"Perform a sex act"

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How to be circumspect and explicit at the same time, from the Washington Post, Sept. 5: "Metro Transit Police arrested a man Monday afternoon whom they say exposed himself to a woman on an Orange Line train and tried to force her to perform a sex act." My mind isn't exactly racing: there aren't a whole lot of she-on-he sex acts that are introduced with the verb perform.


  1. Ferdinand Cesarano said,

    September 8, 2016 @ 12:50 pm

    I find "performed" unremarkable in that context.

    But I shudder at the mistaken "whom", which is used under the influence of the misanalysis that this word is the object of "say".

    In fact "who" is the subject of "exposed"; the words "they say" constitute a parenthetical. If the parenthetical were longer (such as "say two people who witnessed the incident", for example), it would be offset by commas. There would then be no temptation to suppose that the verb within this parenthetical has an object in the main part of the sentence.

  2. Orin Hargraves said,

    September 8, 2016 @ 1:04 pm

    Aside from the grammatical gaffe that FC notes, I give high marks to the writer for being completely clear and completely safe for work–something not always easy to achieve. The more explicit and graphic alternatives–to blow him, to go down on him, or to give him a blow job–wouldn't and shouldn't get past the copy editor!

  3. Joe said,

    September 8, 2016 @ 1:27 pm

    "there aren't a whole lot of she-on-he sex acts that are introduced with the verb perform."

    Isn't performing sex acts precisely what female porn stars do?

  4. Guy said,

    September 8, 2016 @ 1:54 pm

    @Ferdinand Cesarano

    Of course it's difficult, if not impossible, to be sure, but I very much doubt that the author analyzed who(m) as the object of "say". More likely they were subconsciously following a rule that relative who(m) should always be "whom" when it is not subject of the relative clause (whether because it is object in that clause or subject of an embedded clause) and probably did not consciously analyze the choice at all.

  5. Carol Saller said,

    September 8, 2016 @ 2:04 pm

    I've always hated this cliche, although I appreciate the need for tact and can't think of a good substitute. I hate it because it's funny, and it's horrible to use comical imagery in so serious a context. Surely the criminal charge could be used instead: "Committed sexual assault" or battery or something? ("Allegedly," of course!)

  6. Tony said,

    September 8, 2016 @ 2:05 pm

    The use of "perform a sex act" in journalism has bugged me before; I've seen it used in several contexts where I would rather not have been able to visualize the specific action that was happening. I suspect that journalists and editors are fully aware of the transparent quality of that particular phrase, that it's a device for being as lurid as possible without running afoul of company policy.

  7. Bob Ladd said,

    September 8, 2016 @ 2:08 pm

    @ Ferdinand Cesarano; @ Guy: The Huddleston & Pullum Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, pp. 466-7, has a nice discussion of whether this usage of whom is really to be regarded as an error (specifically, as a hypercorrection). They come down on the side of treating it as part of the standard language. Mind you, my mother would have shuddered at this along with Ferdinand, and I probably wouldn't use it in formal writing myself, but I think their case is pretty convincing.

  8. GH said,

    September 8, 2016 @ 2:35 pm

    I can think of at least two where you might use "perform" even when mentioning them explicitly (masturbation and fellatio). And a striptease might not be considered a "sex act" in this sense, but it is also something that would be "performed". You also have "perform intercourse", but that usually presupposes a mutuality that the text does not suggest.

    However, it seems to me that when something is described as an "act", it makes sense to talk about it being "performed" whether or not that's the word you would normally use with a less indirect description. If eating and drinking were taboo and had to be bowdlerized in print, what word would you use to describe carrying out "an ingestive act"?

    I think our interpretation here is more conditioned by practical considerations than by the phrasing. There are, sadly, plenty of news stories that talk about children having been pressured to "perform sex acts" over the Internet, and that must refer to other acts.

  9. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    September 8, 2016 @ 2:36 pm

    @ Ferdinand Cesarano (and a nod to Bob Ladd): It's not just that you can't definitely pin down whom they say exposed himself as a hypercorrection that is not grammatical standard English; when you look at the evidence from literature you find it evenly split. Nathan Heller of The New Yorker uses whom in this way; so did Shakespeare. Bennett Cerf and The New York Times. For them, the rule is that you use whom when it is not the subject of the relative clause it introduces. Henry Fielding and Charles Dickens, on the other hand, favor who in the same sort of context. Their rule is that you use whom only when its function in the clause in which it semantically belongs is a non-subject role. And James Boswell? Or Benjamin Franklin? They both turn out to vacillate between the two different rules. I wrote about this in "One Rule to Ring Them All." Very few grammar sticklers will enjoy my conclusion there. Ferdinand Cesarano certainly won't. (Nice title, though, don't you think? I was delighted when that title came to me.)

