On Valentine's Day, "Whom" Do You Love?
Online dating sites love to use Valentine's Day as an opportunity to talk about how people size up their potential romantic interests. And it turns out that an attention to grammar, particularly usage of the word whom, just might help out men who would like to attract members of the opposite sex.
Wired conducted a statistical analysis of online dating habits on OkCupid and Match.com and came up with some intriguing results about what works and doesn't work in one's profile. Perhaps most surprisingly, "men who use 'whom' get 31 percent more contacts from the opposite sex." On Language Log, linguist Geoffrey Pullum found this highly amusing:
What a fool I've been, thinking all the time that the important stuff was about evidence and structure and the search for genuine syntactic principles — trying to find out through study of competent speakers' usage what are the actual principles that define (say) marking of accusative case on pronouns in Standard English. God, I've been wasting my life.
Wired magazine has just published a large-scale statistical study of what correlates with numbers of responses to online dating ads (and let me say here that I am deeply grateful to Charles Hallinan for pointing it out to me). Much of the survey relates to the words used in the ad. For example, mentioning yoga or surfing in your ad has a positive influence on the number of contacts that will result. Some of the discoveries are curious: for men, it is much better to refer to a woman using the word "woman", but a woman's ad will do better if she refers to herself as a "girl". And (the point that has turned my life around, made on the infographic here), it turns out that men who use "whom" get 31% more contacts from opposite-sex respondents.
This changes everything! It's not just about the inflectional marking of relative and interrogative pronouns any more, people; it's about getting more sex!
But after explaining the basic rules for using whom, Pullum decides that it doesn't really matter, since no one really knows how to use the word anymore. He sardonically recommends "using the word wherever it looks as if it might make sense to somebody," if it's going to make you seem more attractive. As Baltimore Sun copy editor John McIntyre put it on his blog, "the biological imperative will always trump the grammatical imperative."
Eagle-eyed readers will recognize that we're treading on some familiar ground. Check out Ben Zimmer's Word Routes column for Valentine's Day last year, "Would You Go on a Date with 'Whomever' Has Good Grammar?":
In advance of Valentine's Day, the dating site Match.com released some survey results indicating that good grammar is something that both men and women on the dating scene use to judge their potential mates. That finding led to a joke on Saturday Night Live that was supposed to illustrate "good grammar" but, ironically enough, failed to.
The Match.com survey showed that 55 percent of dating men judge women on "grammar," and 69 percent of dating women do the same for men. (Only heterosexuals were surveyed, apparently.) The only factor that ranked higher in the survey was, for both sexes, "teeth." On Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update," Seth Meyers used the survey to set up a joke, which you can see in this video clip (starting 53 seconds in):
"A new survey finds that the number one thing single people judge potential dates on is the quality of their teeth, followed by the quality of their grammar. Great news for whomever has both." (Flashes toothy grin.)
Now let's completely sap the joke of its humor. The ostentatious use of whomever in "Great news for whomever has both" is supposed to indicate that Meyers does indeed possess high-quality grammar along with his high-quality teeth. Those who see the standards of English as falling frequently point to the declining usage of whom and whomever, but in this case, the whom(ever) form has been misapplied, at least according to the traditional grammatical view.
Read the rest of the column to find out why the SNL joke doesn't quite fly, grammatically speaking. But as Zimmer concludes, "right" or "wrong" usage of whom(ever) is beside the point: "something tells me that the people using Match.com to look for dates wouldn't care too much either way, regardless of how much they say they judge people by their 'grammar.'"