Thursday, July 21, 2011

Objects vs. Subjects

So, because I was thinking of perhaps teaching English abroad (an imaginary high five to who can guess where), I decided to look at the Oxford Seminars institute…thing. I saw them advertising in one of my creative writing workshops and thought to myself: Self, you may as well check out these people and see if they are legit. I went home and promptly looked them up on-line.

It seemed fairly safe at first, until I got to the France page. Now, I knew before that this was an issue, but I have never, EVER, seen such blatant misuse of the word ‘whom’ in my life.

In every single sentence where ‘who’ ought to have been used, it was egregiously substituted with the word ‘whom’. Everywhere, with all thought to grammatical construction thrown to the rather erroneous wind. It was so very offensive that I very nearly wrote them a snarky (which Word doc is trying to tell me is not a word. Silly Word doc.) e-mail asking if the graduating test was correcting the webmaster’s misuse of an object as a subject?

I have to admit it wasn’t one of my finer, more patient moments. I didn’t do it, but still, the temptation was there and strong. I remember when I was still in grade school—early grade school—some of my fellows thought ‘whom’ was simply a more grown-up way of saying ‘who’. I had no idea that this misunderstanding continued to adulthood for some. I knew that people, for the most part, ignore ‘whom’ as if it doesn’t exist. But this flagrant misuse on a website designed to designate people to teach English abroad

Well. Clearly it has thoroughly upset me. It is time to set the matter straight. What, exactly, is the difference betwixt ‘who’ and ‘whom’?

It’s easy, once it’s been explained a little.

Who: A subject.

Whom: An object.

What does this mean? Subjects are the ones that do in a sentence. They are the words that take the verb. An object is acted upon in a sentence, or receiving what is being done. Let’s have an example, shall we?

Example: Who signed the treaty of Versailles? 
See how the subject and verb go together? The subject is acting on the verb here, so we use who.

            Example: Who slapped whom?
A little trickier, but the subject is the one doing the slapping, the object receiving the slap.

            Example: To whom is it directed? It is directed to whom it may concern of course!

Whenever I am in doubt, I replace who with “I” (a subject), and whom with “me” (an object). The distinction between I and me is typically a little more apparent, as one uses it with more frequency. As such, the former becomes: Is it directed to me? We may have the urge to put “who” simply because whom is followed with a verb. However, if we think on it, we see that the verb is actually acting in conjunction with the word it. Again, this is why putting the sentence into the first person is helpful. We instinctively know to say something like, “It is directed to me!” rather than, “It is directed to I!”

See? Objects and subjects are really quite easy to differentiate. Now we need never, ever, ever mistake who for whom (or vice versa, Oxford Seminars) again. Hooray!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Bane of my existence: Transitive versus Intransitive Verbs.

You may perchance think I am being a tad extreme when I vehemently state that transitive and intransitive verbs are the bane of my existence. In fact, the words “over zealous” may come to mind. I fully acknowledge the following blatant misuse(s) of the English language for dramatic purposes.

You. Do not. Under. Stand.

Allow me to explain.

I am a writer. Throughout both my academic and artistic careers, this small, niggling thing has seemed to follow me around like a nasty case of halitosis. And yes, it is has been just as unpleasant. But let’s begin with the beginning, shall we?

Intransitive Verb: A verb which takes no direct object.
            Example: Subject + Verb = Complete Sentence.
                        Example: I (subj.) rise (verb).
It is a simple example and not a complicated sentence, but it serves the point. The verb doesn’t need a direct object to complete the sentence.

Transitive Verb: A verb which needs a direct object to be complete.
            Example: Subject + Verb + Direct Object = Complete Sentence.
                        Example: I (subj.) raise (verb) the bar (d.obj.).

Most of us instinctively know when to use a transitive verb, and when we need an intransitive. One typically does not hear others saying, “I rise the bar.” If you’re like me, it sends cold chills down your spine and makes your hackles rise, much like the sound of nails on a chalkboard. Or a cat yowling off-key. Or a banshee screaming at the top of her lungs.

So then, you may be wondering, why are transitive and intransitive verbs the bane of my existence? Well, since you asked so nicely, and care so much, I’ll tell you:

Lie vs. Lay

Oh, good God in heaven above, lie vs. lay! It makes me want to gouge out my eyes, much like Jocasta when she finds out she married and bore offspring with her son. This is where the fact that I am a writer comes into play.

I write fiction. As such, I read. Fiction. A lot of it. I have taken multiple workshops and creative writing classes. Where is this going? From song lyrics (Snow Patrol, I am indeed looking at you—and no, I will not lay here) to published and acclaimed novels, people make this mistake. In every single workshop or class I have taken, someone, usually multiple someones, and yes, this includes the professors/teachers/workshop leaders, makes this mistake.

What do they do, all these innocent people, that makes me want to find them and bludgeon them with a copy of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style?

They use lay, a transitive verb, when they should be using lie, the intransitive form of the verb! They write horrid, nasty things like:

            The boy laid down on the soft earth, gazing soulfully up at the star-speckled sky. (Except they usually leave off the hyphen, but that’s for another blog.)

Okay. Deep breath. Calm. I am centered in an ordered universe, where rules are upheld, and laws to which we must confine ourselves, adhered.

Right. So then—what should it be? It’s easy, really.

Lie is intransitive, so it takes no direct object. What that means is:

            Example: The boy has lain down on the soft earth.
            Example: I lie down. You lie down. We lie down together.

Lay is the transitive form of the verb, so it does take a direct object.

            Example: The boy laid the book down.
                        The boy (subj.) laid (verb) the book (d.obj.) down.
            Example: He laid me down. I laid the quilt down. She lays the Glock 17C down on the dresser. The mother laid her son softly upon the heather.
                        He (subj.) laid (verb) me (d.obj.) down.

See? Quite straightforward. It has simply become so accepted to use lay as a blanket verb, because we as a people have chosen to dislike the word lie—why? Perhaps because it reminds us of that rather nasty verb we use when we aren’t telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth so help you God.

Whatever the case, I hope that this alleviates some confusion regarding verbs, transitive or intransitive. Most specifically those absolutely-NOT-interchangeable verbs lie and lay.

Go ahead. Google it.

I dare you.

Welcome one, welcome all!

I make no pretense at expertise--no grandiose proclamations of all-encompassing knowledge of the English language's idiosyncrasies and archaic syntax.

No, I am a mere bachelor graduate, who happened to major in English. I was taught grammar at the usual age in elementary school, forgot nearly all the rules immediately (as, let's face it, we most of us did), but was blessed (read: raised in an unusually literate family) with a good instinct for it. My obsession  fascination with the rules of language didn't begin until my first high school French class. Learning the grammar of another language is, I think, one of the fastest and most efficient ways of learning the grammar for one's own native tongue. The contrasts, the similarities, etc. etc. etc.

I began a half-hearted study of the (ir)regularities of English syntax and grammar, that slowly grew stronger when I got to college and realized: No one has any fucking idea what they're doing. I include professors in this unfortunate mass. How many of us, after all, answer the question, "How are you doing?" with the adjective, "Good"? I know I used to, before I re-learned the difference between adjectives and adverbs.

What do I hope to accomplish here? It's simple. I'm hoping to right the more flagrant misuses of my second-most favorite language. One reader at a time.