Attributed to, Attributes to

To attribute is a transitive verb, meaning that it needs a direct object. It also needs the preposition “to” and another noun.

Most scholars attribute the play to John Ford.

“Scholars” is the subject; “play” is the direct object; “John Ford” identifies to whom the subject attributed the object.

Attribute is very commonly used in the passive voice:

The play is attributed to John Ford.

His sudden change of heart was attributed to indigestion.

The passive voice conveniently avoids mentioning who did the attribution, which means you don’t have to look it up in Wikipedia.

So now you know enough to see why this sentence is wrong:

Wrong: The country’s wealth attributes to its large reserves and exploitation of oil and natural gas.

Change it to: The country’s wealth is attributed to its large reserves and exploitation of oil and natural gas

The Editor attributes this incorrect usage to the influence of ill-informed teachers who told their students that the passive voice is always bad.

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Archaic Verbs for Verisimilitude and Sarcasm

Every once in a while a writer takes it into his head to express himself in archaic language for humorous effect, or—more legitimately—for the sake of verisimilitude in historical fiction. As for the humorous effect, it is probably never as humorous as the writer thinks it is, but that is not the Editor’s concern right now.

His concern is that both the humor and the verisimilitude work best if you actually get the language right. Since the archaism is usually limited to sprinkling “thou” and “thee” around and using a few older verb endings, the principles of getting the language right are easy to understand. All you need to know is what the pronouns are and how to conjugate a verb the Early Modern English way.

In pronouns, the only serious difference is in the second person. For the singular, we use thou, thee, thy, and thine, which work just the same way I, me, my, and mine work in the first person. For the plural, ye is often used as a subject rather than you.

Note in particular that thou and thee are always singular. You never use them to refer to more than one person. So when, for example, God tells you “Thou shalt not covet,” he is looking you straight in the eye and speaking to you personally.

Now the verbs. Let’s start with a standard regular verb, like “start.”

Singular:

First Person: I start
Second Person: Thou startest
Third Person: He, she, it starteth

Plural:

First Person: We start
Second Person: Ye (or you) start
Third Person: They start

The only differences from modern usage are in the endings for the second and third person singular. For some reason, even writers who are attempting verisimilitude (rather than sarcasm) often get those mixed up. Just remember that -st is always the mark of the second-person singular: that is, it always goes with thou.

The past is the same as it is today, except in the second-person singular, where the ending -st is persistent. Usually we make the second-person singular past with the auxiliary verb “didst.” “Thou startedst” is correct, but “thou didst start” is far more common.

Many verbs are irregular, of course. With few exceptions, they have not changed in the other persons, so all you need to know is the second-person singular form.

To be:

Present: Thou art
Past: Thou wast

May:

Present: Thou mayest (or mayst)
Past: Thou mightst (or mightest)

Note both the second-person and third-person singular of to have: thou hast, she hath. The second-person-singular past is thou hadst, or, in even older English, thou haddest.

Similarly, to do: thou dost, she doth, thou didst.

Finally, if you are attempting serious verisimilitude, you might want to note that there is no possessive pronoun its in very early Modern English. His is used instead: “The sun hath run his course.”

Whether, If

A reader named Ruth writes:

This seems an opportune place to ask about a small issue that has been bothering me. I have always believed that when one uses the word “whether”, at least two options are going to follow. [“…whether sane or deranged”] and that if only one question was being posed, the correct word would be “if” […“if sane”].

I encounter what I consider to be misuse of these words so regularly that I have begun to wonder how I got this notion in the first place. I would love to read some opinions (or categorical avowals) on the subject.

This is an interesting question, because “whether” certainly does imply the question “Which of the two?” Samuel Johnson describes “whether” as “a particle expressing one part of a disjunctive question in opposition to the other: answered by or.

However, it is often used, and the Editor thinks quite correctly, with only one side of the question stated:

A Discourse of Things Above Reason: Inquiring Whether a Philosopher Should Admit There Are Any Such. (The title of a treatise published in 1681.)

In this case, the alternative “or not” is implied. There are still two alternatives, but only one needs to be stated. We could multiply examples, but one more will suffice:

The question then is, whether a Roman Catholic priest shall be compelled to disclose what he has received in confession, in violation of his conscience, of his clerical engagements, and of the canons of his church, and with a certainty of being stripped of his sacred functions and cut off from religious communion and social intercourse with the denomination to which he belongs.

Again, the implied alternative is “or not.”

So this much simpler sentence is perfectly correct:

I don’t know whether I’ll be there tonight.

And so is this one, which means the same thing:

I don’t know if I’ll be there tonight.

