Grouch v. Ernestine

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Yesterday in the New York Times, Stanley Fish got his peeve on with some representatives of my former employer, AT&T ("Return of the Old Grouch", 12/28/2008). Although the real problem seems to have been the difficulty of arranging for voice mail to be turned on, he focused on a linguistic irritant:

… finally, after pressing a number of zeros, I was rewarded with the voice of a live person who said, “With whom do I have the pleasure of speaking with?”

After some frustrating back-and-forth caused by the fact that AT&T's business systems are apparently not well set up to deal with people who are wealthy enough to have multiple residences, but not wealthy enough to keep the phone service going in all of them at all times, Prof. Fish returned to the annoyingly redundant preposition:

I should have quit when I was (somewhat) ahead, but I couldn’t resist returning to the greeting, with its double and ungrammatical “with.” I explained that the second “with” was superfluous, as the second “to” would be if the offending question had been, “to whom am I speaking to?”, or the second “about” if the question had been “about what are you worrying about?”

Somehow that didn’t make much of an impression on her. She said that her instructions were to greet callers in that way and that she would continue to do so. I replied that it was scandalous that a multi-billion-dollar world-wide telecommunication corporation would order its employees to commit an egregious (and comical) grammatical error millions of times a day.

She said, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

I lost it. It has nothing to do with feelings, I ranted. It is a factual matter as to what is and is not syntactically correct.

Those of you who have ever worked in a service industry will not be surprised to learn that the rest of Prof. Fish's interaction with multiple levels of AT&T call-center personnel went badly, and in the end his voice mail was not turned on.

And those of you who share our attitude towards linguistic oddities ("We don't complain, we explain") may want to read about the redundant-preposition trend in a series of earlier LL posts: "Re-doubled prepositions", 5/19/2007, "A note of dignity or austerity" (5/3/2007), "Back to the future, redundant preposition department" (5/4/2007), "A phenomenon in which I'm starting to believe in" (5/14/2007), "Could preposition doubling be headed our way?" (5/15/2007).

[By the way, I doubt that AT&T actually requires its operators to ask “With whom do I have the pleasure of speaking with?” My guess would be that that some call center may recommend "With whom do I have the pleasure of speaking?", and an individual employee, puzzled by having to deal with the obsolete morpheme whom — and perhaps affected by the other forces contributing to the redundant-preposition phenomenon — added the extra "with". But I might well be wrong — if anyone knows the facts of this case, please tell us in the comments. ]

[And for those of you who lack the cultural background to understand the reference to Ernestine — which I took from Prof. Fish's post — I recommend this and this.]


  1. Geoff Nunberg said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 12:18 pm

    As I noted in a "Fresh Air" piece a few years ago, Fish's peevish purism should be reassuring to cultural conservatives who tax postmodernists with "anything goes" permissivism:

    "No norms worth defending"? "One standard is as good as another"? Not on Stanley Fish's watch! When it comes to the crunch, Fish has ideas about standards that are every bit as conventional — and as unconsidered — as anything the cultural right could wish for.

  2. Roger Levy said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 12:23 pm

    I saw the Fish post on the New York Times website and came immediately to Language Log — glad it's already been noted.

    I'm a bit surprised that neither this nor any of the previous posts draws the parallel between preposition doubling and resumptive pronouns, as in

    "You get a rack that the bike will sit on *it*".

    It's been shown that native speakers are more likely to find these "extra" pronouns more acceptable (and, perhaps, are correspondingly more likely to produce them) the more linguistically complex the environment is that they appear in. These kinds of findings could be practically useful to AT&T and fellow companies that may have an interest in crafting boilerplate whose prepositions are minimally likely to be doubled…

  3. Meg89 said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 12:27 pm

    I wonder if we can get a statement from AT&T about the matter :) I find that few people use whom correctly, and when I use it I tend to get funny looks. I think that at some point whom will simply work its way out of any but the most scholarly dialects. It doesn't serve a real distinctive purpose, if I said "to who am I speaking" you would still know what I meant, and fewer and fewer people use it at all, in my experience.

