The Prick of Grammar: State of the Union

There was much to like about last night’s State of the Union Address, and it wasn’t all watching Joe Biden periodically try to make John Boehner lose his prim-mouthed composure in the background. There was the supremely metaphoric spectacle of congressmen in mixed seating trying to get their neighbors to participate in standing ovations. There was Shepard Smith’s on-air meltdown after Chris Wallace corrected him re the date of Bobby Jindal’s commentary (it was two years ago, not last year, and Wallace was not cool about it.) There was Paul Ryan’s response, which was like watching a retarded person recite a poem, and there was Michele Bachmann’s response, which was like watching the wind blow across a Coke bottle. For my money, though, the best part of SOTU was the President’s impassioned defense of the decision to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. He segued cleanly from the war in Afghanistan to the universal support for our troops to their ethnic and religious diversity. “And yes, we know that some of them are gay,” he continued. “Starting this year, no American will be forbidden from serving the country they love because of who they love.” It was a rad turn of phrase, but listening to it I was briefly distracted. That moment’s recognition of dissonance in a harmonious use of language is the subject of today’s possibly-never-recurring feature, in which we analyze the twinge that comes with an error in deliberate speech. I call it The Prick of Grammar, and it starts at 54:54 of the video after the jump.


No, it’s not the use of “they” as a pronoun for the singular antecedent “no American.” Despite the SAT’s continued insistence to the contrary, I believe that usage has become an acceptable aspect of idiomatic English in response to our frustrating absence of an impersonal pronoun. If you don’t like it, move to Mexico and use “se” for singular, gender-neutral people who do not exist all you want, or until you need penicillin and have to come back.

My problem is with the ever-troublesome who/whom error. “No American will be forbidden from serving the country they love because of whom they love,” would be more correct, since [the person] they love is the direct object of no American‘s transitive verb love. You can test for who/whom by rearranging the syntax and substituting he for who and him for whom. The necessity of the object whom becomes apparent when you compare “because they love he” to “because they love him.”

But that doesn’t mean the sentence should have been “Starting this year, no American will be forbidden from serving the country they love because of whom they love.” As anyone who has watched me on a first date knows, using “whom” in a sentence is a great way to make people suspicious. I agree with PJ O’Rourke that you should only use “whom” when you want to sound imperious and angry, as in, “And just whom do you think is going to clean up this vomit?” Had the President used “whom” in his pleasingly parallel phrase, an expression of unity would have become a moment of division.

It’s no secret that in conservative discourse, “elite” has become a pejorative rivaled only by “socialist.” The sight of our black, Harvard-educated lawyer President using “whom” to defend his decision to let gay dudes join the Army would be too much for populist America, and their brains would explode. Presumably, Obama and his speechwriters know that, just as they know the rules of English usage necessary to get a 780 on the SATs. The decision between “who” and “whom” was likely a decision between evoking the Prick of Grammar and provoking Fox News. One of these is clearly the more powerful enemy.

That the decision had to be made at all, though, points to an element of our national discourse that is small but ineffably tragic, like when a midget drowns. The President is smarter than us. That’s not only understandable but desirable, yet he feels the need to hide it, or at least downplay it in a public address. The tragedy is that he is probably right. In this moment of national crisis—during a speech that centered largely on the importance of education, for Chrissake—he judged that many of us would be suspicious of a President who used conspicuously correct grammar. We would rather think the President is Like Us than worry that he might be more intelligent, even at the expense of the language. That’s an understandable preference, but it’s hardly admirable.

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  1. I wondered that, too—the ABC feed I watched last night was even more disturbing. Apparently, she brought her own camera and was looking at that for the first three minutes instead of the feed camera. After SOTU, she got stuck behind the President’s motorcade and started her broadcast about 20 minutes later than she intended. It seems like the setup was a rush job. I wish I had video capture software, because the patter among the ABC anchors and correspondents while they waited was vicious.

  2. It’s only a grammar error for you, the SATs, and I suppose a few more of your Grammar Prick cohorts. When a grammar rule has become so ignored as to make the “conspicuously correct” sound awkward, it’s the rule itself that is no longer useful. I’m surprised you’ll accept “they” as a singular pronoun but not “who” in place of “whom”; it seems arbitrary.

  3. It occurs to me that the SOTU would be about 15 minutes long if you cut out the applause and ovations.

  4. Useful suggestions , I was fascinated by the facts . Does someone know where my company could find a blank DA 31 example to fill out ?

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