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Usage Showdown: Who Cares About 'Whom'?

Last month on the VT, a commenter complained about the use of the word "who" in a sentence beginning, "Joshua Kendall, who we interview this week..." This wasn't the first time that one of our readers objected to the use of "who" instead of "whom." Since this is such a contentious point of English usage, we thought we'd offer two different perspectives on the great "whom" debate. Today we present the viewpoint of John E. McIntyre, assistant managing editor for the copy desk at The Baltimore Sun, who runs an entertaining blog on copyediting, You Don't Say. Tomorrow we'll hear from a descriptive linguist, Arnold Zwicky of Stanford University. Let the showdown begin!

Grammarians, linguists and usage authorities have been pronouncing the imminent demise of whom for generations, yet the venerable pronoun, plucking feverishly at the coverlet, refuses to expire.

When James Thurber set out to burlesque Fowler's Modern English Usage (a sacred text for Harold Ross and The New Yorker), he started out with who and whom, with particular attention to "the common expression, 'Whom are you, anyways?'"

"This is of course, strictly speaking, correct — and yet how formal, how stilted! ? 'Whom' should be used in the nominative case only when a note of dignity or austerity is desired. For example, if a writer is dealing with a meeting of, say, the British Cabinet, it would be better to have the Premier greet a new arrival, such as an under-secretary, with a 'Whom are you, anyways?' rather than a 'Who are you, anyways?' — always granted that the Premier is sincerely unaware of the man's identity. To address a person one knows by a 'Whom are you?' is a mark either of incredible lapse of memory or inexcusable arrogance."

There, from the early 1930s, are the two vexing issues about whom that persist into the present.

First, native speakers of American English, though they are unlikely to be puzzled by he and him, she and her, they and them, come to a halt and refuse to jump the fence when they have to differentiate between who and whom. My own students, mainly juniors and seniors majoring in journalism or English, have no better than a 50 percent chance of getting it right when the pronoun is the subject of a subordinate clause. In a construction such as We don't know who put the overalls in Mistress Murphy's chowder, it troubles them that who is the subject of a clause even though the clause itself is the object of a verb. They do not hear what the correct pronoun should be, as they do with the comparable ones, and they have to stop to disentangle and label the sentence.

Second, many, perhaps most, native speakers of American English associate whom with formality — and probably pomposity.

As far as I, a mere journalist and moderate prescriptivist, can discern, this is where we stand:

In conversation, who appears to have supplanted whom, almost universally. There is no going back.

In formal writing, such as an academic paper or book, whom remains on its precarious perch.

In middle-level discourse, such as journalism, which aims at a conversational tone while adhering to the conventions of standard written English, whom is slowly slipping away, and probably should. In the copy I see, reporters get whoever or whomever more frequently wrong than would be accomplished by an undergraduate coin toss, and the copy desk does not catch every instance.

It may be time to discuss letting go of the distinction in journalism.

No doubt my fellow prescriptivists will see this as a counsel of despair, even though I am holding the ground on imply and infer, comprise and compose, even though I continue to use whom in my own writing when the pronoun as object is called for. I am two-thirds of the way toward being a dead white male, and I think that whom will see me out.

But language is tricky, and it defies predictions. Schoolteacher superstitions, such as the supposed prohibition against the split infinitive or the preposition at the end of a sentence, persist despite having been repeatedly exploded. And yet ain't has defied the combined efforts of generations of pedagogues. You just can't tell.

My own bet is that whom will survive in stock expressions, such as for whom the bell tolls, at least for a couple of generations, until Donne and Hemingway are no longer read. It may be lost to spoken English, but its usefulness in the written version is not yet exhausted. For now, whom, though it may have seen its best days, is going, going, but not quite gone.

John McIntyre, the assistant managing editor for the copy desk at The Baltimore Sun and an affiliate instructor of journalism at Loyola College of Maryland, maintains a blog on language and editing, You Don't Say, at baltimoresun.com.