  4. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 12:30 pm

    I'd almost go so far as to say the word "whom" is not part of my personal dialect of English (and I suspect the same can be said of many North Americans of my generation).

    Roger, are you talking about those long and complicated sentences that you don't always notice redundant pronouns in them? :)

  5. Roger Levy said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 12:37 pm

    Skullturf: yes :)

  6. Faldone said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 12:39 pm

    The Grouch says, "When you live in two places and decamp from one to the other every six months or so…"

    Can you decamp to someplace? Just wondering.

  7. John Lawler said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 1:14 pm

    @ Roger, Skullturf

    From a post on Ross Constraints (see sig link above):

    Violations of Ross Constraints are very ungrammatical. Most people never encounter them. We appear to formulate our discourse to avoid them. Occasionally, we get in a bind and see one looming at the end of the clause, and have to do something quick. What we do is often illuminating about the relative importance of syntactic rules.

    For instance, consider the following:

    *?That's the book [that Bill married the woman [who illustrated it]].
    **That's the book [that Bill married the woman [who illustrated _]].

    Neither sentence is terrifically grammatical, but the first seems more appropriate (and common as a type) than the second, though the last word in the first sentence still feels strange. The ordinary rule of relative clause formation operating on the last clause should result in its deletion at the end of the clause (and thus the sentence). However, it appears inside another relative, an island, and is thus safe from such "movement" by Ross's Complex NP Constraint.

    Sentences like the first one are generated when, at the last minute, the speaker realizes what is going to result, and cancels the deletion, substituting an alternative relative-formation rule (called a Resumptive Pronoun in the trade), which merely pronominalizes the coreferential NP, instead of deleting it in the object position.

    This is not the way English forms its relative clauses (though other languages use it frequently, e.g, Hebrew), and the sentence is thus ungrammatical. But this turns out to be a venial syntactic sin by comparison with a violation of a Ross constraint, which typically produces extreme ungrammaticality.

  8. Bloix said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 1:29 pm

    "Who am I speaking to?" or even "who am I talking to?" is what most speakers would say, but between total strangers it is just very slightly rude. I imagine that's why AT&T suggests "with whom am I speaking?" The additional formality takes the edge off.

    [(myl) Please check out what James Thurber had to say about this:

    The number of people who use "whom" and "who" wrongly is appalling. The problem is a difficult one and it is complicated by the importance of tone, or taste. Take the common expression, "Whom are you, anyways?" That is of course, strictly speaking, correct – and yet how formal, how stilted! The usage to be preferred in ordinary speech and writing is "Who are you, anyways?" "Whom" should be used in the nominative case only when a note of dignity or austerity is desired. For example, if a writer is dealing with a meeting of, say, the British Cabinet, it would be better to have the Premier greet a new arrival, such as an under-secretary, with a "Whom are you, anyways?" rather than a "Who are you, anyways?" – always granted that the Premier is sincerely unaware of the man's identity. To address a person one knows by a "Whom are you?" is a mark either of incredible lapse of memory or inexcusable arrogance. "How are you?" is a much kindlier salutation.


    I doubt very much that she said, "With whom do I have the pleasure of speaking with?" The genteel "have the pleasure" really is pure Ernestine, and Fish uses it, I suspect, to increase the ridiculousness of the erroneous doubled "with."

  9. HP said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 2:26 pm

    I doubt very much that she said, "With whom do I have the pleasure of speaking with?"

    I doubt that the entire incident as Fish describes it ever took place. I suspect rather that Fish's AT&T service rep lives in the same universe with Tom Friedman's cab drivers.

