August 28, 2011
"Whom" is moribund. And that's ok.
The other day I posted this on Facebook: "The thing I like best about LinkedIn is finding out who knows who(m)." The (m) on "who(m)" was intended to mean something like "I am showing that I know when to use "whom", but am nonetheless refusing to use it."
This inspired a surprisingly vigorous discussion about whom in general. I have opinions about this, so rather than leave them buried in the comments on a Facebook post, I thought I'd put them out there for discussion. Here's my position:
In conversational English, whom is moribund. People don't use it in everyday speech, or in written English that's essentially conversational, like email and Facebook posts.
And this is ok. It's not a crisis in English.
On the dying state of whom:
Point. You will not find native speakers hunting around for guidance on the difference between I and me or between he and him. That's because native speakers don't need that guidance. However, there are many pages on the web (example, example — see comments especially) that explain the distinction between who and whom. If native speakers of a language — including many people who obviously read and write just fine — need schooling to learn a feature of their native grammar, that feature of the grammar is on artificial life support.
Point. People often get the difference between who and whom wrong, including people who think they know how to use it right (example, example). Garner has a long list of (published!) examples of "nominative whom" in which people mistakenly use whom when they should use who. See previous point; people just don't have this sort of trouble with other case-marked pronouns.
Point. Some people make a point of using whom in conversation. But do they use it every single time? Because if they don't — if they, too, occasionally use who as an object — it's evidence that whom is optional. In contrast, they don't use, say, he for him in casual speech; in even the most casual speech, you can't use he as an object.
Point. You don't have to look hard to find moaning about how a lot of people don't use whom correctly (example). What percentage of speakers have to use a feature "incorrectly" before we just acknowledge that it's not the speakers that are wrong, rather that the feature may not be a part of their dialect?
So. I think this is just fine. Some people disagree. For example, some people think that if we lose whom, we lose an important grammatical distinction in the language. My thot: many grammatical features of English have disappeared without damaging the expressiveness of the language: an entire case (dative), all gender distinction in nouns, almost all verbal conjugations in regular verbs (except 3rd singular), and the distinction between informal and formal second person (thou/you). For each of these, you could argue that they represented important grammatical markers, and they were. But they disappeared anyway, and we don't really miss them today.
Some people think that using who for the objective case instead of whom can result in confusion or ambiguity. I don't think so. Is there a native speaker of English who would have trouble with any of these sentences?
To be clear, here's what I'm not claiming:
As I say, people disagree. I'm particularly interested in hearing about examples in conversational English where using who for whom results in confusion for the listener specifically.
- I'm not claiming that whom is out of fashion in Standard Written English (SWE). On the contrary, there it's more or less mandatory. My thoughts are entirely about whom in informal spoken English — demotic English.
- I'm not claiming that whom is incorrect in conversational English. Use it all you want (assuming you know how to use it). It's between you and your interlocutors whether using whom makes you sounds stuffy, but it's not wrong.
Let me add disclaimatory text. First, this is not a new or original discussion; people have made this claim for decades. Second, I have no statistics based on, say, corpus searches that would show that whom is rarely used in conversation. (Such statistics might, in fact, overthrow the entire premise here.) If you've got 'em, let's see 'em.
PS I might not need to say this, but I consider irrelevant any argument whose premise is that English is going to hell or that changes in English have some sort of moral overtone or are markers of cultural decline. Just so you know. :-)