In some older references, whether is preferred in that situation.

Whether and if are not always interchangeable. Note the difference in meaning when two alternatives are expressed:

I don’t know whether I’ll be there tonight or tomorrow.

This means that I’ll be there either tonight or tomorrow—I don’t know which one yet.

I don’t know if I’ll be there tonight or tomorrow.

This means that I may be there tonight or tomorrow, or I may not be there at all.

To go back to the reader’s example, then, these are both correct:

I don’t know whether Letitia is sane.

I don’t know if Letitia is sane.

Note that, like its cousin either, whether can refer to more than two things:

I don’t know whether to pick Tom, Dick, or Hasdrubal.

Either and whether are always slightly uncomfortable in that role, because etymologically they imply a choice of two. But English does not provide us with a suitable particle for choices of three or more.

Who or Whom? Hawthorne Gets It Wrong

It is perversely encouraging to catch a great writer in a goof, and this goof in particular illustrates what seems to be the most difficult problem in English pronouns.

In defiance of all predictions, “whom” continues to thrive in written English. If anything, its position now is stronger than it was a decade or two ago.

It’s not usually hard to decide when to use “who” or “whom”; the rules are exactly the same as for “he” and “him.”

He gave it to me.

I gave it to him.

Who gave it to you?

You gave it to whom?

“Who” is the subject; “whom” is the object.

But when “who” or “whom” is part of a long clause that is itself an object, it gets tricky, and even Hawthorne stumbles.

The original papers, together with the scarlet letter itself—a most curious relic—are still in my possession, and shall be freely exhibited to whomsoever, induced by the great interest of the narrative, may desire a sight of them. (“The Custom House,” the introduction to The Scarlet Letter.)

It should have been “whosoever,” not “whomsoever.”

At first glance, “to whom” seems obviously correct. But the pronoun isn’t the object of “to”; the object is the whole clause “whomsoever, induced by the great interest of the narrative, may desire a sight of them.” “Whomsoever” is the subject of “may desire,” and therefore should be “whosoever.”

On the other hand, in the stock phrase “to whom it may concern,” “whom” is absolutely correct. Why? Because, in the clause that is the object of “to,” “whom” is the object of “concern.”

It concerns him.

It concerns whom?

So we caught Hawthorne napping, and we demonstrated a valuable grammatical principle. It’s been a good day.

“That of”

Whenever you see the words “that of” together, examine the sentence closely. It is one of those phrases we never use in conversation, but only in formal writing, and the fact that we are using a phrase we never use in conversation is enough cause for alarm in itself. If we do use it, however, “that” always needs to refer to a particular thing previously stated.

Here’s a perfectly legitimate use:

The climate of coastal California is similar to that of the Mediterranean.

“That” refers to the word “climate.”

But “that of” is often the mark of a sentence too involved for the writer to sort out properly:

The Secretary is the head of the Department of the Air Force, analogous to that of a chief executive officer of a corporation.

What is “that”?

Try substituting terms from earlier in the sentence, and you’ll see that it isn’t any of them.

It isn’t “secretary”—“analogous to the secretary of a chief executive officer of a corporation” doesn’t work.

It isn’t “head”—“analogous to the head of a chief executive officer of a corporation” creates silly and confusing images.

It isn’t “Department”—“analogous to the department of a chief executive officer of a corporation” is still nonsense.

It isn’t “Air Force” either, and the Editor will let you do the work for this one.

In fact, the thing “that” represents simply hasn’t been stated. What the writer meant was something like this:

The Secretary is the head of the Department of the Air Force. His position is analogous to that of a chief executive officer of a corporation.

Always look for the antecedent of “that” when you see the phrase “that of.” If it isn’t there, either put it in, or rewrite the sentence completely.

Each

Each is always singular, but it always refers to members of a group. Naturally, that leads to some confusion when we try to make verbs agree with it.

The main channel of community activity within the SeaMonkey project are the newsgroups hosted at mozilla.org, each of which are mirrored as mailing lists.

There are two problems with subject-verb agreement in this sentence, only one of which has to do with each.

First, the main subject is “channel,” which is singular, so “The main channel…is,” not “are.” It makes no difference that “newsgroups” is plural.

Second, each is always singular. We have to say “each of which is,” but then the rest of the sentence doesn’t work. We also have to do something about “mailing lists.”

There are two easy ways to sort out this phrase, and you can pick the one you like best:

…each of which is mirrored as a mailing list.

Here we make “mailing list” singular to match “each.”

…all of which are mirrored as mailing lists.

For practical purposes, the plural equivalent of “each” is “all,” and “all” is the word you want if for some reason the verb needs to be plural.