  10. Roger Levy said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 3:43 pm

    @ John: yes, island constraints are definitely one thing that can make resumptive pronouns in English seem more acceptable. But it turns out that the more pedestrian factor of embedding depth also plays a role when people make quantitative acceptability judgments, e.g., contrast pairs 1 and 2:

    Who will we fire __?
    Who will we fire him?

    Who does Jane think that Mary claims that we will fire __?
    Who does Jane think that Mary claims that we will fire him?

    There also turn out to be interesting interactions between island status and embedding depth (documented by Alexiopodou & Keller).

  11. James Kabala said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 4:04 pm

    Re Thurber: I don't get it. When could "Whom are you?" or whom in the nominative ever be correct? Or is that part of the joke?

    [(myl) Well, it generally spoils a joke to have to explain it. But Thurber's idea seems to be that "whom" is an obsolete word associated with excessively formal discourse; and that any advice about how to use it will be assimilated in a nonsensical form by most readers, who will retain only a sort of dim belief that it should be used in socially elevated contexts. ]

  12. Chris Waigl said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 4:41 pm

    Gracious, so much hyperbole in Fish's account! I ticked at "multi-billion-dollar world-wide telecommunication corporation". AT&T
    *world-wide*? Now if it had been some subsidiary of Telefónica, or France Telecom, or Vodafone or even T-Mobile/Deutsche Telekom, sure, but AT&T strikes me as a very much US-centered operation.

  13. Keith B said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 4:45 pm

    I can speak with reasonably good authority that such an incorrect statement is not provided for representatives to use. They are told to greet the customer politely, but not what specific phrase to use.

    However, they are provided various stock phrases during training, including greetings. It would not be untoward to assume that the particular representative internalized that one but did so incorrectly.

    This may be superseded by the individual call center, though. I can only speak from my experience.

    On the other hand, the light rail employees in my city seem to have a fondness for saying "Eating, drinking, and smoking is not permitted". Its being widespread leads me to believe they are reciting a memorized (if incorrect) script.

    Perhaps he should call again and determine if the next representative makes the same error?

  14. The other Mark P said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 5:09 pm

    " "Who am I speaking to?" or even "who am I talking to?" is what most speakers would say, but between total strangers it is just very slightly rude."

    Is it? I have to say my mileage differs. In NZ they would be considered perfectly polite. I would construe using "whom" could as potentially rude, because it risks putting the recipient in the position that they don't feel comfortable with the archaic tone adopted.

  15. Nigel Greenwood said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 5:33 pm

    General website comment (nothing to do with this topic, but nevertheless submitted here for want of any other obvious feedback mechanism):

    Couldn't we have at least one line of overlap between the opening para(s) on the home page & the point or "anchor" in the complete posting to which the browser jumps when we click on Read the rest of this entry? A tiny bit of redundancy wouldn't go amiss. As it is, I find it takes great self-restraint to stop scrolling up to check that I haven't missed a line or two in the process.

    [(myl) This is a good idea, but you need to take it up with the people who write the WordPress software. One way would be to post a request at Alternatively, since WordPress is open source, you could add this feature yourself.

    Meanwhile, you could try clicking on the "permalink" rather than "Read the rest of this entry" link — that will start you at the top of the post. ]

  16. Bloix said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 5:46 pm

    To me, "who am I speaking to" feels rude because it implies that the customer has an obligation to justify himself to the clerk. (We don't say clerk anymore, we say customer service representative, but the status is the same.) "With whom am I speaking" feels just a little bit deferential. Its greater formality marks the clerk's recognition of a master-servant relationship (servants traditionally speak more formally to masters than masters do to servants). The clerk's acknowledgement of her lower status flatters the caller and thereby takes the edge off what otherwise might be perceived as rude and intrusive.

    If I were calling a friend's house and I couldn't tell who answered, my friend's wife or his teenaged daughter, I might say, "who am I talking to? Sally? Oh, Kristina, hi, this is Bloix, is your dad home?" But if I got a call that showed up on my caller ID as being from a client's office and the caller didn't identify herself, I might say, deferentially, "with whom am I speaking?"

