The demise of certain grammatical stalwarts began, I believe, when classical journalism started to wither with the advent of the Internet age. Éminence grises, like The New York Times, began losing writers and editors as newspapers began to shrink with their readerships. Granted, some of the grammatical uses I eulogize here were waning long before the Internet stranglehold tightened, but the last 20 years has seen the decline of others, due no doubt to the loss of the editorial denizens of the newsroom who kept usages immortalized by Strunk and White alive. (Who are Strunk and White? Click here, dear reader: Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.)
In the olden days, for instance, one occasionally saw the now nearly extinct object of the preposition. What, you might ask, especially if you were born after 1990, is the object of the preposition? Well, it’s simple really. Just like sentences have verb objects, “He shooed the cat,” cat being the object of the verb “to shoo,” prepositions, too, used to come armed with objects in their own right.
I’m not sure who, how, or when the world started stripping prepositions of their objects, but I can say that William Safire was still alive, and I can’t figure out how he let this happen. Wikipedia reports that over time he became less of a grammatical nitpicker, so perhaps that is the simplest answer.
I can say without reservation that prepositions did nothing to deserve this. Esteemed, older writers got it right. Hemingway, for instance, did not entitle his book, “For Who the Bell Tolls,” and rightly so. He properly penned the title, “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” since the pronoun in question is the object of the preposition “for.” (Please, gentle reader, tell me that you were aware that ‘for’ is the preposition in that phrase. After all, you had a 20% chance of guessing it right!)
The object of the preposition is so rarely sighted these days that I can hardly keep track of when to use it and when not to. (Alert readers no doubt noticed that I ended the preceding sentence with a preposition — formerly a phenomenal faux pas! In this case, however, I think what looks like a preposition is actually just the short form of the infinitive “to use.” But abler grammarians than I will have to sort that one out. But that last sentence — you guessed it! — is definitely hosting another pesky preposition to close out an otherwise respectable sentence.)
In times past, prepositions were treated more honorably and hence phrases would read: “to whom is this letter addressed,” “for whom is the phone call,” or — more directly — “whom is the call for?” The latter is so seldom the way folks phrase it today, although that is the correct way to say it, that is sounds downright anachronistic.
It’s simple, really. You would never say, “The call is for he,” right? You’d say, “The call is for him.” ‘Him’ in that version is the object of the preposition and folks get that right all the time, but replace a gender pronoun with the interrogative pronoun ‘who,’ and everything gets bungled up. It’s like someone buried the word ‘whom’ without any mention of a memorial service, which leaves writers like me (more correctly, ‘I’) carrying around an errant ‘m’ which simply swoons to be reattached to its grammatically correct partner-in-prepositional-crime ‘who,’ for a more traditionally married and historic ‘whom.’
Then there is the absence of agreement between the subject and the verb when it comes to the word ‘none.’ ‘None,’ you see, is singular — a contraction of ‘not one.’ And we all know that one is singular, hence requiring a suitable singular verb, like ‘is,’ as in, “Not one person is coming to dinner on Saturday.”
Over the years, however, ‘none’ has routinely become paired with plural verbs which results in sentences such as, “None are coming on Saturday.” Who knows when ‘none’ somehow morphed into a negative form of ‘some,’ but the fact is that these are different words with different meanings. ‘Some’ means two or more. None means not even one! Here too, my erstwhile reliable editors at The New York Times have forsaken their duties as guardians at the grammatical gates, and they routinely get it wrong in print. It’s an affront to the masthead, if you ask me.
Finally, I close out this Quixotic post with a reference to the Oxford comma. I may be one of the few persons on the planet who still indulges in the Oxford comma, which was apparently born, raised, and still survives in usage at Oxford University Press in Oxford, England. (Yet, Oxford University’s PR department no longer uses it.) I do know that I found some Google images of it which leads me to believe that rumors of its demise may be premature. Indeed, according to Wikipedia, some style guides still mandate its employ. (For a fulsome review of the serial comma, try this Wikipedia post on the Oxford comma.)
The Oxford comma sets off a series of items after ‘and’ or ‘or’. It is usually misplaced by modern writers, leaving one to confusing mental images of merged, mangled or mixed-up items that were intended to stand alone. So, for instance, I use the Oxford comma when I write: I like dogs, cats, elephants, and lions. Others write: I like dogs, cats, elephants and lions which creates a mildly confusing mental image of a morphed version of an elephantion, whatever that might be. These graphics, courtesy of Google Images, illustrate the confusion:
To put it bluntly, although William Safire may have died, certain grammatical niceties have not. They’ve just fallen into disuse. And why do I feel compelled to resurrect them? Well, because there’s a right way and a wrong way to grammar — a whimsy I cling to at least as long as Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style remains in print. The editorial staff of The New York Times might be having the vapors, but Strunk and White stand firm and speak from beyond the grave. So, let’s honor the object of the preposition, reassign a singular verb to the singular ‘none,’ and write to the standards of Strunk, White, and indeed Safire, by embracing that Oxford comma!
As they say in the English Book of Common Prayer, “it is meet and right so to do.” So, let’s do it. Let’s get it right. If for no other reason than it’s the right way to write.