Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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Language errors through lack of thinking

Introduction

Many errors result from people either not thinking about what they are actually saying or by their lacking insight into how language works (e.g. what roles different words/constructs can have). This can, ironically, be particularly problematic with native speakers: Firstly, they seldom receive the grammatical instruction that second-language learners get; secondly, they are more likely to be influenced by common patterns that appear the same, but are, in fact, different (e.g. “... because of whom ...” vs. “... because of whose ...” below).

This page deals with a few cases of this phenomenon.

Who vs. whom

The question whether to use “who” or “whom” seems to be something most people cannot answer correctly. Apart from the category of people who consider “whom” superfluous and use “who” through-out (a valid opinion, but one I strongly disagree with), there seems to be at least the following problems: The believe that “whom” is a fancy “who”, leading to use of either through-out a text (note that this is different from the “superfluous” category); not realizing that a certain use requires “whom” (e.g. “Whom did I see you with?”); and over-correction, replacing many instance of a correct “who” with “whom”.

Below is a list of examples with an explanation of why “who” or “whom” is used. As can be seen, it is usually comparatively simple (barring errors out of carelessness—I make many myself, as I notice during every proof-reading):

Who knows you?Subjective case.
You know whom?Objective case.
I know whom you saw.Objective case. As with a few of the following examples, it can pay to insert an extra comma: “I know, whom you saw.”
I know who saw you.Subjective case: “who” is not an object of “I know”, but the subject of “who saw you” (which as a whole is the object of “I know”).
Whom did I see you with?Preposition: This is just a re-ordering of “With whom did I see you?”.
I know who won.Subjective. Cf. above.
I know who was beaten.Subjective. Cf. above. Note that “who” is the logical object in “who was beaten”, but the grammatical subject.
I know whom you beat.Objective: Unlike above, “whom” is the grammatical object, with “you” being the subject.
You are happy because of whom?Preposition.
You are happy because of whose winning?A special case: The “of” has a wider range than in the preceding example, encompassing the sub-clause “whose winning” (which therefore uses “whose” rather than either “who” or “whom”).

Try and help

Many formulations requiring a “to” are often used with an “and” instead. “I will try and help you.” is a typical example. This is probably rooted in the existence of many cases where “and” is correct (e.g. “I came, saw, and conquered.”); and many more where it is acceptable (e.g. “I will come and watch TV.”), although the meaning may vary slightly depending on whether “and” or “to” is used.

A good test whether “and” is acceptable is to simply write the sentence out in full: If it still makes sense and means the same, then “and” is OK; if not, then not. Consider e.g. “I will try and I will help you.” (change in meaning, dubious language) and “I will come and I will watch TV.” (could mean the same, language is OK).

More specifically, “to” should be used where an intention, causation, or another modification is intended:

  1. “I will come [in order] to watch TV.” and “I will come and watch TV.” have slightly different meanings.

  2. “I will try to help.” is the only acceptable version.

  3. “... run to hide” means something different from “... run and hide”: In the first case someone will hide, and temporarily run in order to make this possible; in the second, some combination of running and hiding will be used. Consider e.g. a rabbit hunted by a fox: “I will run to hide [in my den].” vs “I will run [when he sees me] and hide [when he does not].”.

An excellent illustration is the following old joke:

A man reads a newspaper add: Send in $50 and learn how to play the piano!

Thrilled at the cheap price, he sends the money. Two weeks later he receives a letter: Thank you for the money! Remember to learn how to play the piano!


Addendum:

To my surprise, I stumbled across a case of “try and” being correct:

For instance, to arrest, try and sentence certain counterrevolutionaries,[...]

(Mao’s red booke)

Notably, this “try” has a different meaning and role than the one discussed above—which gives us yet another reason why “try and” should not be used where “try to” is intended: It is a potential source of ambiguity.


I could care less

For reasons I do not understand, the (logically correct) idiomatic expression “I could not care less.” is being pushed out of use by the perversion “I could care less.”, which typically means the opposite of what the speaker wants to say.

A similar phenomenon is present in the German idiom (correct example) “Du bekommst kein Taschengeld, bevor du den Rasen gemäht hast.” respectively (incorrect alteration) “... bevor du nicht ...”—“You will not get your pocket money until you have (not) mowed the lawn.”. The idiocy of the incorrect version should be clear to anyone who actually thinks. I note, from personal experience, that this kind of phrasing can be very confusing to foreigners, until they catch on to the fact that this is just a very common language error.

Just because ...

A more subtle example is “Just because X, does not mean Y.”—a statement which takes to reasonable halves, and combines them in an unreasonable manner. In contrast, “Just because X, Y.” and “X does not mean Y.” could be considered reasonable (but different in meaning). What the original speaker actually meant was “X alone does not imply Y.” (or similar).