“Who to follow” is grammatically fine

As far as I’m concerned, whom is a word that was invented to make everyone sound like a butler. (Calvin Trillin)

Who am I writing for? (William Zinsser, On Writing Well)

Twitter has a feature called Who to follow that suggests other users you might be interested in. I haven’t paid it much attention yet, but I’m interested in the fact that the phrase is censured by people who think it should be Whom to follow. There’s even a Chrome extension that “corrects” it.

Did I say even? I should have saved that for the Grand Order of the Whomic Empire, which solicits “moral support for those people who work tirelessly to bring whom back into everyday circulation”. I fear their quest is not entirely tongue-in-cheek.

Anyway: Who to follow. Let’s see what its critics say.

Business Insider thinks it’s “bad English”. GalleyCat calls it “one of the most viewed and easily overlooked grammar mistakes on the Internet”, adding that it’s “reassuring to watch a major social network struggle” with grammatical rules. Jay Rosen, who teaches journalism at NYU, believes it’s a “grammatical error”:

Other Twitter users are variously bothered, disappointed, and annoyed by the phrase:

Many, many people take the time to tell Twitter what it “is” or “should be”. Some are pretty funny about it.

https://twitter.com/#!/Panchito42/status/113846715446083584

https://twitter.com/#!/Panchito42/status/113847458584465408

You’ll notice that the last tweet uses what as a relative pronoun, which is wonderfully non-standard.

Mignon Fogarty, aka Grammar Girl, also advocates whom, but, to her credit, is losing the will to defend it:

Maybe you agree with these critics; maybe you’re unsure.

I think they’re all wrong.

There is a traditional rule, which arose in the 18th century, stipulating whom as the object pronoun. But in many contexts — Twitter’s Who to follow among them — who is also grammatically fine. Not only that: it sounds natural and normal, whereas whom in the same context runs the risk of sounding fussy, affected, and pretentious.

Who’s detractors may be overlooking the importance of register. Register in linguistics and stylistics refers to the type of language used in a particular social scenario or field of discourse, often with regard to the degree of formality. Think of the difference between “How do you do?” and “How’s tricks?” and the many varieties in between.

We shift our register to suit the listener, the topic, and the situation. It’s a question of communicating in a manner appropriate to the circumstances, and we tend to do this instinctively and automatically.

Also, some languages exhibit what’s known as diglossia, where a speech community makes use of two standard varieties: one formal or “high” — the prestige or literary dialect — and one colloquial or “low” — the vernacular mode. Diglossia exists in Arabic and Greek, and it may apply weakly to English with who and whom. (This is suggested in the Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar.)

[EDIT: Arnold Zwicky, via email, says he doesn't consider diglossia an appropriate label in this case, because it involves "a shift in whole language systems (involving lexicon, morphology, phonology, and syntax, and sometimes orthography as well), which is well beyond register or style shift". I'm grateful for the clarification.]

At Language Log, Arnold Zwicky says there are now two standard systems for using who(ever) and whom(ever): an older system “prescribed (often sternly) by many authorities”, in which whom(ever) is used whenever the pronoun “serves in the syntactic function of OBJECT (of a verb or preposition)”; and a more recent system with who(ever) as the default and whom(ever) used “only with fronted prepositions (to whom)”.

Zwicky says many speakers use both systems, depending on “formality, emphasis, prosody, and the like.” He also addresses this at the Visual Thesaurus. Incidentally, whomever doesn’t occur at all in some idiolects, but, for the record, it’s not “a made-up word used to trick students”, as Creed says in The Office; this is analysed at Literal-Minded.

Joseph M. Williams, in Style, categorises whom-observance as an optional rule and calls it a “flag of conscious correctness”. Geoffrey Pullum makes a similar point in a recent post at Lingua Franca, distinguishing between Normal and Formal styles and identifying whom as a “classic marker” of elevated style in standard English.

Whom is unnecessary — indeed, it’s out of place — where a conversational tone is sought.

