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Keeping it real with Real Grammar

Macmillan Dictionary - Real GrammarReal Grammar isn’t about the made-up or outdated “rules” which some people try to make us follow. As we said in the introduction to this new series from Macmillan Dictionary, Real Grammar is based on the evidence of language in use.

In the coming months, we’ll be bringing you blog posts and videos that give evidence-based answers to frequently asked questions about grammar and usage. There’s even a Real Grammar quiz for you to try.


The first question in our Real Grammar quiz was a choice between

Who did you invite to your party? and Whom did you invite to your party?

Our preference was for the first sentence (with who), on the grounds that it is “much more natural”. But is “natural” the same as “correct”? And isn’t calling something natural just a subjective judgment – how can we know what is natural and what isn’t?

The answers to these questions encapsulate what we mean by Real Grammar. The first message of this campaign is that, in many questions of grammar, there isn’t a simple right-or-wrong answer. It is more helpful to think in terms of what is appropriate to the context. Our choice of words or structures will often depend on the situation we’re in: what is normal in a formal written text may sound stuffy and old-fashioned in a conversation between friends; whereas an informal usage could seem inappropriately casual in an official or legal document.

Our second message is that the only reliable way of finding out about grammar is to study the linguistic evidence. This means analysing large amounts of corpus data in order to discover what the majority of speakers and writers do with words when they communicate. The evidence can show us how language changes over time, so when we noted – in an earlier post – that “whom is in steady long-term decline”, this observation was based on looking at the data over a 50-year period. Similarly, corpora show us how grammatical choices can vary according to text-type, region, and sublanguage. For example, we normally use the preposition of after the expression “at risk” (e.g. a species which is at risk of extinction), but in the expert-to-expert discourse found in medical texts, writers often prefer for:

the effects of stress and caffeine on people at risk for hypertension
the safe management of patients at risk for ectopic pregnancy

If the evidence demonstrates a strong preference for this usage in this specialized field, it would be perverse to call it “wrong”. For those of us outside this field, it may look strange, but to insiders it will sound perfectly natural. And naturalness, effectively, is a function of frequency: if most speakers and writers (whether in general, or within a particular community) adopt a particular usage, then it must be seen as a grammatical norm.

Coming back to who and whom, there is nothing revolutionary about our preference for who in the first question of the quiz. The use of whom has been discussed previously on our blog, and other authorities follow much the same line that we take at Macmillan. The entry for whom in the OED opens with the statement that it is “no longer current in natural colloquial speech”, while the British Council’s online grammar says:

We sometimes use whom as the object of a verb or preposition:
This is George, whom you met at our house last year.
This is George’s brother, with whom I went to school.

But nowadays we normally use who:
This is George, who you met at our house last year.
This is George’s brother, who I went to school with.

But there are still plenty of people who insist that the old distinction must be upheld. The popular Grammar Girl site states, straightforwardly and without comment, that “you use ‘who’ when you are referring to the subject of a clause and ‘whom’ when you are referring to the object of a clause” – and that’s that. And when Megan Garber (in The Atlantic) reported the gradual decline in the use of whom (an objectively verifiable fact), some of her readers became almost hysterical, posting comments such as these ironic expressions of outrage:

Yes, let’s encourage and celebrate our national slide into post-literacy!
Why not just toss out all spelling rules and all grammar conventions?

In other words, what seems to some like a sensible and uncontroversial message is, for others, clear evidence of the end of civilization. Indeed, what originally prompted the idea of a Real Grammar series was a grammar quiz in the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph, whose first question was very similar to ours: a choice between “Do you see who I see?” and “Do you see whom I see” – the big difference being that the Telegraph recommended whom, explaining:

This is because “whom” is the object in the subsidiary clause “whom I see”, and must therefore be in the accusative or objective case.

That fact that 99% of speakers would never say such a thing did not daunt the paper’s grammar expert. That’s not Real Grammar!

In the next post in this series, we will look in more detail at the statistics for whom, and future posts will provide evidence-based explanations of the “preferred” answers to the questions in the Real Grammar quiz.

To read more about Real Grammar, keep a close eye on our Real Grammar page. You can catch up with the videos on our YouTube channel, where the first video in the Real Grammar series is now live. You can also follow this topic using #realgrammar on Twitter and remember that you can find all our earlier blog posts on this topic by using the tags “prescriptivism” or “realgrammar”.

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Michael Rundell

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