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.