Take heed of perjury; thou art on thy deathbed.


Ay, but not yet to die.


Yes, presently

When Othello says Desdemona is to die “presently”, he doesn’t mean “in a while” he means now – immediately. This ideally needs a gloss in printed versions of the play, to prevent misunderstanding: the meaning of the word has clearly changed considerably since Shakespeare’s day. How and why this change has come about, I do not know, but it’s a fair guess, I think, that it changed not because someone somewhere decreed the change, but because people who spoke and wrote in English began to use the word differently (possibly out of ignorance); and because this different usage soon caught on, and the older meaning of the word became obsolete. This may or may not be a loss to the English language: I would say it isn’t, but wouldn’t argue too strongly with those who claim it is. But, even if is a loss, and even if the change came about due to mass ignorance, the fact remains that any modern speaker of the English language who uses the word “presently” to mean “immediately” is likely not to be understood; and that any dictionary that defines “presently” as “immediately”, without indicating that this meaning is archaic, would be frankly worthless. For dictionaries and grammar books have to describe the language as it is currently used. Otherwise, what is the point of having them? And if usage changes (as it invariably does), the dictionaries and grammar books have to keep pace with the changes; for if they don’t, it will be the dictionaries and grammar books that will become useless, not the language.

The above represents a fairly radical change in my thoughts on the matter. I used to be – and, to be honest, still am – a bit of a stickler for correctness. But it is worth asking what correctness is. Is it adherence to a set of rules that have been decreed from on high, ex cathedra, and to which we must adhere? If so, why? Who made up these rules, and what authority do they have? Or does the concept of correctness lie, rather, in a grammar that is an accurate and systematic description of the way language is actually used? – a formal codification of the various ways in which we concatenate individual words together to make sense to the listener?

To say I opt for the latter is not to say that I now think that “anything goes”. Good heavens! – when I see the levels of illiteracy online, not from people who have been denied an education but from those who have spent many years at school at great cost to the taxpayer – I find my inner pedant returning with a vengeance. I become a furious gammon-like reactionary, even calling (when I am sure that no-one except close family is around to hear me) for these people to return to the taxpayer the money that has been wasted on attempting to educating them. “As long as you know what they’re saying” cuts no ice with me either, because, quite frequently, I can’t tell what they’re saying in their mad jumble of words, innocent as they are of any meaningful punctuation, or, indeed, quite often, of any punctuation at all. But, once I return to sanity, I find myself more liberal than pedantic in these matters: a grammar book that does not describe how the English language is currently used is pretty worthless – for what possible purpose can it serve?

And current usage is changing, as it always does. Recently, I found myself involved in a Twitter thread on the usage of the word “whom”. It is a word I have always used in my writing (though less punctiliously in my speech) when I have felt it to be correct, but a great many people, including some literary luminaries, said in this Twitter thread that the word “whom” had already become obsolete, and that to use this word is to risk appearing quaint, or even affected. Oh dear, I thought. I don’t mind appearing quaint once in a while – that’s part of my authorial persona, I like to think – but affected?  Surely not!

Of course, if a significant proportion of English users do use “who” rather than “whom”, then dictionaries and grammar books have to mark that usage as “also acceptable”. And when virtually no-one uses “whom”, then the word “whom” will have to be marked in square brackets as [archaic], or [now obsolete]. We haven’t reached that point yet, but I think we’re getting there. In the meantime, till we do get there, whether one chooses to use “whom” rather than “who” remains a matter of one’s individual stylistic preference.

Of course, when I speak about using “whom”, I refer to its correct usage. For the concept of correctness hasn’t yet gone out of the window. The word “whom” can also be (and, indeed, often is) used incorrectly. If I am to speak of, say, Joyce Cary, whom I think is a somewhat underrated writer these days, I’d be wrong – not necessarily in my literary estimation, but in my incorrect use of the word “whom”. This is not stylistic preference: it is just plain wrong. And it is an error that would display, rather comically, a desire to be correct without understanding what correctness is. (There should be, and probably is, a word to describe this, but I cannot think what that word is, and would be grateful for suggestions.)

