English is a constantly evolving language, with words and expressions entering and leaving at a mind boggling rate. There will always be controversy about which rules are immutable and which can be relaxed. Here are four sets of words you don’t have to agonize over when you are writing:
- Who versus whom. In everyday language, hardly anyone uses “whom” anymore. Unless your ear is offended by the resulting sentence, you may as well use “who” even though “whom” is grammatically correct.
- Which versus that. The rules for using “which” or “that” were always complicated, which is probably why they’ve been generally ignored. The only rule I ever found really useful was the one that proclaimed: Don’t fill your writing with “which.” Throw in a “that” now and then if it sounds right.
- Shall versus will. The 1959 edition of the best book on writing of all time, The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White, makes a case for distinguishing between “should” and “would” and between “shall” and “will” after a pronoun (“I shall” vs. “I will”). That battle has also been lost, and the distinctions are not worth worrying over, except perhaps by lawyers.
- His versus “his or her.” When sensitivity to gender is important, my solution is to forget “he and she” and use plurals. If you are referring to men and women, “All engineers will report their supervisors” is better than “Each engineer will report to his or her supervisor” (or worse yet, “his supervisor”). Both statements are clear; so why not opt for both brevity and inclusiveness?
The nub of the problem: clarity. Your message should be clear to your audience, many of whom cannot cite the rules of grammar but will recognize when a sentence doesn’t sound right. And they will be confused by a message that violates their sense of “right.” If English and its rules are evolving too fast for you, please contact me. Clear communication is my specialty.