  10. Mark Mandel said,

    September 8, 2016 @ 4:12 pm

    "One Rule to Ring Them All"


  11. Eric P Smith said,

    September 8, 2016 @ 5:39 pm

    Who says that a sex act can only be performed by one person? To me, “He tried to force her to perform a sex act” is unexceptionable (the sentence, that is, not his trying!) He was not necessarily trying to force her to perform a sex act on him: more likely he was trying to force her to perform a sex act with him.

  12. Eric P Smith said,

    September 8, 2016 @ 6:09 pm

    On the question of the use of “whom” in “a man whom they say exposed himself”:

    1) I acknowledge, with Bob Ladd and Geoff Pullum, that the literary evidence is split. There is also KJV “And whom say ye that I am?”

    2) Like Ferdinand Cesarano (FC), I personally much prefer “who” in such contexts. “Whom” sounds wrong to my ears, notwithstanding the literary evidence in its favour. My guess – I have no evidence – is that “whom” in such contexts began life as a hypercorrection, and has become justified (in descriptive theory) by subsequent usage.

    3) Unlike FC, I don't read “they say” as a parenthetical. My reading is that “whom” introduces a relative clause that is an adjunct to “man”, and the body of the clause is “they say exposed himself to a woman on an Orange Line train and tried to force her to perform a sex act”. The words “they say” could be analysed as a parenthetical (in which case, as FC says, “whom” is definitely wrong), but some other similar cases do not admit of the parenthetical interpretation, eg “a man who(m) nobody thinks is honest”.

  13. Michael Watts said,

    September 8, 2016 @ 6:26 pm

    Like Ferdinand Cesarano (FC), I personally much prefer “who” in such contexts. “Whom” sounds wrong to my ears, notwithstanding the literary evidence in its favour.

    Well, of course — "whom" is incorrect in essentially all contexts in modern english. (I use it in one context: as the object of a preposition when the prepositional phrase has been fronted in its entirety, as in "the person to whom it was given", but not as in "the person who it was given to". I hope we can all agree that that's not a difference in how the pronoun participates in the sentence.)

    Analysis of, where "who" participates in more than one clause, which one determines its case, is purely historical; as the language is spoken today, "who" doesn't have case.

  14. Eric P Smith said,

    September 8, 2016 @ 7:25 pm

    @Michael Watts: It's not a matter of “well, of course” in my speech. I am in my late 60s and I speak the language I learned as a child. That means I use “whom” in many contexts where most people nowadays would use “who”. I wouldn't argue that "Who do you want to see?" is incorrect nowadays, but equally I would strongly resist any suggestion that “Whom do you want to see?” is incorrect in the speech of a man of my age and background. Language changes, and so there is bound to be a range of usages found at any given time.

  15. JPL said,

    September 8, 2016 @ 7:53 pm

    I agree with Geoffrey that when it comes to agreement phenomena it is often difficult to pin down a single rule that accounts for everybody's usage. This is an interesting case because it involves a double embedding.

    The object of the relative clause main verb ("say") is the embedded clause "[THAT] [a man] exposed himself to a woman on an Orange Line train and tried to force her to perform a sex act", and not the NP "[a man]". The relativized NP "[ man]" is the subject of the embedded clause object of the relative clause. The meaning of the sentence includes the idea that the referent of the object NP of the main clause verb "arrested" is referentially identical with the subject NP of the embedded clause object of the relative clause main verb "say", i.e., subject of the clause "[a man] exposed himself … etc.". The relativized NP "[a man]" is never in anything other than subject function, although not strictly speaking "subject of the relative clause", which would be "they" ("they say"); does the law of the excluded middle apply for Shakespeare and Bennett Cerf? If the sentence were "Metro Transit Police arrested a man whom they say lied to police about …", would there be the same tendency to say "whom"?

    So what are the general rules regarding English relative clause formation that are relevant to this case?

