To whom it deeply concerns

Posted by on April 01, 2013

Michael recently wrote a clear and commonsense post on the difference between who and whom, basing his observations on corpus data and avoiding simplistic rules that have little to do with actual usage. He found, unsurprisingly, that whom is “in steady long-term decline”. I’m the sort of person for whom a whom-discussion is irresistible, so let’s revisit this curiously divisive word.

The Atlantic also looked at the decline of whom, calling it “America’s least favorite pronoun”. Megan Garber, who wrote the article, is delighted by the trend; others are anything but. Some of the comments – there were hundreds – show deep concern, denial of reality, even alarm: “I can’t accept this change to the language.” “Whom is not only appropriate, it’s essential.” “Why not just toss out all spelling rules and all grammar conventions then?”

You’d be forgiven for thinking that language is somehow not supposed to change, when in fact change is one of its central qualities. English has survived the loss of umpteen inflections, with no significant effects on its expressiveness. People who lament whom’s decline, and protest that they like the word, may continue using it – they needn’t stop just because it’s becoming less popular.

Nor is whom sure to disappear: there’s every chance it will persist in set phrases (for whom the bell tolls) and, more generally, right after prepositions, especially in formal settings (The applicants, all of whom live locally, will be notified today). Tellingly, COCA (1990–2012) has 17 examples of all of who versus 1429 of all of whom.

On Twitter I saw someone praising the “good grammar” of a museum sign that said “Who’s eating whom”. This implies that “Who’s eating who” would be bad grammar – but it wouldn’t, though it would certainly be less formal and therefore inappropriate in some contexts. The museum deserves credit for its editorial observance, but the less formal phrasing would not have been ungrammatical, for reasons I’ve explained at length on my own language blog.

One of the main reasons whom has fallen from favour is that, as editor John E. McIntyre writes, “we increasingly value casualness and informality in both conversation and writing” – and whom has a distinctly formal flavour. We’re sensitive to linguistic register, wary of usages that make us seem out of touch with our audience or peers. Megan Garber expresses this point well, saying whom “costs language users more than it benefits them”. Whom is simply too fussy and affected for most everyday contexts. But it’s not on the verge of vanishing.

Comments (6)
  • This is spot on, Stan. The data you quote from COCA matches the evidence in our corpus. Out of about 140,000 instances of “whom”, over 105,000 are immediately preceded by a preposition. And in a search for “some/all/many/most/all + of who” OR “some/all/many/most/all +of whom”, the “of whom” version is about 30 times more common than “of who”. It looks as if the situation is starting to stabilize, so if we wanted to give some simple advice, it would be: “use whom after a preposition, otherwise avoid it”.

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 2nd April, 2013
  • Thanks, Michael. The supporting corpus figures are interesting and further suggest, as you say, that whom‘s territory is beginning to settle. But we haven’t seen the last of hypercorrect whom, or of people insisting on objective whom in all possible contexts regardless of tone.

    Posted by Stan on 2nd April, 2013
  • Great post. And I wholeheartedly agree with you, Stan, about the hypercorrect whom. I’d even say that in the last few years there’s been a curious upsurge of the hypercorrect among newscasters. For example, a newscaster might say, “The reward goes to whomever gives the correct answer.” I hear it more than once a week. Drives me nuts.

    Posted by Virginia Simmon on 9th April, 2013
  • Thanks, Virginia. The hypercorrect usage may be more popular than ever, or not; certainly it doesn’t seem to be fading away. John McIntyre (linked above) says he gets asked about who/whom regularly in the Baltimore Sun newsroom and the question “almost always comes in the same syntactical context” – the one you mention. For some people, uncertainty leads them to err on the side of formality, though it’s worth pointing out that not all linguistic authorities consider the hypercorrect usage a mistake.

    Posted by Stan on 9th April, 2013
  • Nice balanced post, Stan. I think the root of the problem surrounding “whom” and other case-related bones of contention such as “tell that to John and I” is that English no longer needs morphological case to distinguish between subject and object. We have a fossilized (and redundant, since we signal grammatical relations via word order) case system. Because people learn about case via over-simplified accounts of English, or via learning a more synthetic language such as German, they think morphological case is somehow necessary when using English, and “correct” use of it has become a shibboleth that identifies a group of people who have that type of education.

    In other words: if we really needed morphological case in English, why would it only apply to pronouns?

    Posted by Angela D on 11th April, 2013
  • I think that’s true, Angela. When I was learning English I inferred that the formal variety was the correct one, and that by implication less formal forms were substandard. I think this perception is very widespread. In the case of whom it is, as you say, a shibboleth, and actual usage tells a different story.

    Posted by Stan on 12th April, 2013
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