In the NYT

On the New York Times op-ed page of August 11, two very different finds: an odd whom from Benjamin Netanyahu (the Israeli prime minister) and a scholarly reminiscence of the late anthropologist Ann Dunham Soetoro (Barack Obama’s mother).First, from Netanyahu. as quoted by Hussein Agha and Robert Malley, “The Two-State Solution Doesn’t Solve Anything”:

As Mr. Netanyahu was fond of saying, you can call that [proposals for Palestine] a state if you wish, but whom are you kidding?

Netanyahu’s use of whom here is, as people sometimes put it, “technically correct” — that is, it conforms to older prescriptions about the choice of who and whom (the Language Loggers have posted on the issue at least twenty times) — but nevertheless will strike many readers as odd. Explaining why this should be takes a little setting up.

The relevant contexts in which the who/whom choice arises are when the pronoun is functioning as an object (of a verb or preposition) but is separated from its governing element, as in Who/Whom did you see? In older prescriptivist-standard usage, who in these contexts is proscribed, either as simply incorrect or as too colloquial/informal for use in writing or in careful speech; whom is prescribed. That is, in this scheme whom is the neutral usage and who (if it is permitted at all) is the marked usage.

For an enormous number of speakers, the situation has reversed: while these speakers understand whom in these contexts, they find it markedly formal, stiff, old-fashioned, or even archaic. Many of these speakers don’t use whom in these contexts at all, or use it only in very formal settings.

Now along comes the verb kid, which is definitely slangy, including in its use in interrogative idioms understood as rhetorical questions: Who are you kidding? Who are you trying to kid?, conveying ‘you’re not succeeding in kidding anyone, no one is fooled’.

Put whom used in contexts where it’s widely seen as very formal together with the decidedly colloquial verb kid, and you have a conflict, the sort of stylistic discordancy discussed back in the Dark Ages by Clare Silva and me (in our 1973 article “Discord”, available here).

Yes, English isn’t Netanyahu’s first language, but he’s a fluent speaker (and graduated from an American high school), so I find “whom are you kidding?” just preposterous. (It’s always possible, of course, that the whom was introduced by Agha and Malley or by a copy editor, “correcting” an original who.)

On to Dove’s tribute to Ann Dunham Soetaro. Dove noted that her Ph.D. dissertation was a 1,043-page work Peasant Blacksmithing in Indonesia: Surviving Against All Odds (based on 14 years of research, completed in 1992), and went on to say that all her work “was a challenge to popular perceptions regarding economically and politically marginalized groups”.

His affecting piece did make me wonder if any other U.S. president has had a mother with an earned doctorate.

2 Responses to “In the NYT”

  1. steve treuer Says:

    I don’t know the answer to that yet, but according to Wikipedia, Abigail Adams, who was the wife of John Adams and mother of John Quincy Adams, was “one of the most erudite women ever to serve as First Lady.” “As an intellectually open-minded woman for her day, Abigail’s ideas on women’s rights and government would eventually play a major role, albeit indirectly, in the founding of the United States.”

    Wikipedia has a category of parents of presidents of the US, but I haven’t looked at all of the links yet. I’m not sure if any other US president has a father or mother with an earned Ph.D.

  2. steve treuer Says:

    I’ve scanned the links on Wikipedia’s category page for parents of US presidents. As far as I can tell, none of the other parents, fathers or mothers, had earned Ph.Ds.

    Barack Obama’s father earned a masters in economics at Harvard before he returned to Kenya, and Barack Obama’s stepfather was doing graduate work in Hawaii that was interrupted when he had to return to Indonesia.

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