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August 28, 2011  |  "Whom" is moribund. And that's ok.  |  24763 hit(s)

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.[1]

    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)[2], 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:
    • 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.
    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.

    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. :-)

    [1] I will grant that the use of who/whom as wh- question words introduces some syntactical complexity that can mask the role that the word plays in the sentence. However, German speakers have to inflect their version of who (Wer), and they can keep the case of the pronoun straight in questions and relative clauses, so syntactical rearrangement is not a sufficient reason to explain why English speakers don't bother with case-marking who.

    As an aside on the aside, if you read German, check out the poem "Der Werwolf" by Christian Morgenstern for some very, very clever play with pronoun cases. (And to think that someone managed to translate this ...)

    [2] I suppose technically the forms of accusative and dative collapsed into one; it's not that we don't have dative functionality (She gave him a lollipop), we just don't have a distinct marker for it any more. Does that mean that dative disappeared? Whatever.

    Nick   28 Aug 11 - 12:00 PM

    While I agree with you, there are cases of "he" (and others) used as objects in speech and even writing. It's usually when it is the object of a preposition, conjoined with something else. Example:

    It was a new thing for he and I to experience.

    This is probably some sort of hyper-correction, to avoid phrases like "Me and him had a good time", etc, yet nonetheless it is "he" and "I", subject pronouns, used as objects of a preposition. Just something to think about.

    mike   28 Aug 11 - 1:17 PM

    @Nick -- true. See also: Me and my friend went to the movies. Compound pronouns seem to be tricky, and I think my statement that nobody ever gets confused about cases for pronouns is a bit of a simplification. I'll probably never be able to find it again, but I once read somewhere where someone posited that there was a tendency in English such that the nominative of pronouns -- I, she, we, they, those guys -- was reliably used only if the pronoun was singular and immediately preceded the verb that it controlled; anywhere else in the sentence and the case of the pronoun was up for grabs. (I might be remembering that wrong or misinterpreting what they said, tho.) That's only somewhat related to this discussion, other than perhaps to indicate that position, not just case, has a strong influence on the case of a pronoun, and that because who often appears at the front of a sentence and as a non-compound, there's a tendency to want to use the nominative. Dunno. Anyway, that's all speculation. :-)

    Jonathon   28 Aug 11 - 1:51 PM

    A quick search on COHA shows that who occurs at a rate of 2165–2716 tokens per million words. Whom, on the other hand, peaked at 606 per million in the 1820s and is down to 100 in the 2000s. And that's in published writing, which is generally more conservative than speech. Even writers and editors are giving up on it.

    mike   28 Aug 11 - 1:55 PM

    Thanks, Jonathan. I'm not very (read: at all) facile with such searches, but the interesting number is the downward trend since the 1800s, right? The absolute ratio of who:whom would have to be compared (somehow) to the absolute ratio of nominative:objective.

    @Nick, I don't know why I felt the need to basically repeat your example ("Me and him had a good time"). It was not for lack of reading your comment.

    Jonathon   28 Aug 11 - 3:03 PM

    Yeah, the important point is that whom has been on a very clear downward trend for 200 years (at least). But it would take some more sophisticated searching to find out how much who is being used in an objective role.

    Scott Berry   28 Aug 11 - 3:20 PM

    Orson Scott Card says "So here is Orson's rule for avoiding looking like a pretentious idiot: Don't use whom at all, ever, unless you truly understand all the rules of correct usage of the word." (http://hatrack.com/osc/reviews/everything/2009-08-30.shtml)

    I never use "whom" in informal English, and in the rare cases where I use formal English, I'll rewrite a sentence to avoid using "whom", much as I would rewrite a sentence to try to avoid a preposition at the end of a sentence (which I understand is OK now, but I avoid it because it looks wrong to someone no matter which way you write it).

    Dr. Tim Hadley   18 Mar 12 - 8:52 AM

    Good article, Mike. I just now (Mar., 2012) found it.

    Some comments--

    I disagree that "whom" is " more or less mandatory" in written English. Language changes for the better when knowledgeable people refuse to continue inappropriate or incorrect "rules" in their formal, written language.

    You're right about the dative disappearing as a formal marker of case. The dative aspect, of course, never disappears from any language--only the way it is said and written.