But, while I appreciate that I cannot hold back the tide, I would personally be sorry to see the word “whom” disappear. “For who the bell tolls” doesn’t sound at all right. And when the word following “whom” is “I” or “he”, then replacing “whom” with “who” strikes me as very awkward:

“… Dickens, who I love…”

“…Mozart, who he worships…”

These successions of vowel sounds unbroken by any consonant (other than the aspirate “h”) sound very awkward to me. “Whom” should, at the very least, be a valid choice here, if only for euphony if not for correctness.

But, whether I like it or not, if usage continues in the direction it has been treading in so far, and the word “whom” really does become archaic, we have no option but to accept that. Just as we’re now happy to accept the modern meaning of the word “presently”. For what other choice do we have? But while the choice remains, “whom”, (when used correctly, that is), does remain my personal preference.

20 responses to this post.

  1. Reblogged this on A Celebration of Reading and commented:
    To borrow from Roland Barthes, some languages are writerly and others are readerly. The choice: is whether the speaker (written, vocal, or rude bodily noises) is responsible for the accuracy of the language and by extension for making the language unambiguously understandable for the reader, or if the language is sufficiently simplified that it forces the reader to be the arbiter of the author’s intent?

    “Who” versus “Whom” is a good example. Do I immediately know “who” is committing the action and “whom” is being acted upon, or do I have to guess “who” is “who”?


    • If “who” does replace “whom” in all cases, as seems likely, I don’t think that will result in ambiguity: we can easily tell from the context, and from the syntax, who is doing the acting, and who is being acted upon. If it does result in ambiguity, language will evolve once again to remove it. I think this is something I hadn’t adequately realised in the past: language will always evolve to meet our needs.


  2. Posted by Mark L. Levinson on November 23, 2020 at 6:53 pm

    Words, like people, get weaker with increasing age. I think that’s what happened gradually to “presently,” just as it happened more suddenly to “awesome.” I wonder where the strong new words are supposed to come from.


    • I think strong new words will evolve as and when we need them. The word “presently” no longer means “right now”, but we have the word “immediatey” to cover for that. Whatever our needs, language will evolve, I think, to cover them.


  3. I’m sticking with whom….


  4. Posted by Martin Johnson on November 23, 2020 at 8:33 pm

    I just heard a BBC health correspondent use ‘fine toothcomb’ instead of ‘fine-tooth comb’ – a good example of how ignorance can distort meaning!


  5. I’d say that clarity is the primary concern (in non-literary language; in literature deliberate ambiguity is often a powerful technique). Most language rules (I’d prefer to call them conventions) usually aid clarity, but when they don’t they can be safely ignored. It’s decades since I last heard someone insist that splitting infinitives is an error, for example. I think we must remember that language is our servant, not our master. We invented it so we can communicate, and our needs change so language will change with them. To insist that language must be ossified is a mugs’ game.

    After clarity comes elegance (except, again, when in literature an author deliberately writes in an ungainly or ugly style to create a specific effect).

    Language changes generally happen through ‘mass ignorance’, as you say. I’m fond of quoting the word ‘prestigious’ (especially when talking to someone who insists that language must not be allowed to change). According to the OED this was first used in 1534 to mean ‘illusory, deceptive’, and that’s the meaning it retained for centuries. It wasn’t until 1901 that it was first used in its modern meaning. (Presumably the new meaning arose because ‘prestigious’ sounds like ‘prestige’.) Would anyone argue that we should go back using it exclusively in its original sense?

    One language rule that we can see in the process of changing is that governing possessive apostrophes; it wouldn’t surprise me if they mostly disappeared in the next half century. In my native Hertfordshire, for example, we have a town called King’s Walden and another called Kings Langley. Do the residents of the former feel superior? Do the residents of the latter feel deprived or in any way disadvantaged because of their missing apostrophe? I doubt it. (I’ve written a bit of a rant about possessive apostrophes here: http://www.icknieldindagations.com/2019/12/apostrophes-shmostrophes.html)


    • Thank you very much for this. I agree with everything you say, both above and in your blog post. And you say it all more eloquently than I did.

