Grammatical Error of the Week

I love reading John Gruber’s Daring Fireball. Witty, insightful, technical, it’s one of the better Mac-oriented websites around. John comes across as a rather brilliant guy, but even the brilliant get it wrong on occasion.

This occasion was the title of a recent entry on his site. In lamenting the lack of a way to write programs for the Apple iPhone, John writes “iPhone SDK, iPhone SDK! Wherefore Art Thou iPhone SDK?” and makes a mistake almost everyone makes: thinking that wherefore art is “Old English” for where are. After all, in one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines, Juliet cries out:

O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo

But she’s not asking “where are you, Romeo?” (despite the amateur productions you’ve seen of Juliet casting about from her garden window in search of a hidden Romeo), she’s asking “why are you Romeo?”.

You know the story: Juliet Capulet falls for Romeo Montague, but their families are sworn enemies. She can’t be with him simply because of his name (awww). The lines that follow are

Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.

What Juliet is asking is why must Romeo be Romeo (and, unspoken, a Montague). She begs him to give up his family and his name, or if he’s unwilling to do that, that they get married, and she’ll take on his last name, and therefore give up hers.

I don’t recall learning the meaning of wherefore in school; I learned its meaning sometime in the late 80s, while studying Shakespeare in my acting company (New York Parks’ Shakespeare Company). (Although Romeo and Juliet wasn’t one that I performed in, we studied famous scenes and plays as a way of better understanding Shakespeare in general.)

Wherefore as where is such a common misconception that it wouldn’t surprise me if a poll of English teachers got it wrong; I know that most ordinary people you’d stop on the street would. The unfortunate thing is, in an incorrect use like “Wherefore Art Thou iPhone SDK,” most ordinary people would get what you’re trying to ask, which means this mistake will continue on, and, even worse, might gain currency as correct.

What a shame.