimidate Finland, and their effects on Britain:
“The Soviet desiderata . . . included issues [‘issues,’ meaning things contested, is taken as synonymous with ‘desiderata,’ meaning things desired] that went against the very warp and weft [every cliché requires a ‘very’] of British policy. Implicit in the price to be paid for an eastern anti-Nazi bulwark would be free rein over the territories previously controlled by the man who had happened to be [as if he had won his title in a lottery] the last Grand Duke of Finland [who was he? tell us who!], Nicholas II [thank God! now we know who the last Grand Duke of Finland was; what we don’t know is why that was the climax of the sentence]. Further, the freedom to do so hinged around the concept of . . . .”
All right; that’s enough of that. I can picture plenty of things hinging on something, but I can’t picture anything hinging around anything. Meanwhile, I’m wondering how “to do so” functions in this pretentious maze of words. To do . . . what? The intended reference must be to “free rein,” but that’s not a verb. “Free rein” isn’t something you do.
Oh well. A writer who’s convinced of his superiority shouldn’t be required to reflect on what he’s written. But by the way, do writers still have editors?
There is something much worse, however, than the modern British “literary” style. It is the jargon of politics in modern America. One of its worst practitioners is a congresswoman from Florida named Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who happens to be the chair of the Democratic National Committee. This is the person who, on July 19, incurred the wrath of Republican Congressman Allen West by standing on the floor of the House and uttering the following words about a plan to do something about the US budget: “Incredulously, the gentleman from Florida [Allen West], who represents thousands of Medicare beneficiaries, as do I, is supportive of this plan that would increase costs for Medicare beneficiaries.”
DWS’s personal attack elicited an overly personal response from West, a response that was denounced by many. But at least West’s remarks weren’t so stupid that you could hardly bear to read them. He didn’t portray himself as astonished that anyone who represented “thousands of Medicare beneficiaries,” as every US congressman does, could possibly consider making them pay anything more for their benefits, ever. He didn’t express the snob’s moral outrage, the outrage of someone whose unexamined views are finally being challenged. And he didn’t take the snob’s typical course of reaching for a big word, only to grab the wrong one — as Wasserman Schultz did.
What she literally said was that West was incredulously supportive of a wicked plan — which makes no sense at all, except to show that she doesn’t know what her big words mean. “Incredulously” doesn’t mean “incredibly.” No, truly it doesn’t. It means something very different: “unbelievingly.” The wicked people were unbelievingly supportive.
Hmmm. But suppose she had changed the word to “incredibly,” and cleaned up her grammar by eliminating the dangling modifier (because that’s what “incredulously” is). Then she might have said, “It is incredible that the gentleman from Florida, who blah blah blah, is supportive of blah blah blah.” But that still wouldn’t be literate. “Incredible” means “not worthy of credence,” “unbelievable.” Had she chosen that word, the congresswoman would have been denouncing West for doing something she couldn’t believe he did.
Wasserman Schultz’s personal attack elicited an overly personal response from West, but at least his remarks weren’t so stupid that you could hardly bear to read them.
So on July 19 she was wrong six ways from Sunday. But try her on June 5. Here also she appeared to cherish the snobbish illusion that her audience would buy anything she said, no matter how preposterous it might be. Asked for her views on attempts to prevent voter fraud, attempts that she wanted to show are anti-black, she said this:
“Now, you have the Republicans, who want to literally drag us all the way back to Jim Crow laws and literally — and very transparently — block access to the polls to voters who are more likely to vote for Democratic candidates than Republican candidates. And it’s nothing short of that blatant.”
Donning her vatic robes, DWS divines a sinister movement: Republicans (including, I suppose, Allen West, who is black) are struggling to institute legal apartheid (“Jim Crow”). This movement — this plot — has so far existed in such depths of secrecy that only she has noticed it. Nevertheless, it is “blatant,” “literally and very transparently” “blatant.” In short, it’s perfectly obvious.
Why does she say things like this? Probably she’s never spent a moment of thought on the meanings of any of the words she uses. It’s also possible that she’s never considered that words have meanings.
Ah, but they do. Her words say that Republicans are trying to “block access to the polls to voters who are more likely to vote for Democratic candidates.” That means that the Republicans want to block access to about 50% of American voters. I wonder how they plan to pull this off. Only Debbie Wasserman Schultz knows that.
Now consider what she says about the racist idea of having to prove who you are, before you vote: “I mean you look — just look at African-American voters as a snapshot. About 25 percent of African-American voters don’t have a valid photo I.D.”
Notice the literal, the blatant meaning of this slam on African Americans: she’s saying that 25% of adult black people can neither drive a car nor board an airplane nor cash a check nor take a job that requires identification — because they, unlike you or me, have never bothered to get a valid ID. In my entire life I have never encountered an African American adult who was disadvantaged in this way, yet the congresswoman insists that one in four African American voters are.
But perhaps she intended to emphasize the word “valid” — in other words, to insist that although virtually all black people are able to present a photo ID, a huge number of them have to fake it. That’s an even bigger slam. Is that what she meant? Or does she know what she meant?
Likely she doesn’t, because the next thing she says is this: “We already have very legitimate voter verification processes, signature checks that are already in place; and there is so little voter fraud, which is the professed reason the Republicans are advancing these — these laws. There’s so little vo- — voter fraud, and I mean you’re more likely to get hit by lightning than you are to see an instance of voter fraud in this country, but Republicans are imposing laws all over the country, acting like it’s not — voter fraud is rampant, and it’s ridiculous.”
Why does she say things like this? Probably she’s never spent a moment of thought on the meanings of any of the words she uses.
The syntax alone says a lot about the current chair of the Democratic National Committee. But the words . . . On a generous interpretation, her words mean that when I walk over to my polling place at the Pentecostal church, sign the official logbook, and cast my vote (supposing that I don’t vote an absentee ballot, as perhaps 40% of our countrymen, or their spouses, or their 6-year-old children, do), I am as unlikely to be committing fraud as I am to be hit by lightning. Clearly, she who knows everything about everything else has never heard of ACORN.
Rep. West — who, according to Debbie Wasserman Schultz, has a 25% likelihood of not possessing a valid photo ID — denounced DWS as “vile” and “despicable.” Well, his heart’s in the right place. But maybe he should have traced the problem not to defective character but to defective education. Wasserman Schultz — a woman lauded in 2004 by the National Organization for Women as an “exciting new feminist legislator to watch” and a fighter for increased funding for “education” (as well as for “equal gender representation on state boards and price parity for dry cleaning women's and men's clothing”) — is a graduate of the University of Florida, where she presumably learned something. But maybe it wasn’t the right thing. According to Wikipedia, she credits the University, where she was deeply involved in what is idiotically called student government, with developing her “love for politics and the political process."
Some college students develop a love for science, or Shakespeare, or Chinese history. This one developed a love for government.
Since then, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, B.A., has returned to academia whenever possible, becoming an adjunct professor of political philosophy at Broward Community College, as well as something called “a public policy curriculum specialist” at something called “Nova Southeastern University.” It isn’t Oxford, but so what? It’s literally, transparently, blatantly, incredulously “education.” And whom am I to criticize?
Stephen Cox is editor of Liberty, and a professor of literature at the University of California San Diego. His recent books include "The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison" and "The New Testament and Literature."
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