07 April 2013


Random picture of cat hanging out on towel shelf
I was reading this most excellent little book the other day: Steal Like an Artist, by Austin Kleon. Great book, really. And then suddenly I run across this passage: "First, you have to figure out who to copy. Second, you have to figure out what to copy. Who to copy is easy. You copy your heroes - the people you love, the people you're inspired by, the people you want to be. ... What to copy is a little bit trickier. Don't just steal the style, steal the thinking behind the style. You don't want to look like your heroes, you want to see like your heroes" (p.35/36). It's another articulation of Kleon's main point: There is nothing new under the sun. Everything we do has been informed by the work that's gone before us, so we might as well acknowledge it and capitalise on it. Oh, and if you're wondering what the difference is between good  theft and bad theft (of ideas, that is): good theft credits, bad theft plagiarises (i.e. claims the idea for one's own). So I've just committed good theft here, because I'm crediting Kleon's great book. Go out and buy a copy, it's worth it.

However, that's really not what I was going to waffle on about. What got me to writing this is the little matter of a missing "m" in the first sentence. Did you spot it? "...you have to figure out who to copy." And then again: "Who to copy is easy..." Urgh. The grammar nerd in me is drumming its heels on the floor right now. Whom, people, whom! But then, I had to tell my grammar nerd, just shut up. Because the fact of the matter is that normal people, people like you and me, don't actually say "whom" in daily life. Well, okay, maybe you do - I don't. "Figure out who to copy" is exactly what I would say if we were talking about rip-off artistry in real language, the spoken tongue-and-lips variety, right now. And Kleon's book is written just as if he was talking real-life talk; he writes colloquial. So, I vote, he can get away with it.

Because, you see, language changes. Yes, "whom" is the correct form. And I'm going to keep using it where it's appropriate in my writing, because I'm kind of anal that way. But to turn up one's nose at those who cannot or will not use the accusative of the interrogative pronoun where it is called for is a sign of mental immaturity. Or, in normal language, don't be a snooty so-and-so about using "whom", it's childish. As I said, language changes - we no longer say "whence" for "from where" either, and I bet it first started with spoken language.

However, if you do have, somewhere in the depths of your being, a long-held desire to plumb the mysteries of said interrogative pronoun - in other words, if you want to know when to say "who" and when to use "whom" - let me give you a little hint. The form "whom" is called the accusative because it's the word we use when we accuse someone. Whom do we accuse of being a snooty so-and-so? Him, that's whom. Who does the accusing? He, that's who. See? It's pretty easy. When the answer is "him", you use "whom", when it's "he", use "who". That's why, strictly speaking, in Kleon's sentence it should be "whom", because when you copy Van Gogh (or Austin Kleon), you copy him, not he.

And then there's this writer I met who told the story of how he was standing in line at the deli counter in the grocery store. The sales lady turned to him and the people next to him, and asked: "What can I get for you?" The writer, being of the well-spoken variety and not entirely clear on who was next in line, asked: "To whom are you speaking?" Without missing a beat, she replied: "To youm!"

Life, the Universe, and Interrogative Pronouns in the Accusative. Whom are you going to read next? I recommend Austin Kleon.

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