You Don't Say John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.

Dumbing whom down?

The Baltimore Sun

Someone who viewed this week’s video on who/whom suggested in a comment that I was encouraging the dumbing-down of the populace. “Dumbing-down” is one of those terms that regularly crop up in comments by people who imagine that any variant of formal standard English is a threat to civilization.

What I said in the video is that the question most frequently posed to me in my thirty-seven years in the paragraph game is “Should this be who or whom?” That question has come from novice and veteran reporters and from my fellow copy editors—professional people whose daily work demands a grasp of grammar and usage in writing.

Moreover, I’ve found, writers who insist on using whom are as apt to get it wrong as right.

Here’s the thing: If university-educated native speakers of English working as professionals cannot determine whether to use who or whom without diagramming the sentence in their heads, then we are talking about a phenomenon that “dumbing-down” does not adequately describe.

And my recognition that shakiness over who/whom represents a developing change in the language is not an endorsement of ignorance, but an acknowledgement of a reality.

The “dumbing-down” people seldom display interest in what linguists and lexicographers say. They know what is proper and dismiss people who look at evidence as permissivists. They wield scorn for the various dialects of English to display their social superiority. They are snobs, and snobbery over one’s use of the language is no more meritorious than any other form of snobbery. (And when they scorn African American Vernacular English, it is snobbery with a tinge of racism.)

I don’t see much in the way we speak and write to suggest that we are collectively growing dumber. Unfortunately, I don’t see much evidence that we are growing smarter, either.

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