Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

Usage Showdown: Who Are You Going to Listen to?

Yesterday we presented the first part in our usage showdown on "whom," from Baltimore Sun copy editor John E. McIntyre, a self-professed "moderate prescriptivist." Today we present the descriptivist side of the debate, from Arnold M. Zwicky, Professor of Linguistics at Stanford University, who frequently writes about matters of English usage on the group weblog Language Log. Let us know in the comments section which perspective you find more convincing, or sound off with your own opinion!

The usage has been around since the 14th century, as an alternative to an older usage. Shakespeare used them both, in a way very similar to the way many people use them now. In the 18th century, when prescriptive grammars appeared, grammarians (reasoning from first principles) disputed the usage, with Lowth (and others) deprecating it and Priestley (and others) defending it. During his lifetime, Noah Webster shifted from Lowth's position to Priestley's. Meanwhile, the usage was increasingly appearing in "good writing" as well as speech, so that by the middle of the 20th century (and probably earlier) it was unquestionably standard. (Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage has a concise account of these developments.) Yet some people deprecate it, even rage against it.

The usage in question is who, rather than whom, in contexts like those in my title above — where the pronoun functions as an object (in this case, the object of a preposition) but is not actually in a constituent with its governing element (in this case, the preposition is "stranded"; compare the "fronted" version To whom are you going to listen?). Instead, the sticklers insist that you must write (and say) Whom are you going to listen to?

Linguists looking at the actual practice of educated writers and speakers see that, for quite some time, there have been two alternative systems for choosing between who and whom. The older system, A, uses whom(ever) when the relative or interrogative pronoun is serving in an object function (direct object, indirect object, object of a preposition), who(ever) otherwise. The somewhat newer system, B, uses whom(ever) when the pronoun is an object in a constituent with its governing element, who(ever) otherwise. There are people who use system A almost entirely (though there are situations where even these speakers might balk at whom: A says "I met someone fascinating yesterday", B replies "Who?", and probably not "Whom?"). Many people use system B almost exclusively; though they understand system A, it may strike them as over-formal, old-fashioned, or even "archaic", and they don't really understand how to produce A. Many people use both systems, distinguishing them according to context, with system A reserved for formal contexts, especially in writing. (Some Language Log discussion here.)

Aside from filling in details, that's pretty much what linguists have to say about the matter. Nobody's telling system A people they should switch to system B (or, of course, the reverse).

Some linguists (like me), however, are interested not only in noting which people say which things on which occasions for which purposes (though this is challenging enough), but go beyond this to inquire into people's beliefs and attitudes about language, and into the springs of these beliefs and attitudes. How do we get to reactions like the following, from a commenter on a VT column that began with a system B who?

How much faith can a writer or a reader place in an article about copyediting that starts with "Who are you going to call?" rather than with "Whom are you going to call?"? If Simon Glickman and Julia Rubiner okayed the article, then someone needs to donate a copy of Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" to them ASAP. I didn't read the rest of the article. This hurdle is simply too high. As long as it's there, I can't have any faith in what follows.

(Yes, I caught the echo of the Ghostbusters song, but apparently the commenter did not.)

I'm working on an extended discussion of what might lie behind such rage. There are many possible factors, among them:

  1. the historical priority of system A;
  2. the weight of usage authorities (some of whom insist on system A);
  3. the belief that using system B is just a kind of error (people are simply being sloppy, lazy, or inattentive);
  4. the belief that since system B "has who for whom", as well as who in other contexts, it represents the "collapsing of a useful distinction"; and
  5. the belief that since whom is called the "objective" or "accusative" case of these pronouns, it must be used whenever the pronouns serve in an object function.

There's something seriously wrong with every one of the proposed justifications for whom, but that's a topic for another time and place.

Arnold M. Zwicky is Professor of Linguistics at Stanford University and Ohio State University. He has published in all the major linguistics journals, with contributions to the fields of phonology, morphology, syntax and, perhaps most notably, the interrelations between these domains. He is a regular contributor to Language Log, a group weblog on language and linguistics.


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Thursday July 24th 2008, 10:37 AM
Comment by: Susan C.
I've noticed a correlation between temperament and grammar system inclinations. There are those who like the world in black and white (gray is just an illusion, an error in perception). I suspect they are solidly system A-ers with reason c as their answer. It's so handy to have one reference guide for all the answers (it used to be the Chicago Style Manual where I worked). System B is far more complicated even though it reflects a nuanced approach to the matter. Reserve your rage for things that really matter, like spending 42 cents of every tax dollar on the military.
Thursday July 24th 2008, 11:40 AM
Comment by: Arnold Z. (Palo Alto, CA)
To Susan C.: system B is, by one reckoning, only slightly more complicated than system A: two conditions that must be satisfied for "whom" rather than one. By another reckoning, they are equally complicated, just different: if we state the condition on "whom" as "when in construction with a preposition", that covers things. with just one condition.

As for "temperament and grammar system inclinations", I'm reluctant to attribute motives to people who use one system rather than another. I'd imagine that most people who use system A exclusively do so simply because that's what they were taught (and, possibly, because that's what was enforced by editors). I do worry some about those who rage at variants that are not their own, though.
Thursday July 24th 2008, 3:15 PM
Comment by: Waldemar G. (Sydney Australia)
As a modest structural engineer I wish to add my tuppence worth to the who/whom debate. I am convinced that whom is a genitive/dative form appropriate after to/with/from etc. In modern speech the preposition has often dropped out, but is 'understood' by a thoughtful linguist; or even the preposition has a tendency like the 'spilt' infinitive to migrate to the other end of the clause. Try "to whom are you calling" or "you are calling (to)whom" or even "whom are you calling to" (We were taught in mathematics that many a graph travelling with the x-axis goes round the back of a cylinder as it were and meets up coming in on the negative side). This is distinct from "who are you calling an idjit". I have always enjoyed writing a reference "to whomsoever it may concern". Having some fleeting acquaintance with Polish in which the genitive/dative noun is usually spelt diffently from the root word I cannot understand why we are so hasty to shuffle off these older subtleties (such as thee and thine etc). Would like to say more but it is very early in the morning and I am confident the intelligent readership of this site will elaborate with ease.
Thursday July 24th 2008, 4:14 PM
Comment by: Raymond S. (Bethesda, MD)
Language evolves. No one can stop it. Components that improve communication tend to survive and spread through the population, while those that hamper communication eventually die out. So exactly how does the use of "whom" instead of "who" improve communication? Examples of it doing so may be hard to find.
Monday July 28th 2008, 1:51 AM
Comment by: Harry L.
As a high school freshman I was baffled by who/whom in Mr Hamilton's freshman course on English lit' and grammar. One day in Mr Bertanogli's Spanish class I heard a sudden blast of the Hallelujah Chorus along with a brilliant flash of light and instantly figured it all out.

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Part one of our "whom" debate, from the Baltimore Sun's John McIntyre.
A heated debate over vocabulary in the Los Angeles Times.
Some language commentators think "nice" is less than nice.