Home  »  The King’s English  »  CASE

H.W. Fowler (1858–1933). The King’s English, 2nd ed. 1908.

Chapter II. Syntax


THERE is not much opportunity in English for going wrong here, because we have shed most of our cases. The personal pronouns, and who and its compounds, are the only words that visibly retain three—called subjective, objective, possessive. In nouns the first two are indistinguishable, and are called the common case. One result of this simplicity is that, the sense of case being almost lost, the few mistakes that can be made are made often—some of them so often that they are now almost right by prescription.
  1. In apposition.A pronoun appended to a noun, and in the same relation to the rest of the sentence, should be in the same case. Disregard of this is a bad blunder.
    But to behold her mother—she to whom she owed her being!—S. Ferrier.
  2. The complement with am, are, is, &c., should be subjective.
    I am she, she me, till death and beyond it.—Meredith. Whom would you rather be? To how many maimed and mourning millions is the first and sole angel visitant, him Easterns call Azrael.—C. Brontë That’s him.
    In the last but one, him would no doubt have been defended by the writer, since the full form would be he whom, as an attraction to the vanished whom. But such attraction is not right; if he alone is felt to be uncomfortable, whom should not be omitted; or, in this exalted context, it might be he that. On that’s him, see 4, below.
  3. When a verb or preposition governs two pronouns united by and, &c., the second is apt to go wrong—a bad blunder. Between you and I is often heard in talk; and, in literature:
    And now, my dear, let you and I say a few words about this unfortunate affair.—Trollope. It is kept locked up in a marble casket, quite out of reach of you or I.—S. Ferrier. She found everyone’s attention directed to Mary, and she herself entirely overlooked.—S. Ferrier.
  4. The interrogative who is often used for whom, as, Who did you see? A distinction should here be made between conversation, written or spoken, and formal writing. Many educated people feel that in saying It is I, Whom do you mean? instead of It’s me, Who do you mean? they will be talking like a book, and they justifiably prefer geniality to grammar. But in print, unless it is dialogue, the correct forms are advisable.
  5. Even with words that have no visible distinction between subjective and objective case, it is possible to go wrong; for the case can always be inferred, though not seen. Consequently a word should never be so placed that it must be taken twice, once as subject and once as object. This is so common a blunder that it will be well to give a good number of examples. It occurs especially with the relative, from its early position in the sentence; but, as the first two examples show, it may result from the exceptional placing of other words also. The mere repetition of the relative, or insertion of it or other pronoun, generally mends the sentence; in the first example, change should only be to only to be.
    The occupation of the mouths of the Yalu, however, his Majesty considered undesirable, and should only be carried out in the last resort.—Times. This the strong sense of Lady Maclaughlan had long perceived, and was the principal reason of her selecting so weak a woman as her companion.—S. Ferrier. Qualities which it would cost me a great deal to acquire, and would lead to nothing.—Morley. A recorded saying of our Lord which some higher critics of the New Testament regard as of doubtful authenticity, and is certainly of doubtful interpretation. A weakness which some would miscall gratitude, and is oftentimes the corrupter of a heart not ignoble.—Richardson.
    Analogous to these are the next three examples, which will require separate comment:
    Knowledge to the certainty of which no authority could add, or take away, one jot or tittle.—Huxley.
    To is applicable to add, not to take away. The full form is given by substituting for or ‘and from the certainty of which no authority could’. This is clearly too cumbrous. Inserting or from after to is the simplest correction; but the result is rather formal. Better, perhaps, ‘the certainty of which could not be increased or diminished one jot by any authority’.
    From his conversation I should have pronounced him to be fitted to excel in whatever walk of ambition he had chosen to exert his abilities.
    A second in is required. This common slovenliness results from the modern superstition against putting a preposition at the end. The particular sentence may, however, be mended otherwise than by inserting in, if excel is made absolute by a comma placed after it. Even then, the in would perhaps be better at the end of the clause than at the beginning.
    Lastly may be mentioned a principle upon which Clausewitz insisted with all his strength, and could never sufficiently impress upon his Royal scholar.—Times.
    The italicized upon (we have nothing to do with the other upon) is right with insist, but wrong, though it must necessarily be supplied again, with impress. It is the result of the same superstition. Mend either by writing upon after insisted instead of before which, or by inserting which he after and.
  6. After as and than.These are properly conjunctions, and ‘take the same case after them as before’. But those words must be rightly understood. (a), I love you more than him, means something different from (b), I love you more than he. It must be borne in mind that the ‘case before’ is that of the word that is compared with the ‘case after’, and not necessarily that of the word actually next before in position. In (a) you is compared with him: in (b) I (not you) is compared with he. The correct usage is therefore important, and the tendency illustrated in the following examples to make than and as prepositions should be resisted—though no ambiguity can actually result here.
    When such as her die.—Swift. But there, I think, Lindore would be more eloquent than me.—S. Ferrier.
    It must further be noticed that both as and than are conjunctions of the sort that can either, like and, &c., merely join coordinates, or, like when, &c., attach a subordinate clause to what it depends on. This double power sometimes affects case.
    It is to him and such men as he that we owe the change.—Huxley.
    This example is defensible, as being here a subordinating conjunction, and as he being equivalent to as he is. But it is distinctly felt to need defence, which as him would not; as would be a coordinating conjunction, and simply join the pronoun him to the noun men. So, with than:
    Such as have bound me, as well as others much better than me, by an inviolable attachment to him from that time forward.—Burke.
    On the other hand, we could not say indifferently, I am as good as he, and I am as good as him; the latter would imply that as was a preposition, which it is not. And it is not always possible to choose between the coordinating and the subordinating use. In the next example only the coordinating will do, no verb being capable of standing after he; but the author has not observed this.
    I beheld a man in the dress of a postillion, whom I instantly recognized as he to whom I had rendered assistance.—Borrow.
    A difficult question, however, arises with relatives after than. In the next two examples whom is as manifestly wrong as who is manifestly intolerable:
    Dr. Dillon, than whom no Englishman has a profounder acquaintance with…—Times. It was a pleasure to hear Canon Liddon, than whom, in his day, there was no finer preacher.
    The only correct solution is to recast the sentences. For instance, … whose acquaintance with … is unrivalled among Englishmen; and … unsurpassed in his day as a preacher. But perhaps the convenience of than whom is so great that to rule it out amounts to saying that man is made for grammar and not grammar for man.
  7. Compound possessives.This is strictly the proper place for drawing attention to a question that has some importance because it bears on the very common construction discussed at some length in the gerund section. This is the question whether, and to what extent, compound possessives may be recognized. Some people say some one else’s, others say some one’s else. Our own opinion is that the latter is uncalled for and pedantic. Of the three alternatives, Smith the baker’s wife, Smith’s wife the baker, the wife of Smith the baker, the last is redolent of Ollendorff, the second thrusts its ambiguity upon us and provokes an involuntary smile, and the first alone is felt to be natural. It must be confessed, however, that it is generally avoided in print, while the form that we have ventured to call pedantic is not uncommon. In the first of the examples that follow, we should be inclined to change to Nanny the maid-of-all-work’s, and in the second to the day of Frea, goddess of, &c.
    Another mind that was being wrought up to a climax was Nanny’s, the maid-of-all-work, who had a warm heart.—Eliot. Friday is Frea’s-day, the goddess of peace and joy and fruitfulness.—J. R. Green.