Of For Whom? Tim Parks wonders

Tim Parks writes an article in the NYRblog about the ultimate dull conformity of all world novels, as commented on here and here, and postulates a future in which each individual language’s idiomatic charm will be lost. – Like all such speculatives trends, Obooki imagines it is nothing; but that is not why the article interests us. – No, why we find it interesting is Parks’ first line:

Not all writers share the same sense of whom they are writing for.

Grammatically correct, or not?

Now I know what you’re thinking. This line should clearly be re-written as:

Not all writers share the same sense of for whom they are writing.

But leaving apart such simple Latinate solutions, it brings up a question which had been nagging on Obooki’s mind since our last painful excursion into correct English usage, although as it happens not quite in its classical Obookian form.

Here is the question: does “whom” in this sentence depend on the preposition “of” or does it depend on the preposition “for”? – Now, ok: as it happens (and this is why we don’t find it classical), it doesn’t really much matter, since both “of” and “for” take the accusative (i.e. “whom”). (Which doesn’t explain why the sentence sounds so dreadful, but…).

Parks, one sentence further on, provides his own answer to this question, for he says:

there are clearly periods of history when … authors’ perceptions of who their readers are change

There we go: “whom”, in the first sentence, must have been dependent on “for”, since now that we have the same construction which finds “who” in the nominative in the relative clause (is in apposition to “their readers”), suddenly the relative clause dominates and “who” becomes nominative.

I have a suspicion this is true. My thought is actually this: that “of” doesn’t as it were govern “who” at all, but governs the entire relative clause, as one might once (or Obooki, with his strange attempts at punctuation, might even yet now) have written perhaps:

Not all writers share the same sense of, whom they are writing for.

(Yes, “blocks of language” are Obooki’s thing).

The fact that the first sentence sounds dreadful (at least, to my ear) and any writer of distinction – any master of his own language’s idiom – should have circumvented it (the easiest way in English, it seems to me, is either a) restructure the sentence so that it never arises, or b) replace “who” with an apposite noun (e.g. “the audience”) where case suddenly isn’t an issue) is perhaps just a reflection of the gentle obliteration of “whom” from our language (it shall not be missed!), and also a nagging doubt that we can’t in this context substitute the usual genitive “whose” for “of whom”.

Anyway, I didn’t think it was a good way to start a newspaper article.

(I see he also goes for “1960’s”.)


13 thoughts on “Of For Whom? Tim Parks wonders

  1. They have a sense of John.

    They have a sense of John, for whom they are writing.

    [They have a sense of whom(so)ever {…}.]

    They have a sense of whom, for whom they are writing.

    They have a sense of whom whom they are writing for.

    I think one of the last two “whom”s zoomed to the Houyhnhnms.

    “perceptions of {who their readers are} change”

    that “of” […] governs the entire relative clause [in which the “who” is, properly, nominative – that is, the subject of “are”]

    That analysis looks exactly right. Which, I think (and I think you’ve said so) means that, in the fifth sentence in this post, the first “whom” zoomed, propelled by the grammatical logic of “of” taking the whole relative clause. To block this idear out:

    They have a sense of John. They are writing for John.

    They have a sense of John, {they are writing for John}.

    They have a sense of John, {whom they are writing for}.

    They have a sense of {John} {whom they are writing for}.

    They have a sense of {whom they are writing for}.

    The subtracted “whom” (for “John”) has been attracted into the connecting correlative “whom” – as (I’m pretty sure) you suggest.

  2. Quibble, quibble, quibble, eh? Mr Obooki? While we’re on the subject, the ‘on’ is not required in ‘nagging on Obooki’s mind’.

    Parks’ sentence sounds fine to me. He is an excellent writer and a 1954 man to boot. Hands off.

  3. I’ve only read Parks’ non-fiction–his two books about Italy and the one about his 20 years following Verona FC. Excellent stuff, though. A ’54 man, you say? Well, no wonder…

    His sentence sounds fine to me. I’m not a native English-speaker but surely clarity is the thing. I understood perfectly what he meant and so did you, obooki.

    And as MM says, surely the ‘on’ is superfluous in your ‘nagging on obooki’s mind’. ‘Preying on obooki’s mind’, yes. ‘Nagging on…’, no. Agree about the ‘1960’s, though. Surely, ‘1960s’ is correct.

