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Real Grammar Quiz, Question 1: Who or Whom?

Macmillan Dictionary – Real GrammarReal Grammar isn’t about the made-up or outdated “rules” which some people try to make us follow. As we said in the introduction to this new series from Macmillan Dictionary, Real Grammar is based on the evidence of language in use.

In the coming months, we’ll be bringing you blog posts and videos that give evidence-based answers to frequently asked questions about grammar and usage. There’s even a Real Grammar quiz for you to try.



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The first question in our Real Grammar quiz was a choice between

Who did you invite to your party? and Whom did you invite to your party? 

In this post we will look at the linguistic evidence underpinning our preferred answer. The figures here are based on an analysis of a corpus of about 1.6 billion words of English which was compiled seven years ago.

This corpus includes 144,553 occurrences of whom, which equates to around 84 instances per million words of text. (In a larger and more recent corpus, the “hit rate” is only 65 per million, confirming that whom continues its steady decline.) In just over 2000 of these cases, the word appears in its capitalised form (Whom), but many of these are in titles or headings (To Whom It May Concern) or religious references (In the name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority).

Of our 144,000 whoms, about 27,000 occur in “standard” relative clauses like these:

… her partner, a TV cameraman whom she met while filming
… guilty of murdering 17 people, whom he executed in cold blood

Whom is still the preferred form where the pronoun refers (as in these cases) to the object of a verb. Nevertheless, there are several thousand instances where who is used instead, for example:

He portrays a very sweet, bumbling romantic, who you can’t help but adore.
They are gunning for the Chief Minister, who they accuse of turning a blind eye to the atrocities.

But those 27,000 whoms in relative clauses represent less than 19% of the total – so where are all the rest? The answer is that the predominant use of whom is where it comes directly after a preposition, such as with, for, or to:

You have to get away from the latest political scandal of who is sleeping with whom …
… people for whom seeing the show is the one big night out of their year …
This sentiment is echoed by Melvyn Bragg, to whom Potter gave his poignant final interview.

Over 105,000 whoms (a full 70% of the total) appear in contexts like this, and the most “popular” preposition is of, with more than 38,000 corpus examples:

He was the eldest of their ten children, four of whom died in infancy.
… Latino immigrants in Southern California, the majority of whom have roots in Mexico, …

In his new book The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker quotes the humorist Calvin Tripp, who joked that “Whom is a word that was invented to make everyone sound like a butler”. This isn’t entirely fair: where whom appears in its preferred setting, after a preposition, it sounds perfectly natural. But to get back to our quiz, using Whom at the beginning of a sentence to introduce a question (‘Whom did you invite?’) is so rare (about 0.25% of all uses) that – whatever traditional grammarians may tell you – it cannot possibly be recommended: it really would make you sound like a butler (or worse). Grammatical norms can change over time, and the evidence for a change in this case is incontrovertible.

On the basis of the language data for the past half-century, it is reasonable to predict that whom will continue to decline in all its uses – except where it is used after a preposition; there is nothing to suggest that this specific usage is dying out or will die out. Why do changes like this happen? There are a number of factors, including the gradual loss in English of the old Germanic case endings (of which whom is a vestige), a general tendency towards less formality in communication, and our old friend “the principle of least effort”.

To read more about Real Grammar, keep a close eye on our Real Grammar page. You can catch up with the videos on our YouTube channel, where the second video in the series is now live. You can also follow this topic using #realgrammar on Twitter and remember that you can find all our earlier blog posts on this topic by using the tags “prescriptivism” or “realgrammar”.

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Michael Rundell

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