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Beyond fault

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NOVEMBER 15, 2013

It is with some restlessness that I write this post, which almost certainly will be my last on Strikeout. Over my nine semesters with The Daily Californian, this blog has been principal and peripheral, a source of revelry and a source of regret (unfortunately, my favorite posts predate the current iteration of the Daily Cal’s website and appear to have vanished into the ether during the transition). I have spent the past three years lambasting others for their grammatical mistakes, deliberately channeling false vitriol in an effort to elicit laughter and conversation.

But copy editing — and indeed, writing — is about more than that.

The truth is, I care little about whether one uses the serial comma or confuses “convince” and “persuade,” little about the subtle and essentially meaningless distinction between “partly” and “partially” (furthermore, there is no grammatical reason for this sentence’s first comma, but as grammar guru and Washington Post copy editor extraordinaire Bill Walsh argues in “Lapsing into a Comma,” omitting the mark in this scenario would ignore the “natural pause” to the point of pedantry).

Rather, what is most important is the writer’s ear. Even Strunk and White, the patron saints of prescriptivism, note the importance of judgment over grammar, emphasizing the distinction between the two in the fifth chapter of “The Elements of Style.” What does an errant comma matter if it’s placed for stylistic effect? Passive voice can be passable, provided it serves a practical purpose.

Yes, grammatical correctness is important to the extent that it ensures clarity. Excessive loyalty to an arbitrary set of standards, however, is little more than a source of inhibition, leading to odd and offsetting constructions that are anathema to cohesive and organic prose.

Consider, for example, the case of “who” versus “whom,” which has been beaten to death on this blog and elsewhere. The prescriptive rule is straightforward enough: Use “who” for subjects and “whom” for objects. But in practice, following this axiom without exception creates awkwardly unusual phrases. Jean Valjean of “Les Miserables” reveals his identity through the song “Who Am I” for a reason (“Whom am I? I’m Jean Valjean!” just doesn’t have the same ring to it), and the Who’s Roger Daltrey asks “Who Are You?” because the alternative is more than slightly ridiculous (imagine Pete Townshend and John Entwistle’s backup vocals with altered lyrics: “Whom are you? Whom whom, whom whom?”).

Ultimately, writing is about more than minutiae and sentential structure. It’s about more than copy editing and safeguarding so-called objective grammatical accuracy, whatever that is. In the words of William Faulkner, the writer seeks “to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before.” Faulkner misused “which” in that sentence, just as he did through much of his literary career. He also won a Nobel Prize.

Does proper use of “which” and “that” speak to the essence of the human spirit? I don’t feel qualified to answer that question definitively, but I’d like to believe otherwise.

Contact Alex Wolinsky at 


NOVEMBER 15, 2013