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Whom Do You Think You Are?
by Rose Thorne

0NE OF THE MADDENING things about usage guides is the way they persist in fighting yesterday's battles. There are plenty around that will gravely advise you not to use the non-word irregardless (now, really, who would?), but how many will warn you not to say, or write, the exact same thing? For some reason this pseudo-hick affectation of the trendies took firm root a decade or two ago, along with the unfortunate habit of using real as an intensifier instead of really, as in "I'm real unhappy about this." Now a whole generation is growing up that thinks it's correct, and there's not a peep from the usage books. Please write exactly the same thing. Please, please, say that you're really happy. And remember that it takes an adverb to modify an adjective.

Another one that makes me cringe is "I've never done X before" when the speaker is neither doing X nor contemplating it. Do not say "I've never been to France before" unless you are actually in France for the first time or on the point of going there. If no trip is planned or in progress, just say "I've never been to France." Period. Logical, isn't it?

WH0 DOES WHAT TO WHOM. I know this isn't taught in schools any more, but sentences have subjects and objects. Verbs and prepositions take objects. English pronouns, unlike English nouns, still have subjective and objective forms (cases).

The subjective who usually ends up in the fight places, but whom does seem to baffle many writers. One mistake in particular shows up over and over, even in sentences composed by writers who are usually quite careful. Take this sentence, from a movie review in the Globe and Mail: "The victim, Pierre Laporte, whom it had been feared would be caricatured in the film, comes across with considerable dignity." Or this, from the Guardian Weekly, "Only in death, she says, would the files go to his wife Lotte, whom he knew would protect him...." Yes, there are a couple of other things amiss with the second example, but it's the use of whom that we are concerned with. In both sentences the confusion arises from a parenthetical clause, grammatically complete, that has been dropped into another clause without benefit of punctuation (nothing wrong in that, of course). In the first one the words it had been feared separate whom from would be caricatured and have misled the writer into thinking that the objective whom is called for. However, if you mentally bracket it had been feared and take it right out, you can see that whom would be caricatured is impossible. Same with the other one. Take out he knew and you get whom would protect him. In both sentences, replace whom with who.

RELUCTANT? OR JUST RETICENT? In the last few months I've seen three or four instances of the word reticent being used when the writer must have meant reluctant. For example, in the Globe and Mail a reporter said that after the Kobe earthquake the Japanese government had been "reticent to" accept help from other countries. Reticent is a good word, but it can't be construed with to. It means keeping silent; reticence is reserve, maintenance of silence, a disposition to say little. Its Latin root is reticence, to keep silent, and it is related to the French se taire and the English tacit. In other words, you can be reticent because you are reluctant to commit yourself, or for any other reason, but the reluctance is the unwillingness. The reticence itself is just the silence.

I HEAR PEOPLE IN THE NEWS I lately discussing "incidences" of assault, arson, etc. -- the usual hobbies of the desperate classes. I'm sure what they mean is incidents. In this context incidence has a rather narrow and specific meaning: the fact of the occurrence of something, or more commonly the rate of occurrence, as in "the incidence of violent crime is failing." An incident is just one event. Incidentally, the word incidentally is formed from incidental; don't ever write incidently (or accidently -- same problem).

REMEMBER THAT YOUR SPELL-check can only know what you typed; it can't know what you meant. If you write something that more closely resembles clamour than clamber, that's what you'll get: people clamouring up a jungle hillside in Guatemala (see the Globe and Mail, February 10, page D6). Also, the reason you can't find momento in your Oxford is that it doesn't exist. The word is memento; it's the imperative form of the Latin verb meminisse, to remember. In ecclesiastical usage it refers to "either of the two prayers beginning with Memento, in the canon of the Mass, in which the living and the departed are respectively commemorated." Its usual meaning is a reminder or a souvenir. It has nothing to do with moments, magic or otherwise.

It's true that Webster's Dictionary has an entry for momento as a "variant." But you can't trust Webster. More about that in another column.

Rose Thorne is the pseudonym of a Toronto editor and writer.


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