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Wednesday July 23rd 2008, 4:42 AM
Comment by: Geoffrey BH (Wallington, Surrey United Kingdom)
I think that, in British usage, the position has become fairly clear. 'Who' is the form for a subject, 'whom' that for an object. 'Whom' is thus common after a preposition, as with, 'to whom', 'for whom' and the like. As a simple object, an example would be 'Whom shall we choose?'. (compare 'Who shall be chosen?'. Perhaps the test is whether one is comfortable with the sound?
Wednesday July 23rd 2008, 8:23 AM
Comment by: Jane P.
In the second paragraph "Whom are you anyways?" is incorrect no matter how you look at it because "are" is a being verb. "Whom" is used in the objective case, i.e. as the direct object after an action verb and as objects of prepositions.
Wednesday July 23rd 2008, 9:18 AM
Comment by: Morgane Danielou
I agree with Jane P, and it becomes clear if you apply the test mentioned two paragraphs later. You would never say: "Him is he". The two sides of the 'equation' must be the same when using 'to be'. But "Whom do you seek?" would be correct.
Wednesday July 23rd 2008, 10:16 AM
Comment by: Susan S. (Cockeysville, MD)
'Who are you, anyways?' or 'Whom are you, anyways?' Its not the 'Who' or 'Whom'that bothers me, it's the 'anyways'. Anyways...? shouldn't it be 'anyway'?

Another word that is used often that bugs me is 'got', perhaps something could be talked about on that one.
Wednesday July 23rd 2008, 10:48 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Keep in mind that the Thurber quote is, as John McIntyre points out, a burlesque of Fowler. So Thurber is intentionally using "whom" in a place where you wouldn't expect it, as a way of mocking usage prescriptions.

For more "whom" humor, see this Language Log post.
Wednesday July 23rd 2008, 11:36 AM
Comment by: Ada
Kristen S. and Jane P. are correct. To be is a linking verb. Both pronouns should be in the nomminative case, not the objective case. aaargh... If you choose to ignore the distinction between "who" and "whom", fine. I will twitch but it's your choice. If one is writing formally, it should be "Who are you?" Perhaps the somewhat stuffy example could be "About whom are you speaking?" ("whom" is the object of the preposition "about" and should, therefore, be in the objective rather than the nomminative form.

I am the grammarian about whom your mother warned you.
Wednesday July 23rd 2008, 4:00 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I'm in the 'being' verb camp. I don't know whose camp Thurber was in, but it doesn't sound like ours or Fowler's!

Is that a misprint? It sounds so obviously wrong. Perhaps that was the point Thurber was making, or perhaps we don't have enough of the context of the sentence.

An interesting (to me) occurence is the reversal problem is this sentence: I'm doing this corretly, aren't I? (Not sure if the comma or semi-colon would be wanted there!) I am doing this correctly, are I not? would never be said.

Yet, amn't isn't heard (to my limited knowledge) outside of Pennsylvania Dutch country.
Wednesday July 23rd 2008, 4:13 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Once again, folks, Thurber was making a satirical comment. As for context, it appears in an essay called "Ladies' and Gentlemen's Guide to Modern English Usage." As the title suggests, it satirizes the whole genre of grammatical etiquette. Here's a choice quote from the section on split infinitives:
Word has somehow got around that a split infinitive is always wrong. This is of a piece with the sentimental and outworn notion that it is always wrong to strike a lady.

Make what you will of Thurber's wit, as long as you recognize that his tongue was firmly in cheek.
Wednesday July 23rd 2008, 9:15 PM
Comment by: John M. (Baltimore, MD)
James Thurber, 1894-1961. American humorist. Staff writer at The New Yorker. Author of numerous books of humor, including "My Life and Hard Times," "My World -- and Welcome to It," "A Thurber Carnival." Also "The Years With Ross," a memoir of The New Yorker. Famed for his cartoon drawings ("That's My First Wife Up There, and This Is the Present Mrs. Harris").

