Behind the Dictionary
Lexicographers Talk About Language
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.