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Don't give a hoot about whom?

Writing letters to the editor to complain that the newspaper is illiterate is a common, if harmless, hobby. A few years ago, The Sun printed a letter from a reader complaining about two points in an article on grammar:

… I was dismayed to see Jonathan R. Freeman, their teacher, quoted twice saying “kids that …” when it should be “kids who.” Kids, in his statement, are people, not goats.

Moreover, a direct quote from Mr. Freeman’s book, “this is where we begin to despise whoever invented English,” should be to despise “whomever.” The pronoun is the object of the preposition; therefore, the objective case is needed.

The first point, that kids should be reserved for young goats, is a giveaway of the writer’s age. That particular shibboleth was still being taught in the 1950s and even 1960s. Today kids for children is freely used by professional educators as well as by civilians.

But the interesting part, the one I hope you noticed, is that the second complaint, about whoever, is dead wrong. Whoever invented English is a clause, and the pronoun is the subject of it. The entire clause is the object of—not a preposition—the infinitive to despise.

When I said yesterday on Maryland Morning that the who/whom distinction is one to consider abandoning, Sheilah Kast blurted, “Oh no!” But the stickler who wrote that letter to the editor got confused over it. One of my former colleagues at The Sun, an able editor, had to ask me about who/whom constructions frequently. And even people who use the pronouns correctly often have to pause in mid-sentence to work out which one is appropriate.

I put it to you that if literate people, for whom she/her and they/them pose no mysteries, can’t automatically and reliably choose between who and whom, it is well past time to relax our attention to that matter and concentrate on graver solecisms.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:56 AM | | Comments (13)
        

Comments

I have been hearing reports of the demise of "whom" for years. It takes a long time to kill a word.

I don't see the first complaint as being about kids/children, but rather, about that/who. I believe the reader was saying that since the writer used "that" instead of "who," it was written as if "kids" wasn't a human subject--therefore, implying the non-human definition of the word.

I like the distinction, but then I know the difference.

If people no longer understand how to use a word, how is it useful? If they stop using it, what will keep it alive? Other than persnickety writers and editors?

Language's job to enable us to communicate with one another. It serves us, and if a part of it no longer serves, it will be dispensed with. It's a natural process. But what do you do in the middle of the process?

For me, the solution is to consider your audience. Does your audience know how to use "whom"? Will they call you out for using "who" when you should use "whom"? If so, you serve them best as writer or editor to continue to use whom. If not, and if it doing so does not impede understanding, then using "who" should be just fine.

He's also saying (wrongly) that you can't use the relative pronoun "that" for people ("the girl that I marry"). It has never been wrong, but some hypersensitive soul (20th-c) decided it SHOULD be wrong, and here we are ... .

"Whom" is not so tough, but that "whoever/whomever" is a real stumper. i see a couple of incorrect "whomevers"" every week in otherwise well-edited prose.

Whom can't disappear quite yet, because we all (?) find it difficult to say "who" when it follows immediately a preposition of which (of whom?) it is the object.

Bravo. I am a copy editor and see this problem all the time. Some of my colleagues labor to get it right, and others don't. Many of the younger reporters were never taught the proper usage, best I can tell. As said in another comment, if people no longer understand a hairsplitting grammatical rule, what's the point?.

Besides, if we get rid of "whom," how will we sound all formal-like when we want to say "Whom shall I say is calling"?

Hahaha.

There are some people who think that always using whom instead of who is better.

The result is sort of hilariously depressing.

Judging by the Interwebs, most people don't know the difference between "their" and "they're" either. Does that mean we should abandon "their" because it's somehow archaic?

How about "its" and "it's"? "Too", "to" and "two"?

How about "I" and "me" when combined with another person in the same clause? ("Bill and I" or "Me and Bill"?)

Is the fact that a large proportion of people are ignorant of basic grammar, spelling or punctuation mean that we should give up? That anyone who uses correct grammar/spelling/punctuation is "stuffy", and anyone who (deity-of-your-choice-forbid) attempts to correct someone else's grammar/spelling/punctuation is a "Nazi"?


Speaking of which:
@Mike Jarboe:
"Whom shall I say is calling" is a perfect example of whom-abuse. It's wrong. Would you say, "Shall I say him is calling"?

Let the Hitler jokes commence!

"Is the fact that ... mean that"
^ Does.

Pobody's nerfect.

@Richard: There is a huge difference between spelling errors and grammatical errors.

If "you" could lose its nominative and "it" could lose its accusative, why can't "who"? Complaint is generally directed at change occurring in one's own lifetime, but change that happened earlier is fine.

That said, "whom" is sturdier than many linguists have thought; Sapir (for instance) figured it would be dead 50 years ago - as quaint as "to-day", he said. That many people don't know what to do with it is a sign that, even if he was optimistic (or pessimistic, as you choose) about the time it would take, he was right.

I really enjoy your blog, Mr McIntyre.

The whole apostrophe/possessive pronoun debacle drives me crazy---especially because its so simple to distinguish between a contraction, and when a pronoun forms it's possessive.

:)

Some months ago, John, you stated in a blog post that nobody likes a scold. That had an impact on me, since it forced me to recognize myself. I must say life has been less stressful since I abandoned the self-appointed title of grammar cop. Now I simply mind my own knitting.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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