      I often wonder whether the concept of a “standard English” will survive. What we think of as “standard English” is, after all, a dialect, if we define “dialect” to mean “a form of language that may be used to communicate intelligibly”. Since all dialects may be used to communicate intelligibly (they wouldn’t be in use otherwise), it is hard to see why some dialects should be regarded as “correct”, and others “incorrect”. However, unless we have one dialect that we can refer to as “standard”, very soon, people from different backgrounds, and professing different dialects, will not be able to communicate with each other. Such things as, say, legal documents, medical reports, police reports, etc., should ideally be written to be intelligible to everyone, without ambiguity of meaning (although, admittedly, in some cases such as, say, legal documents, scientific papers, etc., a certain level of expertise is required from the reader). So, a “standard English” is, I think, required. But then again, even this “standard English” is subject to change. Are the changes here to be regulated? If so, how, and by whom?

      I am just throwing off questions off the top of my head without knowing the answers, by the way!


  6. Posted by alan on December 2, 2020 at 11:37 pm

    I take a practical view: medical reports should be understandable throughput a human lifetime and the engineering if bridges probably needs a comprehension of a couple of centuries.
    It’s nice to be able to puzzle through Shakespeare and the King James authorised version of the Bible but it’s not absolutely essential. However, how quickly do you want people to lose Shakespeare?


    • I agree with you. Indeed, I say something similar in one of my comments above: we need a standard English just to ensure we can all speak to each other, regardless of background; and also, as you say, to ensure that important documentation (police reports, legal documents and the like) are understood without ambiguity. And this, too, changes over time, but, hopefully, not so quickly as to make the whole point of having a standard English redundant.


  7. Posted by alan on December 2, 2020 at 11:58 pm

    Another problem arises. Shakespeare’s ‘presently’ presumably existed in a time without reliance on dictionaries. He also used a term like ‘middle age’ in A Winter’s Tale. Can you provide a definition of middle age?
    How sure are you that Shakespeare’s usage
    of any word was the common usage? Of course, he had an enormous impact on the language, so his version may have dominated for some time.
    Also, I can usually puzzle out a lot of Shakespeare because of context. When will that become impossible? Is my ability to use context because I’ve read other things between his time and now.
    Here’s the King James Bible translation:
    “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
    Here’s the Good News translation:
    “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
    Not much in it maybe but the difference between ‘make’ and ‘set’ troubles some people because some people see make as a process and set as a sudden release.
    How often do the original texts need to be retranslated?
    I understand you are currently retranslating some of Tagore’s poetry that he translated into English himself. How do you intend to present this challenge? Will you explain the dilemma?


    • Posted by alan on December 3, 2020 at 12:01 am

      I should have also pointed out that the difference between ‘shall’ and ‘will’ in that bible quote doesn’t bother me much but I bet it bothers some people.


    • Indeed – Shakespeare’s idea of what constitutes youth, or middle age, must inevitably be different from our own usage, when longevity is significantly longer.
      Translations are interesting. Non-Anglophone writers are frequently translated, but Anglophone writers have their work stuck in time, as it were. There are those, I know, who think one should always try to go for translations that were made at approximately the same time as the original work was written, but the standards of accuracy are changed now.
      In my own translations of Tagore, I have tried to focus on the musicality, since, to my ears Tagore’s verse is intensely musical. And I believe it is worth sacrificing something of literal accuracy in order o preserve some sort of musicality. It won’t be Tagore’s music, f course, since the sounds of Bengali aren’t available in English, but the English used must, I think, have a strong sense of euphony. But each translation is necessarily an interpretation: tis is why there is room for multiple translations. When there is a work in a foreign language that I particularly admire, I try to acquire a number of different translations.


  8. Here’s my pennyworth. If I read a piece of text where someone writes “could of”, I go no further. I’m tolerant of typos (I make enough myself) but this isn’t a typo, it’s laziness or ignorance or both. “Could of” makes no rational sense, as anyone who can be bothered to think about it should realise.

    On the other hand, who/whom is, to me, one of those cases where the correct version is less elegant than the incorrect version. If I’m writing to some jobsworth at the bank, I’ll probably write “The person with whom I spoke last week” because that makes it look as if I’m clever and know what I’m talking about. But in any other situation it’s “the person who I spoke to last week.” I’ve just ended one sentence with a preposition, and started another with a conjunction, so no doubt some people will be on the hotline to the Grammar Police.

