If that was your reaction the last time you heard someone use the objective case of who, and especially if you chirped whom in a
mock-English accent, it’s time to high-five your cube-mates.
The Atlantic, America’s 156-year-old intellectual journal, is throwing a preemptive wake for “America’s least favorite
“Whom, I am thrilled to inform you, is dying,” states staff writer Megan Garber. “But its death, I am less thrilled to inform you, has been slow.”
Judging from the “Amens!” in some parts of the Internet, I am among the few who will be mourning poor whom. Granted, she’s like a cranky old
aunt who makes us feel guilty. Yes, she can make communications stuffy. I know: Language evolves, and if I can’t deal with that, why don’t I speak like the
author of “Beowulf,” who wrote “hwám þæt sweord geworht” when he meant to
say “for whom the sword wrought”?
‘Don’t leave us’
But still: Whom is a fine word, an old word, one associated with the biblical Psalms, the meditations of John Donne, and the fiction of Ernest Hemingway (from whom The Atlantic borrowed the headline for its article: “For Whom the Bell
Tolls”—which Hemingway appropriated from Donne).
So while others toss confetti and uncork the bubbly in Auntie Whom’s hospice room, I clutch her bony hand and whisper, “Don’t leave us.”
Why is she so despised? Sure, you kids wouldn’t take her out clubbing, but can’t we appreciate the power she brings to more formal phrases? Garber writes:
One explanation is that the word has outlived its ability to fulfill the most important function of language: to clarify and specify. Another is that its
subject/object distinction can be confusing to the point of frustrating. The most immediate reason, though, is that whom simply costs language users more
than it benefits them. Correctness is significantly less appealing when its price is the appearance of being—as an editor at The Guardian wrote—a “pompous
Garber and the Guardian aren’t alone. Paul Brians’ “Common Errors in English Usage” states,
“‘Whom’ has been dying an agonizing death for decades—you’ll notice there are no Whoms in Dr. Seuss’s Whoville.'”
Garber traces the decline of whom to 1826. Merriam-Webster notes that observers have
been predicting the demise of whom from about 1870.
Nevertheless, the dictionary adds, “Our evidence shows that no one … should expect whom to disappear momentarily; it shows every indication of persisting
quite a while yet.”
Merriam-Webster would appear to refute the notion that Twitter’s use of who in the phrase “Who to Follow” is anything new in English, as Garber
implies. The dictionary blames the guilt we feel about who/whom on 18th-century grammarians who encouraged “hypercorrect uses of whom.”
When will Elvis leave the building?
Commenting on Garber’s piece, writer and teacher Gary B. Larson enthuses, “Yeah!”
“Whom is like the Elvis of of [sic] grammar,” he writes. “Some writers and editors still see its use as valuable to aiding reader understanding. Most
people, though, don’t use it much, correctly or incorrectly. When will this Elvis actually leave the building?”
I don’t quite get the metaphor. Why Elvis, and has he in fact not left the building? Which building? But Larson’s right if he’s saying that cranky
old Auntie Whom doesn’t get out much anymore.
I know what you’ll say: We don’t use thee and thou anymore. In this Great Republic of ours, you’ll win elections with that argument, but
you won’t get my vote. English is poorer without a distinction between an informal, singular you that one uses to comfort a child with a skinned
knee, and a plural or formal one for when you step on someone’s foot on the commuter train. We sense this instinctively; we say, “You guys” (or “you lot”
in Australia) when we need a plural.
It’s true, we can rewrite our sentences to avoid whom. I sometimes do. Judging from the way even some educated people say, “Send it to Mary and I,” instead of the correct “Mary and me,” we will soon have to write around me as well. [Editor’s note: And if people would stop using “whomever” as a nominative, the world would be a far better place.]
So I’ll concede that whom may be doomed. But for now, she’s still clinging to my hand, and she’s sharing some old memories I’d love to hear before
she goes, and would you please take your celebration out into the hallway?
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