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.Email this Post