  16. Rubrick said,

    September 8, 2016 @ 9:39 pm

    I agree with GH that the phrase could plausibly refer to either fellatio or masturbation. Like (I imagine) most readers, I first assumed the former. On the other hand, I would think "force her to perform fellatio" might be mainstream-journalistically acceptable, whereas I can't immediately think of a short, non-vulgar term for performing masturbation on another person. So perhaps it was the latter after all.

  17. JS said,

    September 8, 2016 @ 10:19 pm

    "Perform a sex act" is itself a perfectly cromulent phrase, silly or not, with the number of acts encompassed limited only by the imagination(s) of the participant(s). The act referred to above may (may) have happened to be oral sex on a man by a woman, but that doesn't mean we should interpret said phrase here as "perform [a sex act I don't care to mention but is obviously oral sex since I used the verb 'perform']". That would be weird.

    Also weird is LLers above using the word "masturbation" to refer to stimulation of another's genitals with the hand(s). WTH?

  18. Michael Watts said,

    September 8, 2016 @ 10:41 pm

    I am in my late 60s and I speak the language I learned as a child. That means I use “whom” in many contexts where most people nowadays would use “who”. I wouldn't argue that "Who do you want to see?" is incorrect nowadays, but equally I would strongly resist any suggestion that “Whom do you want to see?” is incorrect in the speech of a man of my age and background.

    I don't think your age can have much to do with it — George Bush apparently provoked some pedantic controversy by adopting the slogan "who do you trust?" in 1992, when he was in his late 60s and you presumably would have been in your early 40s.

    So 24 years ago, case distinctions for "who" were already dead (still taught by English teachers, but that's true today too), they were not considered normal for the elderly, and the verdict of William Safire, writing for the New York Times, was that asking "whom do you trust" would make a person sound like "a hypereducated Yalie stiff" (to be fair, that will have been influenced by the fact that Bush was a hypereducated Yalie stiff). I seriously doubt that speech that sounds typical of 40-year-olds is unfamiliar enough to the voting electorate that anyone would make any effort to avoid it.

  19. GH said,

    September 9, 2016 @ 2:56 am

    @Michael Watts:

    Maybe Eric P Smith is also a hypereducated Yalie stiff or some closely related species? "Whom" is clearly not in widespread spoken use today (or twenty years ago), but that doesn't mean it's "dead".


    If you check a dictionary I think you'll find that that is entirely standard.

    As for how explicit "perform a sex act" is or is not, and whether other ways to phrase it would have been printable, my sense is that papers are not only trying to avoid offensive words when writing about cases such as this. I think they deliberately obscure precise details because they have no legitimate public interest, would distract from the main thrust of the reporting, would make some readers uncomfortable, and could be distressing to the victim.

  20. Marnanel said,

    September 9, 2016 @ 5:24 am

    I've often seen "perform a sex act on oneself" in journalism to mean solo masturbation.

  21. JPL said,

    September 9, 2016 @ 5:30 am

    I've just read Geoffrey's previous post ("One rule to ring them all"), which I did not have time to look at earlier when I made my hasty comment above. The Shakespeare example (5a) is understandable, in that it is intuitively relatable to cases such as "Young Ferdinand, whom they suppose to have been drowned" and "They suppose him to have been drowned"; but (5c) is really weird, since the relative main clause already has an object ("heaven") and is relatable to "I thank heaven [that] she is an honest woman". Of course I'm trying to find an explanation for the use of "whom" here, when as Geoffrey says, Shakespeare is merely following rule [3]. I was hoping for a more precise statement of the relevant rules, perhaps one that made reference to the gap in the "normal " syntactic structure resulting from the "movement" of the co-referential NP. The statement of Strunk & White's rule [3] ("When 'who' introduces a subordinate clause, its case depends on its function in that clause [nominative if it is the subject, accusative otherwise]"), which Shakespeare is following, would seem to involve greater complexity in the system of related rules. (Would Shakespeare say "Whom do you think is an honest woman?")? Nevertheless, there are the two rules that speakers follow that govern the case of 'who' where it "functions as subject of a clause to which it is not adjacent".

  22. Rodger C said,

    September 9, 2016 @ 6:50 am

    @JS: If you don't use "masturbate" as a transitive verb, what do you use? Glube?

  23. James said,

    September 9, 2016 @ 7:10 am

    "Whom" should be used in the nominative case only when a note of dignity or austerity is desired.

    (See this 2012 Language Log entry.)

