Wordbite: Counseling Who And Whom
I sighed as I looked through my peephole at the familiar couple, Who and Whom, one behind the other. I liked them, but it was never a good thing to see them together. I let them in with a perfunctory greeting as I took their coats and gloves, and offered them tea. They looked at me, then Who said, “We’re considering a divorce.”
I almost dropped their gloves.
“You heard him. People like him better–admit it!” Whom demanded. Her eyes were filling with tears.
I bid them sit so I could before my knees gave out, and ordered them to explain themselves.
Whom began, “Well, the writing’s been on the wall for ages–”
I frowned. “Really? Where’d you hear that?”
“Lots of places.” Whom handed me a torn printout:
“Observers of the language have been predicting the demise of whom from about 1870 down to the present day <one of the pronoun cases is visibly disappearing—the objective case whom— R. G. White (1870)> <whom is dying out in England, where “Whom did you see?” sounds affected — Anthony Burgess (1980)>.” –Merriam Webster
I looked at them. “Where’d you find this?”
“A student purist’s dorm wall.”
I rolled my eyes. “Okay, how about we think this through.”
They glanced at each other. “Who–”
“Both of you!” I said firmly. “Whom isn’t going anywhere, and I have proof. But first, let’s clear up some confusion. Who, why do I seem to see you everywhere?”
“Well, generally–when people are speaking plainly–they use subjects and verbs. People say ‘Who are you?’ or ‘I don’t know who called.’ Subject, verb; subject, verb. They instinctively…” He abruptly cringed and trailed off, dropping his eyes.
“They instinctively avoid using me,” Whom finished his thought miserably, “even though I’m actually much more flexible than he is. I work with objects and verbs. I’ve seen people totally rewrite sentences because they’re not sure whether to invite me. But the fact is, Who doesn’t have the class to appear in sentence settings like ‘To whom should I address this letter’ or ‘She didn’t know to whom she belonged.’ See the verbs? They don’t go to the subjects I and she. They go to the people they’re done to: the objects. ”
I nodded. “That’s right. I’m addressing the letter to him, her, or them. And she either belongs to him, her, or them.”
Whom’s eyes cautiously brightened. “Are you on to something?”
“Yep,” I said. “One of my favorite ways to decide which of you to invite to a sentence is to substitute a regular pronoun into the sentence. If I would use he, she, or they, I pick Who. If I would use him, her, or them, I pick you. It works.”
I watched Who’s eyes light as his own understanding silently dawned beside Whom, and knew I’d helped crack a few of the couple’s internal communication failures as I went on. “We generally use him, her, or them when we do know who the object is. But I think the uncertainty of not knowing–and thus having to choose one of you–gets us muddled, and we really don’t like to make fools of ourselves.” I shrugged. “It’s just human nature. You’ll get used to it. Now, just a minute.”
I turned to my computer. It only took me a moment to find and print two copies of what I’d been looking for. I handed them over.
“Here’s the rest of that printout. Paste that up in place of wherever you found the other.”
Our evidence shows that no one—English or not—should expect whom to disappear momentarily; it shows every indication of persisting quite a while yet. Actual usage of who and whom—accurately described at the entries in this dictionary—does not appear to be markedly different from the usage of Shakespeare’s time. But the 18th century grammarians, propounding rules and analogies, rejecting other rules and analogies, and usually justifying both with appeals to Latin or Greek, have intervened between us and Shakespeare. It seems clear that the grammarians’ rules have had little effect on the traditional uses. One thing they have accomplished is to encourage hypercorrect uses of whom <whom shall I say is calling?>. Another is that they have made some people unsure of themselves <said he was asked to step down, although it is not known exactly who or whom asked him — Redding (Connecticut) Pilot>. –Merriam Webster
“So…” Whom’s brow furrowed. “It’s okay that people are confused?”
“Human nature,” I reassurred. “Cheer up!”
UPDATE: Thanks to Michelle Quillin’s suggestion, you can now pit your wits against my Deliberate Challenge for this post. Just a painless li’l pop-quiz on grammar. Thanks, Michelle–as I mentioned, I think this will be the start of a tradition!
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