Ask Mint | Obama’s English: finding fault

Ask Mint | Obama’s English: finding fault
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First Published: Mon, Feb 16 2009. 01 15 AM IST

Updated: Mon, Feb 16 2009. 02 25 PM IST
On 20 January, US President Barack Obama finished his speech at the neighbourhood ball with the words: “Thank you, guys.” Coming from the President, these were informal, colloquial, friendly words. Two weeks later, one of his key nominees to the cabinet had to withdraw because of some tax-related charges. Taking responsibility for it, Obama said, “I screwed up.” Here he was using a word that borders on the bawdy.
I cannot imagine an English monarch, or a monarch in waiting, using these words in a public speech. Received English has been modelled on the BBC, and on public occasions, the language has to be formal. British English continues to function in Fowler’s shadow. King’s English (1906), written by the Fowler brothers, was a major treatise on English grammar, and set the pattern for the state of the language for at least a century. Modern English Usage (MEU), which appeared 20 years later, codified many of the rules of usage and governed English grammar almost till the close of the 20th century.
Dictionaries define King’s English as the variety of English spoken in the south of England by educated people, and incorporating usage that is considered standard. The name was changed to Queen’s English around 1953 with the accession of Queen Elizabeth. Linguists and grammarians began to refer to the corresponding American form as President’s English.
In the tradition of the Fowler brothers, Strunk and White wrote Elements of Style, a book that has been acclaimed as a classic. Students at Cornell University where Prof. Strunk wrote the book called it “the little book”.
Fowler’s MEU can hardly be considered modern today. English has changed since Fowler wrote MEU and Strunk and White produced their little classic. Self-styled champions of grammatical correctness resist change in language and insist on perpetuating the old rules. Even the US President comes under their scanner, and in the last two months, grammar fiends have found fault with the English used by the presidential candidates and by many other leaders.
Obama’s grammar has been cavilled at several times during the campaign. The grammarian’s bête noire, the difference between “less and fewer”, was picked on very early. Obama said, “If you make less than a quarter-million dollars a year, your taxes will not be increased.” They quoted the rule against him: Use fewer for items you can count and less for quantity. A quarter million, they said, refers to a number and is therefore countable. This is a specious argument. One can hardly think of counting at that level. It refers to a big sum of money, and one can visualize it only as a mass, not as individual dollars to be counted. That justifies the use of “less”.
The second point of dispute is the use of “that” and “who”. Referring to his vice-presidential nominee, Obama said, “He is one of the finest public servants that has served this country.” The grammarians cried foul, and said Obama was confusing between “who” and “that”. The rule says, “Use ‘who’ for persons and animals with a name, and ‘that’ and ‘which’ for inanimate objects and for animals without a name.”
This argument is countered by writers by saying that we use “that” in a defining clause, that is, a clause that singles out or identifies a person or an object. In Obama’s remark, “that” directly draws attention to Biden. Shakespeare has an example with “which”. In Henry the Fifth, the king tells battle-shy soldiers, “He which hath no stomach to this fight, let him depart.” Today’s grammarian would say he ought to have used “who”, not “which”.
The choice between “who” and “whom” can be tricky, as can be seen from Obama’s words to the neighbourhood ball: “Of all the balls that are taking place tonight along with the commander-in-chief ball for our military, who we honour, this ball is the one that captures best, I think, the spirit of this campaign.” The rule book does not permit “who we honour”. The object of the verb “honour” has to be “whom”.
One of the hotly debated structures in English is the use of “his” in the sentence, “Every student must submit his report by Friday.” But why “his”, why not “her”? This sentence assumes that all the students are male. In answer to this, people began to use “his or her”. But the writing became inelegant if “his or her” had to be repeated over several sentences. The result is that people now prefer to use “their” in such places, though grammatically and logically considered wrong. John Biden wrote in a memo: “We need to make sure that every voter has their voice heard”. Hillary Clinton, too, used “their” to refer to a preceding singular noun. She promised to campaign “until everyone has had a chance to make their voices heard”.
Among the list of errors, one will not miss “dangling modifiers”. This is a favourite with TOEFL test writers. John McCain said, “As President of the United States, people will be held accountable in my administration.” This structure equates “people” with the President; the people are the President. A noble thought, but not what the speaker intended.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.
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First Published: Mon, Feb 16 2009. 01 15 AM IST