  24. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 9, 2016 @ 7:14 am

    To JS's point, I am reminded of the heuristic maxim/proverb "when you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras." This is not based on a claim about the semantic scope of the lexeme "hoofbeat," which fits zebras just as cromulently as it fits horses, but an assumption about the external world (at least in the non-African parts of it where the maxim is more likely to be current), namely that horse-related hoofbeat incidents are vastly more common than zebra-related ones as a general statistical matter. Similarly here, it seems that there are a significant number of other "acts" which, if spelled out more specifically, might lead to the reaction "even by sex-crime standards that's kind of weird and not something you see in the police blotter every day" but not "wait, is 'perform' really the right verb to be using there?"

    Of course, it might be a principle of good journalistic style to assume that your readers will assume horses when they read about hoofbeats and thus refrain from writing "hoofbeats" without further disambiguating specification when the story actually involves zebras (or some other non-horse hoofed animals). If that principle were consistentlyly followed by journalists, it would then be plausible to draw the inference that a reference to hoofbeats w/o further specification is in fact definitely a reference to horses rather than is simply 50%+ likely to be. But I doubt that journalistic conventions for euphemistically describing alleged sex crimes are quite so well developed and standardized that if it was something other than what is being assumed likely here some other form of euphemism would have definitely been used to make that clear.

  25. Coby Lubliner said,

    September 9, 2016 @ 10:38 am

    I have generally been a confirmed "who" stickler in this context, but I found Geoff's post quite persuasive. I am disappointed, though, in Geoff's seemingly cavalier use of the N-word.

  26. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    September 9, 2016 @ 11:17 am

    I find the insistence that 'whom' is dead very odd. It is a minority usage, and has been for a very long time – the Thurber article to which James links was written in 1929 – but has not died out. We don't generally condemn all minority usages. Hypereducated Yalie stiffs, and the equivalent in other countries, are a genuine part of the community, and their usage is part of the language.

    'Language changes' makes sense as a response to someone who condemns a new usage, but not to someone who persists in an old usage; the fact that they are using it shows that language has not changed completely. It may be that there are some usages which no one would follow if they were not forcing themselves (though this is hard to prove): but 'whom' is not one of them. It's certainly not the case that no one ever says 'whom' without stopping to think about it.

    Personally, I don't think I would ever use 'whom' in direct object position, but I do sometimes use it after prepositions. It's true that use of 'whom' can mostly be avoided by moving the preposition to the end, but sometimes this is difficult, as in 'According to whom?'. I'm sure this could be rephrased to exclude the 'whom', if you were convinced it was incorrect, but for me this would be less natural.

  27. Terry Hunt said,

    September 9, 2016 @ 12:30 pm

    I think a point is being missed (though Carol Saller and Tony came close). The "perform a sex act" in the report is part of a quote attributed to the Metro Transit Police, so is surely not due to any editorial decision by the Washington Post.

    As a Brit, I'm unfamiliar with the details of US legal terminology and practice, but if this incident had happened on, say, the London Underground, I'm quite sure the statement issued by the British Transport Police would have used a similar if not identical unspecific phrase, firstly because that's how the relevant regulation authorising the arrest would be worded, and secondly to avoid prejudicing the case before any ensuing trial. Its use would therefore be a legal obligation for both the Police and the newspaper.

  28. DWalker said,

    September 9, 2016 @ 1:35 pm

    I would have reworded the news article to say that he "wanted to have sex with" her. That's clear enough and not quite as graphic. The fact that she didn't want to should be clear.

  29. Eric P Smith said,

    September 9, 2016 @ 9:06 pm

    @Andrew (not the same one):

    Thank you for your support.

  30. Graeme said,

    September 10, 2016 @ 5:22 am

    As this was a grievous attempted sexual assault with coercion … 'perform' with its bureaucratic sense seems as apt as could be expected.

  31. Francis Boyle said,

    September 11, 2016 @ 3:02 am

    I don't see anything particularly circumspect about "perform a sex act" (apart from it being a pretty standard police/bureaucratic circumlocution). Consider: "police say that a fight broke out after a man approached the group asking for food". No one would ask "but why aren't they telling us whether it was a hamburger or a taco?" The matter either isn't relevant or, if it is, it's a matter for the courts.

    I'm tempted to say something about the who/whom distinction but I think I'll save my intellectual energy for something a little more tractable like the quantum mechanics behind the latest XKCD.

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