Whom or Which Reference Do I Believe?

In my original posting about a song called “Big Bad John”, long ago, buried deep in the comments section, a student asked me a question that is as applicable today as it was 100 years ago, or even 1000 years ago. He said, in part:

You said “That sounds native-like” twice….. Do you follow some specific grammar rules to deem what is correct or what is wrong? I think there is a Standard American English. Who says which are the relevant rules?

In other words, when presented with conflicting information or opinions, who(m) do you believe?

I have copied my reply below for several reasons:

  1. To share this topic with newcomers or anyone who may have missed it.
  2. To teach you some new idioms and vocabulary (hopefully).
  3. To engender new discussion on how YOU determine who YOU believe in these situations.

My reply follows:

You have asked an astute question that goes straight to the heart of the matter, one that I’m sure is in the mind of every English learner in the world (and many Americans). “Well, Lee said this, and Uncle Bob said that, and Book A said this, but this book I’m holding says that. Arghh! Who or which do I believe?”

  • Who or which indeed?
  • Where is the one grammar reference to rule them all?
  • Who is the guru on the top of the mountain that knows all?
  • When three different dictionaries have slightly different definitions, which one is correct?

When I say something sounds native-like, I am making a subjective statement based on the opinion of one American (that would be me). My statement is based on my experience of 60 years of hearing English every minute of every hour of every day, and so on, of my life, including listening to music, radio, movies, and videos, and reading newspapers, magazines, and books.

That being said, I will tell you that many Americans have horrible grammar, poor vocabulary, and can’t spell worth a…darn. So, which Americans do you believe? Which Americans do believe for that matter? It’s a matter of reputation. Believe those whom you have found to be correct most of the time. It’s all you can do.

More to your point, I am absolutely not saying that it is necessarily 100% grammatically correct. To make that determination would require a bevy of people with English doctorate degrees gathered around a large oak table in a musty old room at midnight to make the final determination. And then there might be blood sacrifices made underneath the light of the full moon–likely one of them.

All I can say is to find one grammar reference that you have found to be right most of the time and go with that one. But it may not answer every question. You may have to use a second grammar reference. But it may not answer….

In a nutshell, I can’t answer your question, old friend. You just have to choose a trustworthy source and be happy to be correct 90% of the time.


Comments are welcome.

Or just write some sentences using some of the vocabulary words that may be new to you as a learning aid to others.

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