Grammar Moses: Lost in translation

Updated 5/13/2018 9:35 AM

Maureen Donehey taught Spanish for 36 years, so she can spot a bad translation at 50 paces.

This mess of a sign appeared in a suburban Target store.
This mess of a sign appeared in a suburban Target store. - Courtesy of Maureen Donehey

"Here is a sign that has been in our neighborhood Target for months," she wrote. "We kept hoping that it would go away or that someone would report it to superiors, but nope. I gave up and decided to send it to you."

This sign advertising bananas appears to be an example of running a Spanish phrase through a translation program.

As you probably know from reading instructions translated from Chinese, it's like a game of telephone: The message gets a bit garbled along the way. And oftentimes, things just don't translate.

"'Twenty-nine cents each one'" is what the author probably wanted to say," Maureen said. "'Cada' means 'each/every' and 'por' means 'per.' In English we usually say '29 cents apiece.' There is no direct translation from Spanish."

The lesson here is it takes someone who knows both languages to proof the results.

Who or whom?

Gloria Filipelli couldn't believe her eyes when she saw the six-column headline across the top of the paper: "Draft begins tonight: Whom will the Bears take?"

"Did you see it?" Gloria said.

I did. I remember it well. Assistant News Editor Sean Stangland was running the copy desk that night and had written "Who" instead of "Whom" in an early draft of the front page.

Before I could point out the error in his ways, he wrote back, "Of course I'll change it to 'whom.'"

Sure, it might look odd. I think people generally have trouble determining when to use "who" and when to use "whom," especially when the word comes at the beginning of the sentence.

It's not really that complicated.

"Who" refers to the subject of the sentence. In this case, "the Bears" is the subject.

"Whom" refers to the object of the verb or preposition.

Here is a plausible real-life Baumann family scenario:

"Who ate all the Oreos?"

"She ate all the Oreos," I might have told my mother, wagging my finger at my sister.

In this case, she (my sister) was the subject of the sentence.

"Whom do I thank for the lack of Oreos in the house?"

"Again, Mom, it was Jenny. Or are you just trying to trip me up on grammar again?"

In this case, my mom wants to "thank" someone for raiding the cookie jar. Mom is the subject. Jenny is the object of the verb "to thank."

If that's a bit too convoluted, think in terms of personal pronouns.

If you would answer the question, with a he/she/they, then the word you're looking for is "who."

If you would answer with a him/her/them, then you want to use "whom."

It helps to say it out loud.

Back to the Bears example: Whom will the Bears take? "Him!"

Write carefully, and never blame your sister for your poor eating habits.

• Jim Baumann is vice president/managing editor of the Daily Herald. Write him at Put Grammar Moses in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at

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