It's kind of Mr. Zimmer to explain, twice, that the "Whom are you, anyways?" passage is a joke, but I am willing to supply any additional information that would be helpful to the reader.
Wednesday July 23rd 2008, 11:30 PM
Comment by: Christine H.
When in doubt about correct English grammar, I always relied on the rules of Latin. In this case, the specific rule is: the verb "to be" never takes an object.
If you speak correct English long enough, your ear will become finely tuned enough to recognize the discordant tone of bad grammar.
I'm glad the example of who as the subject of a subordinate clause was brought up since I believe many people find this one of the trickier rules to figure out.
I am not so glad to hear a defeatist attitude about the distinction between who and whom being abandoned. It is not inevitable so long as those of us who care about language maintain our standards and refuse to slide because those who don't know any better or don't care are slipshod. Heaven forbid writers of the future should feel it's all right just to get the words on the page without caring how they are going to strike the well-tuned ear.
Thursday July 24th 2008, 6:38 AM
Comment by: Thorunn S. (Reykjavik Iceland)
Indeed, Mr. Kendall DOES show a defeatest attitude! Hey, why don't we just give up any attempt to hold the English language to any set of rules?

I get very angry at how many ineffective English teachers there must be out there. I don't deny that languages do change gradually, but it is the duty of English teachers like me to point out to students the logical and useful reasons for rules, so that they don't think that grammar is just an elitist conspiracy to make those not in the know feel inferior. Then they will use the proper grammar as a matter of fact, without having to think about it, thus perpetuating the use of "whom", for example.

And while I'm at it: there are so many unnecessary problems with punctuation. Jane B., why on earth would you want a semi-colon where you quite correctly placed a colon? I would, however, very much like to see people using semi-colons in a proper manner more than is common; it gives a certain elegance to writing.
Thursday July 24th 2008, 6:41 AM
Comment by: Thorunn S. (Reykjavik Iceland)
Sorry, I meant Mr. McIntyre, obviously, not Mr. Kendall!
Thursday July 24th 2008, 11:02 AM
Comment by: Ikars S.
I am, at least grammatically and syntactically, familiar (capable of reading and writing, if not speaking fluently) with some dozen odd languages and in none do I find this gross an inability of native speakers to have a gut feel for their own tongue. Most of the respondents before me have easily pointed, and in diverse ways, to the unnecessary attempts to clarify the difference between "who" the nominative and the objective (dative/instrumental) case. Is it the lack of case endings in English that makes it an easily contortable language as to syntax etc.
Thursday July 24th 2008, 5:39 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Thoruun commented on this part of my post:

I'm doing this corretly, aren't I? (Not sure if the comma or semi-colon would be wanted there!) I am doing this correctly, are I not? would never be said.

Thoruun was wondering why I would consider a comma or semi-colon when I had used a colon correctly.

But the colon, used a few words previously, wasn't what I was thinking about. I know the tag "aren't I" is preceeded by a comma correctly. Yet, those are to distinct thoughts and could be comma, semi-colon cases, especially when it comes to the next construction: I am doing this correctly, (;) are I not?

That's the bit my comment applied to. I just find the two things about that particular construction strange. That's all. And that is another place a comman might have sufficed!
Friday July 25th 2008, 3:15 PM
Comment by: Carol A.
I figured out the problem w/ folks not getting the joke: John used "burlesque" as a verb.
"Thurber set out to burlesque" = "Thurber set out to satirize" = "Thurber ventured to make fun of."


That's a seldom-seen form of "burlesque," which is much more commonly used as a noun.

