Friday, April 23, 2010

For whom, the bell tolls

Yesterday’s “Rules are rules” post quoted Professor Geoffrey Pullum on actual, rather than imagined, rules about the comma, but his post also focused on the misuse of whom as the subject of a subordinate clause. Language commentators have been pronouncing the doom of whom for decades; Garner’s Modern American Usage cites Edward Sapir from 1921. The subject is worth a look.

Professor Pullum’s comment that whom is rarely used today except following prepositions stimulated a number of comments:
GKP says "whom" is "rarely used these days except after prepositions". Really?
I don't know how to use the various corpora that could be consulted to determine the point, but I for one use bare "whom" quite readily in relative (but not interrogative) clauses. E.g.
That woman with long red hair whom we saw at the supermarket this morning, I saw her again this afternoon at the beach.
Who did you ask to see, Mr Jones or Miss Smith?

In non-professional writing on the internet the choice between who and whom is made by rolling dice. The distinction is lost except among language aficionados
but I for one use bare "whom" quite readily
And no doubt you will continue to do so while the word drops out of general usage. I know how to use it but generally avoid it so as to not sound excessively posh.
"Whom" won't be missed. And for a large part of the population is already not missed.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage looked into the matter not long ago (I have the 1994 edition) and reached some interesting conclusions.

Item: Whom appears to be dropping out of spoken English but survives stubbornly in written English.

Item: Confusion of who and whom has a long pedigree, with each appearing as both subject and object in Shakespeare’s works (today, St. George’s Day, is conventionally observed as his birthday) and extending into the current era.

Item: Merriam-Webster’s concludes: “Our files show that objective whom is in no danger of extinction, at least in writing.”

If you are interested in some practical advice, here is mine:

(1) Stop fretting over the way people talk. You can’t change it.

(2) There is a problem that even educated writers have with figuring out whether a subordinate clause should begin with who or whom. If you have that difficulty, you can, except in the most formal circumstances, just use who. The most frequent error I see is whom as the subject of a clause that functions as the object of a verb or preposition.

(3) If you want to use whom, no one is going to stop you. This is America. There can be a problem with whom sounding stilted, fussy, or pompous, but that is a judgment call that you have every right to make.

Language is like geology. Novelties periodically erupt, some of which remain a feature of the landscape, but most of which subside. More commonly, language is a collection of tectonic plates that separate or grind together very slowly over a long period as some features of the landscape erode and others metamorphose. Individual efforts to make the crooked straight and the rough places smooth are generally futile, and there are always anomalous crevices and outcrops that must be negotiated with caution.  

Addendum: Many thanks to the readers who offered advice on formatting block quotations. 


  1. Language AND geology in the same post! Bestill my heart!

  2. the crooked straight and the rough places smooth

    And now I'm going to have that music from Messiah in my head all day.

    However, more mundane to this discussion, I couldn't agree more with piece of advice number 1. In language, as in many things, it is better to lead by example than by critique.

  3. I tuned in to see whether you had acknowledged Will's birthday. You did, and for that I thank you.

    But did you mean "appearing" in that sentence?

  4. I should have saved the 2½ pages of comments about the object clause you mention in 2. After two decades, I am vindicated! At the time, I suspect the opponents merely acquiesced, which I attribute to my lack of eloquence. But I was right.

  5. A speaker seeking to choose on the fly between who and whom often has to know what will come after the who or whom. For example, if one says, "she is the woman," the question of whether who or whom should follow woman depends on what comes after the who or whom. It might be, "She is the woman who flew the kite," or "She is the woman whom he saw flying the kite." The speaker can't make his choice of who or whom until his mind skips ahead to see what's coming. Usually one can choose the right word simply by knowing which words came before. It's harder choosing the right word based on what will follow. A writer, of course, can choose the wrong word, then notice as he types the rest of the sentence that the word is wrong. No harm is done, since the writer can replace the wrong word with the right one before anyone else sees the error. A speaker who realizes that he said "who" when he should have said "whom" will be thought a pretentious fool if he corrects himself, unless he is attending a convention of copy editors.

