Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Grammar sins: a case study

From Nicolas Poussin,
 Le Christ et la femme adultère
You know the story. A woman was caught in the act. The religious leaders grabbed her and brought her to Jesus. Are you a biblical literalist? they asked. Because if you are, shouldn't we stone her? What would Moses do?

Quick, now. What did Jesus say?

About.com's French Language website quotes his words thus: "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone."

My inner grammarian wincing, I dashed off an email to the website's author: "That should be 'Let him who is without sin ... ' (i.e., 'Let him ... cast the first stone'; I don't think you'd be tempted to write 'Let he ... cast the first stone').

Of course she knew the difference - she herself is a grammarian. But, she said, she was just quoting the Bible, which says "Let he ...."

Actually it doesn't, at least not in the King James Version, the Revised Standard Version, the New International Version, the New American Bible, the Common English Bible, the Douay-Reims Version, or presumably any other version that uses copyeditors. Lacking a Bible at hand, she explained, she had found the verse online. Just Google it, she told me.

So I did. I am pleased to report that when I compared "Let him who is without sin" to "Let he who is without sin," correct grammar won, 3.8 million to 1.3 million.

I also learned that "Let He Who Is Without Sin" is the name of a Star Trek episode.

It's a good thing modern English tends to use only three pronoun cases (such as he, him, his). We'd never learn to speak Hungarian - it has at least 18 cases.

But hey, if you use the wrong case, I won't stone you. I'm not without sin: I refuse to say "It is I."

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