In fact, I first read it as "sent out to burlesque" (adding the "n" to "sent"--hey, I have bifocals, and the type is small), w/ "burlesque" being a tongue-in-cheek reference to the side-show that is publishing in general.
Saturday July 26th 2008, 3:33 AM
Comment by: Kcecelia (San Francisco, CA)
Well I, for one, am more sorry than usual that Thurber is dead. He would have enjoyed this set of messages no end. I have been out of town on vacation without my computer and missed seeing this thread unfold. The thread is hilarious when read in one sitting. It does seem that Thurber's burlesque/satire/joke was missed in the heat of the passionate moment caused by the who/whom debate. A debate, I hasten to add that I would not even attempt to join since I have been flummoxed by this particular grammatical dilemma from the gitgo, and deal with my ignorance by desperately inserting who or whom on a random basis into some of my less stellar conversational gambits. (When I am writing I look it up, but still feel as if I am working without a net.)

In any case, it was fun to read this thread all in one sitting, with Ben Zimmer's two attempts to hold the line on 7.23 at 10:48 a.m. and then at 4:13 p.m. followed by John M. at 9:15 p.m. gently providing Thurber's bio in a nutshell and referencing Mr. Zimmer. The final comment by Anonymous that includes a description of a mistaken reading of "set out to burlesque" as "sent out to burlesque" because the type is small and "hey, I have bifocals" only added to the merriment. I appreciated it all.

It is a bit of a stretch from the topic at hand, but I am rereading a wonderful bit of comic fiction by the British writer David Lodge called, The British Museum is Falling Down. Mr. Lodge intentionally inserted parodies of a variety of writers into his 1963 text only to find that the critics who reviewed his book did not get the joke and found not a clever set of parodies within a very clever story, but rather that Mr. Lodge possessed a woefully uneven writing style. When a new Penguin edition of the book came out in 1981, Mr. Lodge wrote an introduction explaining this rather humorous turn of events. Alas (for me), he did not identify the site of each of the parodies in the text, and I suspect that without the signpost of his introduction I would have missed all but the ultimate parody, which it is difficult not to notice is a parody, beautifully done, of Molly Bloom's soliliquy that ends James Joyce's Ulysses.
Monday September 1st 2008, 7:55 AM
Comment by: Jerry W.
Hi folks. I'm a freelance technical writer/photographer. I specialize in doing instruction manuals and writing articles for the DIY market. I have always concentrated on getting the How-To right and didn't worry too much about proper English. Learning all the rules of English usage didn't seem all that important to me when I was in school, all I really cared about were science, math, and shop classes. Mastering the mechanics of the written word was something I attempted as an adult after the writer's bug bit me some twenty-five years ago. I still struggle with all those rules. In the end, if the piece I'm working on reads smoothly and sounds good to me, I figure it will read smoothly and sound good for my readers too. Fortunately, for me, my editors seem to agree as well. My wife, on the other hand, is a retired school teacher and a prescriptivist. My wife and I always get into arguments over words like Who and Whom. In my genre, I think clear communications is far more important then prescriptively correct proper English.
Saturday September 18th 2010, 12:45 AM
Comment by: Theodore L. (Bethesda, MD)
Simplification of grammar may be the price of success. Languages that are prestigious, popular, and acquired by many new users tend to shed complexities. Newcomers learning a second language tend to make mistakes. If there are lots of newcomers, the mistakes are repeated over and over and it's no coincidence that the mistakes cluster around subtle (arcane) distinctions such as 'who' and 'whom'. As with limestone promontories battered by wind and wave, the grammar gets worn down and the coastline changes. The mistakes become the norm.
Let's not forget that Old English had dative and genitive cases. Look what the Normans did to that. For a glimpse into the future, see what happened to Chinese, another language acquired by many new users over time. Out went the subjunctive and even conjugation. There may be a time when people say "I be, you be, he be" (as they do in Chinese today).
Friday March 21st, 9:22 PM
Comment by: marcia F. (oklahoma city, OK)
I'm with Susan S. Anyways..? I've only heard children use this word. Is this a regional thing? Is there really such a word? Anyway is the word NOT anyways. That just sounds WRONG.

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