    I'm an east coast person with about as many years of schooling as Fish himself, so maybe the nuance I'm perceiving would be lost on other people, while nuances perceptible to them would be lost on me.

  17. Richard said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 6:58 pm

    I feel a song coming on …

    When you were young and your heart was an open book You used to say "live and let live" (you know you did, you know you did, you know you did) But if this ever changin' world in which we live in Makes you give in and cry Say "live and let die"

    Perhaps Paul McCartney's advice might be good for Stanley Fish too. Or perhaps not!

  18. Adrian said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 8:37 pm

    In other languages, forms that are deprecated in English are accepted as correct: h-dropping in French, for example. Hungarian has several examples of this. Negative questions annoy me ("Aren't you coming?" "Don't you like it?") but they are the norm in Hungarian. Double negatives are a must: Nem találom sehol. ("I can't find it nowhere.") And double prepositions are also required: Bemegyek a kertbe. ("I'm going in into the garden.")

    My point here is that these forms are probably natural to most speakers, wherever they may be, but some languages' grammars allow people to use them, while other languages' grammars try to stop them.

  19. rootlesscosmo said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 8:38 pm

    @Keith B: last week I called the support number for a maker of wireless routers three times, and three distinct people asked me "How can I provide you with excellent service today?" Sure sounds like a company script to me.

  20. Nightstallion said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 5:53 am

    "But if this ever changin' world in which we live in"

    Nope, |in which we're livin'|, although this is incorrect in about 99% of lyrics websites.

  21. language hat said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 8:15 am

    Nope, |in which we're livin'|

    Nope, although that is a common attempt by Paulistas to paper over the "error."

  22. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 8:49 pm

    That's not a very common mistake; I'm surprised his reaction was annoyance rather than surprise. It's not absolutely unique — there's the McCartney quote mentioned above, and once while crossing the border I was asked of what country I was a citizen of (right after handing over my passport, heh) — but still, it's quite rare, and I wouldn't have thought anyone would develop a peeve about it. But maybe that situation — dealing with over-the-phone customer service — brings out the peeve in people. Or maybe he's just a peevish fellow.

  23. Arnold Zwicky said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 10:00 pm

    Ran Ari-Gur: "That's not a very common mistake; I'm surprised his reaction was annoyance rather than surprise. It's not absolutely unique — there's the McCartney quote mentioned above, and once while crossing the border I was asked of what country I was a citizen of (right after handing over my passport, heh) — but still, it's quite rare, and I wouldn't have thought anyone would develop a peeve about it."

    It's more common than you might think, and we've posted about "doubled prepositions" here on Language Log a number of times; see the links in Mark's original posting.

    Your *impression* is that the phenomenon is rare — but that probably just means you haven't noticed it much. People's impressions about the frequency of variants — even linguists' and lexicographers' impressions about such things — are notoriously undependable. Even if you are absolutely confident about them.

    As for the handbooks, a quick search brings up only:

    Garner's Modern American Usage: redundant prepositions: repeating a preposition unnecessarily when there are intervening phrases or clauses, as in “with whom she shared her life with,” “world in which we live in” (634)


    Paul Brians, Common Errors …, on prepositions (repeated): In the sentence “Alex liked Nancy, with whom he shared his Snickers bar with,” only one “with” is needed—eliminate either one. Look out for similarly duplicated prepositions.

  24. Thomas D said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 12:34 pm

    British railways are also a hotbed of bizarre usage – announcers for one company always say 'arriving into' a station, which I don't think has ever been English.

  25. Franz Bebop said,

    January 10, 2009 @ 12:39 pm

    Fish deserves credit for achieving the impossible: Evoking sympathetic feelings in me towards AT&T. I will be neither sad nor surprised if they disconnect him altogether.

    If the clowns in AT&T customer support were to cut off Fish's internet service permanently, that would make them better editors than the NY Times.

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