January 05, 2007


Slavoj Zizek writes, in an op-ed piece in today's New York Times (p. A17), about Muhammad Said al-Sahhaf, Iraqi information minister in the late days of Saddam Hussein's rule:

There was something refreshingly liberating about his interventions, which displayed a striving to be liberated from the hold of facts and thus of the need to spin away their unpleasant aspects: his stance was, "Whom do you believe, your eyes or my words?"


I would have written which (or maybe what), or reworded the whole thing: "Do you believe your eyes or my words?" or "Do you believe what you see or what I tell you?" or something else along those lines. 

I have occasionally collected who(m) referring to decidedly lower forms of life, like bacteria, usually from people who study them and have some attachment to them.  But eyes are not animate creatures, only parts of them, and words are straightforwardly inanimate.  Who(m) -- I'm not going to argue about the case-marking question here -- strikes me as decidedly odd.  You can see how someone would get into using who(m), with your eyes serving as one kind of metonymy (the part standing for the whole) and my words as another (the words standing for the person who produces them).  But it still won't fly.

Eliminating one of the metonymies -- "Who(m) do you believe, your eyes or me?" or maybe with your eyes moved away from the verb believe, in "Who(m) do you believe, me or your eyes?" -- improves things a bit, but only a bit .  Eliminating them both -- "Who(m) do you believe, yourself or me?" -- alters the meaning.  Who(m) has to go.

[Addendum: Zizek is not a native speaker of English, and so can be excused this infelicity.  But the Times has copy editors, and they haven't been shy in the past about altering copy; they should have fixed this one.]

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at January 5, 2007 10:48 AM