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Do that voodoo that who do

A suggestion came yesterday from Heidi Landecker at the Chronicle of Higher Education that I might return to the who/whom matter. She referred me to a post at Lingua Franca, the Chronicle’s blog on language.

Glancing at the beginning of that post, in which a reader scolded Geoffrey Pullum for a sentence beginning “Who are you supposed to trust,” I sent out a tweet: “Some fool is challenging Geoffrey Pullum over ‘who’ and ‘whom.’ There'll be nothing left but a smear on the carpeting.”

As it turns out, Professor Pullum was uncharacteristically subdued, pointing out that English has registers, that whom is now generally limited to the formal register, supplanted by who in the normal register. For “normal,” read “informal” or “conversational,” the register in which most non-academic, non-legal writing is performed.

It is scarcely a state secret that whom is on the way out and has been for some time. One mark is that even educated writers regularly get whom wrong, using it instead of who when the pronoun is the subject of a clause that is itself the object of a verb or preposition.* One cannot pinpoint the day and the hour on which it will look and sound as archaic as thou and thee, but it is clear that that day is approaching. I’ve been there before.

One commenter at Lingua Franca, nordicexpat, someone more impressed by empirical information than shibboleths and peeves, did a little checking and found this:

There's almost always a significant difference between what people say and what they think they say, which is why linguists increasingly use corpora (a collection of texts in machine readable form) rather than intuition to support their claims. If you check the Corpus of Contemporary American English (a 425 million word corpus) you will only find 150 examples of "whom" appearing at the beginning of a sentence. If you limit your search to spoken English, the number drops down to 23. If you look at the British National Corpus (a 100 million word corpus), you will find only 20 examples of "whom" appearing at the beginning of a sentence. And, again, if you limit the search to spoken English, the number drops down to 3. While I am sure that there are many people who say that would readily use "whom" instead of "who" in a construction like "Whom are you supposed to trust?" the simple fact of the matter is that not many people do.

Of course, everything reasonable is ignored, as one can see by a comment from one Sandy Thatcher:

Is Normal governed by any norms at all, or is this just a free-for-all, viz., anything that anyone thinks is ok in any given context is thereby ok? Do we abandon subject-verb agreement? Do we accept the lazy failure to distinguish "less" and "few"? Are we ok with the illogic of people saying "center around"? I get the point about appropriateness for context, but once you are on that slope, where do you stop sliding?

This is typical of the one-drip-in-the-dike-and-all-Holland-is-underwater attitude that one gets in discussions of usage. Evidently our entire educational system is so flawed that educated, literate adults feel unable to make informed judgments about the use of their own language and cling to the schoolroom grammatical voodoo of their childhood.


*Oh, you want to see how it works? Try this: Unless you pay attention to the evidence, you’ll fail to recognize who knows what they’re talking about. (Yeah, singular they, too. Choke it down.)



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:12 AM | | Comments (3)


I love the Wauvian echo of your link: I've been there before.

"I had been there before; I knew all about it."
--- Brideshead Revisited, Prologue

I can sympathize with Sandy Thatcher. When you are taught that rules are rules and that breaking them is wrong, the revelation that grammatical right and wrong is arbitrary can be pretty earth-shattering. If it's all arbitrary and relative, then what happens if everyone decides to toss out all the rules?

Of course, this would never happen, because the needs of the listener or reader have to be balanced against the needs of the speaker or writer. You can't throw out all the rules, because then you won't be understood. Language works because we're all invested in making it work.

But before you come to accept the idea that rules come from the people and aren't handed down from above, you have to get over the idea that all the things that you've learned are errors are the product of moral or intellectual failing.

Among sentences where someone uses 'whom' ". . . instead of who when the pronoun is the subject of a clause that is itself the object of a verb or preposition," the ones most likely to induce a spurious "whom" are those where the choice is really 'who(m)ever':

"I'll give the CD to whomever first identifies the composer."

The feeling that "to whoever" must be wrong is powerful. Took me years to learn that it's the whole clause that is the object of the preposition.

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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
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