    One also has to think ahead in choosing the verb tense in a question. "Is the boy guilty?," or "Are the boys guilty?" Still, choosing the right verb tense in a question usually is easy. Choosing who or whom may require furrowing one's brow. People hate to think. (Someone said that people will love you if you make them think they're thinking but will hate you if you make them think.) So whom may well be doomed. If the word goes, I'll miss it.

  6. I am certain that the objective use of both "who" and "whom" will continue to coexist peacefully for a long time--speakers and writers of English have many choices, and as long as we exercise them, we will continue to have them. We are blessed with a delightfully polyglot language! At least, I think so.

  7. I forgot to mention: nice use of the comma in your title, effectively responding oh so subtly to some of the comments on your previous post (or one of them in particular, anyway). Well played!

  8. "Whom won't be missed." Are you kidding me??? Classicists around the world are crying at the thought.

    I have, in fact, taught (this very day) my Latin I students about relative clauses, and very happy showed them how they can relate the English pronoun whom with the Latin form very easily -- and how much sense it all makes.

  9. Sorry I called you Patricia, Patrick!

  10. To: Patricia K. Lackey (and others who care)

    Instead of saying "She is the woman (who,whom) he saw flying the kite" and making more work for those of us addicted to mentally correcting EVERYONE'S grammar, why don't we say, "She is the woman he saw flying the kite"?

  11. Mark Davies' Corpus of Contemporary American English returns 245,185 hits for "who" in speech and a mere 4,576 for "whom," for a ratio of nearly 54 to 1. In the corpus as a whole, there are 1,022,848 instances of "who" and 37,969 of "whom," for a ratio of 27 to 1. Of those 37,969 instances of "whom," 24,491 follow a preposition, which is about 65 percent.

    So I wouldn't exactly say that it's rare except after a preposition, but it certainly isn't terribly common.

  12. To: Becki

    Your version of my example is an improvement. When writing carefully, I try to audition each word to see if it merits inclusion in my prose. I didn't subject "whom" to a tough enough audition. The word contributed nothing to the sentence. Zilch!

  13. I don't use "whom", ever. Why and when should I?

  14. Eastabrook KefauverApril 24, 2010 at 12:58 AM

    To Whom it May Concern:
    If whom is useless, then "between you and I" is OK, right? Wny not let's all just be consistently sloppy, all around? I'm constantly amazed that descriptivist editors weep over their profession's demise, while they simultaneously decry the same rules that make their very existence such a necessity. You can't have it both ways: if you want gatekeepers, you have to put them in charge of the keys. They can't drop the keys down the well and go drinking in the sun, hoping their jobs will still be there when they sober up.

  15. "Confusion of who and whom has a long pedigree, with each appearing as both subject and object in Shakespeare’s works..." Citing Shakespeare's texts as any sort of authority on usage, grammar, or spelling is weak support. His manuscripts were handwritten, collated, and edited heavily only later after his death (1627-28). He hardly ever spelled his own name the same twice in a row. Standards had just not been invented yet and wouldn't come into practice for another hundred years. It's a "so what" argument.

  16. I agree with Patrick K. Lackey's statement. If the word goes, I will definitely miss it. Then again, I'm said "pretentious fool," who corrects his whos and whoms after misspeaking. But I don't do so out of pretension; rather, it's an automatic reaction like hitting the delete key after a typo.

  17. Patricia the TerseApril 26, 2010 at 1:11 AM

    The Crooked straight and the rough places PLAIN, not smooth. Try to sing "smooth" over several eighth notes - Handel knew how to set text. When I wore braces (in my thirties) I called that the "Orthodontist Aria.")

  18. Whom is not dead. It is not even breathing heavy. One day, we all shall be gone, of course. But whom will live on beyond us and there is nothing we can do about it.

  19. Alice is quite right. That it makes sense as well as good grammar only makes those who want to split hairs, split hairs. Bonum est.