    I’m sort of Grammar Police myself, but I pick my battles. I’ll rage against “could of” and “there” when someone means “their”, because the wrong versions make no sense. Who/whom is, by contrast, one of those rules where I’m all for people observing it if they wish to, but which I regard as pretty much obsolete in modern English.


  9. PS I think the word you’re looking for that means “a desire to be correct without understanding what correctness is” is hypercorrection. An often quoted of this is something like “she spoke with John and I.”


    • “Hypercorrection”! Indeed – that is the word I was grasping for! Thank you very much!

      I understand your argument for not using “whom”, but it just doesn’t work for me. I once wrote a post here using “who” for “whom”, but it didn’t feel right, and I ended up going back and changing it all back to “whom” again (when appropriate, obviously!)

      I’m with you on the “could of” or “should of” construction. I remember being quite astonished when I first encountered it: I couldn’t believe anyone could be so ignorant. But, here too, I’m afraid, if the usage becomes widespread, then, whatever the reason for its spreading so wide, grammar books have to acknowledge it. But we aren’t quite there yet, I think – there’s time yet to stop the rot!


  10. Any linguist will tell you that the notion of “correctness” is deeply problematic, and more or less scientifically useless. Correct only applies within a dialect, and some of them are very fluid. Consider also that William Shakespeare, Sir Thomas Browne, and other greats treated English quite freely, inventing words, and shifting with pronouns. And of course, English was hardly codified then. Most of that came in with Latin-oriented pedants of the 19th century.

    As an individual, I have no doubt as to my course. I speak Standard English. I fully recognize that its priority is simply a reflection and reinforcement of class/power relationships in our society, but I enjoy it, I grew up loving it, and I feel comfortable and authentic speaking it. I don’t think people find my language stilted, because I am careful to avoid constructions that sound self-consciously stilted today (unless I am being ironic or something…) but I do sound to many a bit formal or “literary.” Okay, fine. I also dig The Blues, but I’d feel like a fool talking that way, and would be seen as one too, quite rightly.

    As a parent…that’s another thing. I used to correct my children, but I quickly realized (with some pointed encouragement from my wife) that this was a dead end, unless they asked me for correction. It only engendered resentment and a hardening of attitude. So, my daughter still treats personal pronouns in a way that makes me grit my teeth and sweat as I restrain myself from saying, “You mean ‘Emily and she went to the store, not Emily and her… Emily went, she went, Emily and she went, right..?'” No dice. On the other hand, when my daughter writes documents and letters for her job, they are in perfect Standard English! (Wheww! At MY job, I was often appalled at the diction and grammar in letters, let alone emails, from educated correspondents!)

    It took me a LONG time to come to a glimmer of understanding of what was going on here, but finally it occurred to me that for my daughter to say, “She and I are going to the store,” rather than “Me and her are going,” or some other cringe-worthy locution, sounds to HER rather as if I said, “Art thee going..? or Ar’t ready?” Pronoun shift is happening as we speak and write. Maybe in fifty years, Standard English will recognize this. Given the things that come out of major news outlets and government, I will not be surprised.

    And there is EVEN a logic (sometimes) to it! To me, the phrase, “He gave it to John and I,” which I hear all the time, is plainly wrong. But if you conceive of the subject as a compound of John & I, then it sort of makes sense. Some linguists have written on it this way.

    Now, as you are a BRIT, I have a question for you. I worked for many years for a British engineering firm. I noticed that the way that singular and plural constructions were put on nouns in the UK was different from in the US. For example, people would say, “Manchester United were fortunate in their win yesterday,” taking the team as a plural, whereas here we would always make it singular. I found this consistently regarding business entities, organizations, etc. At one point, I had to write to the publicity department and inform them that although I was not a language pedant, in the USA such constructions would sound very odd to even a casual reader. A pleasant young English lady with whom I worked, who had the uber-Brit sounding name, Lizzie Sparrow, told me that those writers were simply wrong. It wasn’t standard British usage. Your take?


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