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6 Comments

  • 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”.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • 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.