  4. I first read Parks, or ‘Parks’, as a translator – he did three (that I can tell) of Calasso’s books, starting with The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. According to wikipedia, he’s also translated Moravia, Tabucchi, and Calvino (among others), but you’ll also note that, according to wikipedia, Calasso has written a number of things called “novels” (?).

    To me, Calasso is a great pleasure – even if I get tired reading his books before he seems to have gotten tired writing them – and Parks’s having brought this writer to this non-Italian-reading reader is yeoman’s service. I read Europa, but, sadly for me, I thought it was tedious – although that football book looks fun.

    MeltonMowbray, “to nag at” is a perfectly useful phrasal verb. It doesn’t mean “to nag”, ‘to insist repeatedly, using annoyance as a technique to carry the day’, but rather ‘to linger insistently but impersonally‘. So: ‘it nagged at obooki’s mind, squirming in the thorns therein, to obooki’s oddly comforting discomfort’.

    Perhaps ‘to nag on‘ is a British version of the more American ‘to nag at’?

    (If you say, “Quit nagging at me!”, that’s not the phrasal verb ‘to nag at’, but rather a use of the preposition “at” to emphasize the normal ‘to nag’ – as happens pretty often with prepositions in Greek and (as I remember) Latin.)

  5. Oddly enough I haven’t read Parks’ football book, though I have read one of the Italian books the Prince mentions: very good it was too. I wasn’t that keen on Europa either, in fact I much prefer his earlier work like Tongues Of Flame and Loving Roger. Destiny left me cold, and Judge Savage I really struggled with. Nice line on Calasso – I’ll have to borrow it.

    Yes, I thought about ‘nag at’ almost as soon as I’d posted the comment. It’s definitely acceptable here ( ie in the UK ), and in the context of Obooki’s remark it would be a better fit. ‘On’, however, is wrong in any context. Sheer carelessness on the usually impeccably-Englished author, I’m sure.

  6. ‘Nagging at’ is fine. I’ve never heard or seen ‘nagging on’ used before. That obooki–he’s a trendsetter, innit?

    A Season With Verona, it’s called, MM. I think I have a copy. I’ll have a root around a post it down. Well worth reading…

  7. “Nag”, as I imagined, appears to derive from a Scandinavian word meaning “to gnaw” or “to bite”, so something could easily be said to “nag on” something else.

    I’ve never read Parks (pace article) or Calasso. I often open Cadmus and Harmony and look at it, but I don’t understand quite what sort of thing it is and so never decide to read it.

  8. Slippery bugger, aren’t you? ‘…could easily be said…’. Yes, indeed, as you’ve demonstrated.
    It could be said, with equal ease, that the moon is made of Cheddar; but it isn’t, is it? Perhaps ‘nagging on’ is correct in Norwegian but I defy you to find a single example in English (aside from your own daring foray into the linguistic forge). Nice footwork, though.

  9. Perhaps you’re thinking of ‘snagging on’, as in ‘as he shagged the maid at the sink of the scullery, his waistcoat snagged on the hot tap’ – Henry James, The Golden Bowl.

  10. “Stop nagging on” is a phrase I’ve heard many times. My mum used to use it to ward off her 4 boys.

  11. “Not all writers share the same sense of who it is that they are writing for.”

    To my, admittedly ill-educated, ear, the whom is intrusive.

  12. I was thinking about “whom” in general actually, and it occurred to me that, as far as I’m concerned, “whom” is a purely literary word. I never use it in conversation. In so far as this is true, I guess it’ll always sound wrong.

    Yes, Alarming, I’d thought of much the same phrase – “Will you stop nagging on at me with your nonsense about using proper prepositions!”

  13. “Not all writers share the same sense of who it is that they are writing for.”

    I think the cleft ‘it is that’ is what’s intrusive – of who it is who: to me, this sounds clumsy as well as wrong (‘of whom it is who[m] they are writing for’ — both prepositions take the “-m” form in their connecting correlative pronouns, but especially the one immediately proceeded by its pronoun).

    I actually do say “whom” when it’s proper, but I also almost never split an infinitive – never if I anticipate (as I’m speaking) the infinitive (usually the adverb will sound stronger if it’s communicated before the infinitive). I think every speaker has her or his own pet dogmatisms – the key to relaxed conversation would be not correcting others for violating your own needed ‘consistencies’ if you understand what they’re saying.

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