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GRAMMATICAL SINS - WHO’S TO BLAME?

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It is more than uncomfortable to make a grammatical error. The first place I hear about it is at church and then I get e-mail and my students rub it in and relatives call and editors hang my stuff on the "good, bad, and ugly" bulletin board in the newsroom. I say again for the record, "Grammar is an important Learning Matter." But not necessarily for attribution I say, "Sometimes it don't matter that much."

I was a bit early for an early church meeting on the day my last sin was published in the Deseret News. The first person I met at church was a student who attends each Sunday because he can't legally pray in school."How come you marked it wrong on my paper and then said it yourself in the newspaper?"

"What?"

"I have it right here."

The student had clipped the article for me as if I had never seen what I had written. He made me think, but not what he probably thought I'd think: "Isn't it enough to be called to repentance for my mortal sins each Sunday without having to confess my sins gram-matical in the church foyer? Wouldn't this student be better off at BYU?" Hanging in my head was also the question of penance. Would I have to read Strunk and White again or would writing an appropriate sentence on the board 100 times be sufficient? I humbly (when did you last meet a humble someone who writes for a newspaper?) looked at the article in his trembling hand, and he was right.

I had written "whom" when "who" was correct. I hate it when that happens. I'm supposed to teach this stuff and then I make mistakes myself. Of course, it isn't that the error is so bad; it's the fact that I was caught by a student.

I suppose I could use the old tactic of the spelling impaired school teacher who is caught by a fourth- grader misspelling something on the chalk board. "I just did it to see if anyone would catch it." And the dog really did eat the student's homework. And, of course, we have finally forgiven Dan Quayle for his creative spelling of "po-tatoe." At least the most liberal among us have forgiven him, but conservatives are tough when it comes to language sins. They say "whom."

Now let me make this perfectly clear. In the spirit of the '90s I want to say unequivocally, through a spokesperson, that mistakes were made. Obviously the error is with the bureaucracy at Word-Perfect that didn't have proper safeguards in place in the department that wrote the computer program I use. In addition, the fail-safe mechanism used in this business, the copy editor who we have been unable to identify, had a momentary lapse related to new deadlines at the Deseret News that were unclear during the transition period to a new general editor. Counsel has assured us that there was no illegal activity on the part of anyone connected to this paper, and we are confident that national security and public safety were compromised.

Translation: It weren't my fault. And besides, Dave Barry is Mr. Grammar Person, and he is syndicated. This means the Deseret News is not directly responsible for his errors, and I'm not making this up.

Now the question still remains. Which is correct, "who" or "whom?" I'm sorry this came up while I still have column space, but since it has, I want to demonstrate my English teaching abilities by setting forth a rule of grammar that is easy to remember and will prevent anyone from ever making this mistake again.

It is so simple. Republicans say "whom," and Democrats say "who." It is known as a litmus test for all appointed positions even though litmus is a noun.

For example, if you listened closely at the Republican National Convention you would have heard reporters ask Dole supporters who they would support for vice president, or secretary of state or secretary of grammar. The answer of the loyal Republicans was always the same. I'll support "whomever" Dole wishes. (The point is not lost on grammarians and liberals who know that "whom" is the accusative form.) On the other hand, if all Democrats are asked the same ques-tion, they all point in different directions and say the Republicans are promoting an agenda to divide the classes by making whomonics the official language of the United States. Of course, the Democrats are not blameless. They are the ones who put wise on the end of every possible word, moneywise, legalwise, timewise, foreign aid-wise and unwise.

Now the goal should be as obvious as the old joke attributed to Ernest Weekley. In Boston the owls say: "To-wit, to-whom. Whom are you they ask, for they have been to night school." The goal must be to quit teaching the word "whom." It is a lot like a semicolon. Nobody wants one. Most prefer a regular colon. That's why four out of five proctologists interviewed recommend "who."

Probably the easiest way to eliminate the word "whom" is to all vote Democratic. But if I suggested this, the same student would probably meet me in the foyer of the church with another suggestion.

Roger G. Baker is professor of English/education at Snow College. Comments or questions about "Learning Matters" may be addressed to Dr. Roger Baker, English Department, Snow College, Ephraim, UT 84627. E-mail roger.baker@snow.edu or send a message by visiting his home page at www.snow.edu/(merge)rbaker/