Writerly Wednesday–Grammar and the Lincoln Memorial

Wow, does that sound interesting or what? Grammar and history all in one! Snooze. Well, I’ll keep this brief. But as I was looking at some photos I recently took around Washington D.C., I was struck again by the inscription above the statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial. On the north and south wall are inscribed the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address, but above the statue is the following:

In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is forever enshrined.

Now, what’s so interesting about that? Well, at first glance not a lot. But take a look at it again,and you’ll notice two grammatical aspects that often trip people up.

One, “whom”. A lot of people throw “whom” around in an effort to sound smart. The problem is that they end up using it wrong, which has the opposite effect from what they were hoping for. “Whom” is used as a grammatical object, as are “him” or “them”, both of which also conveniently end with m (just like “whom”). That’s how I remember where to use whom: if “him” or “them” would (grammatically) fit in that spot in the sentence, then (generally) “whom” is the right word. “Who” is used as a subject, just like “he” or “they”, neither of which end with m (just like “who”). [And I’m totally not being sexist by excluding “her” and “she”; it’s just that neither the pronoun or object form ends with “m”, so the feminine forms aren’t very useful as far as my mnemonic device.]

So that, friends, is how you use whom: “for whom he saved the nation”. You can’t plug in “he” or “she” or they” here. You can’t say “for they he saved the nation”. You could, however, say, “for them he saved the nation”. “Whom” stands in for “the people”. It’s a grammatical object because “the people” are receiving Lincoln’s action (“saved”).

The second thing to notice here is a subtle use of passive voice. As I stated in the past on this blog, passive voice is not an error. Passive voice also does not mean weak language. It’s a grammatical term. This is an example. After we get through the poetical verbiage at the beginning of the sentence (“In this temple . . . “) we get to the meat of the sentence: “the memory of Abraham Lincoln is forever enshrined.” The grammatical subject here is “the memory” and the verb is “is”. We tack on “forever enshrined”, but those are modifiers, not verbs. But, of course, memory isn’t actually doing anything. The memory is the object of an action; it is being enshrined forever. By whom? (See what I did there with the whom?) Well, we aren’t told who’s enshrining Lincoln’s memory. The passive voice plays an important rhetorical role here: we aren’t told who exactly is enshrining Lincoln’s memory, but it’s implied that “the people” are doing so. By using the passive voice, the inscription is inviting us, the reader, to count ourselves among “the people” who enshrine Lincoln’s memory. His memory is being enshrined. By whom? By everyone who reads the inscription, to start. A more specific subject wouldn’t allow as much room for the reader to think of herself/himself as part of the effort to remember Lincoln.

Hm. That was longer than I thought it would be. I was going to diagram the sentence, too, but, well, maybe another time…

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