[Mother Goose & Grimm cartoon by Mike Peters, 2 December 2006]

*

Note: this already-long post is about to get longer. And nerdier. I’ve made my main point and intend to explore it further with quotations from usage authorities, and to assess whether whom is doomed. So skip ahead or flee now if you like. There are graphs further down, and there’s a summary at the bottom.

For the rest of you, there’s a video (and history, and hypercorrection) to liven things up.

A few language authorities present the rules on who vs. whom and say little or nothing about tone or context, as if the formal register were all anyone needed. Many others, however, adopt a more nuanced and realistic position, acknowledging that whom is best suited to formal writing, is usually ignored in speech, and can often be dispensed with in less formal writing. There is a fair amount of consensus on this.

For simplicity and consistency, style guides usually stick to the formal rules on who and whom. This is the case with the Economist, Guardian, Telegraph, AP Stylebook and others. National Geographic recommends the rule but qualifies it: “conversational use is blurring the lines and whom is disappearing from informal writing”. Reuters allows leeway:

As a rough guide as to which word to use, substitute he or him for the who or whom and see which makes sense. But we should follow common usage and be ready to use who as the object where this sounds and looks more natural, e.g. Who she met at the midnight rendezvous was not yet known.

The Elements of Style sets forth the rules and nothing more. The traditional rules also constitute treatments by Grammarly, English Plus, Write.com, grammarErrors.com, Grammar Girl (and here and here), and myriad style and writing guides, online and off.

David Marsh at the Guardian’s Mind your language blog says that most people don’t use whom in speech because “it would make them sound like pompous twerps”. He also says Shakespeare “played fast and loose with his ‘who’ and ‘whom’ . . . . He probably got angry letters pointing out the mistake.”

But it wasn’t a mistake, and the rule didn’t exist until many years after Shakespeare was alive.

Don’t be deceived that there’s a “simple rule” you either obey or spurn: the terrain of whom’s usage is more involved than that.

John E. McIntyre (who finds that whom can sound “stilted, fussy, or pompous”), says even educated writers have trouble with who/whom, and that as a general guideline “you can, except in the most formal circumstances, just use who”. Geoffrey Pullum describes the situation as “multi-layered, subtle, and devilishly complex”.

Just look at what it did to Microsoft Word:

The Chicago Manual of Style (16th edition, at 5.220) says there are “two countervailing trends”:

first, there’s a decided tendency to use who colloquially in most contexts; second, among those insecure about their grammar, there’s a tendency to overcorrect and use whom when who would be correct. Writers and editors of formal prose often resist the first of these; everyone should resist the second.

The second tendency, a phenomenon called hypercorrection, recurs in much of the commentary on whom. Hypercorrection happens when a grammatical rule (real or otherwise) is inappropriately extended by mistaken analogy, often in an attempt to sound more correct or proper: adding -ly to the adverb doubtless, for example, or pluralising ignoramus as ignorami. Motivated Grammar and Language Log have examples with whom.

Writers are often unsure of the right case in subordinate clauses, e.g., a candidate who(m) we feel is ideal. The rules dictate who, because the case is nominative (who is ideal), but nominative whom can be found in the English of Churchill, Dickens, E.M. Forster, Somerset Maugham, and Shakespeare. MWDEU says it’s “distinctly possible . . . that subject whom need not be hypercorrect”, citing a long defence by Otto Jespersen.

Because the prescriptive rules are so widely shared (though only patchily grasped), you might be surprised to hear that who and whom have been used interchangeably since the 14th century. The system governing their use was created by grammarians in the 18th century who decried loose and variable usage.

But as Ernest Gowers wrote in The Complete Plain Words, “good writers have for centuries been perverse in refusing to do what the grammarians tell them”. And not just good writers, but all language users, whose tongues will largely do as the occasion — not the grammarian — demands.

The American Heritage Dictionary (5th edition, 2011) says the rules today are

well established as part of formal Standard English. Nonetheless, whom is uncommon in speech and informal writing because of its inherently formal tone. When formality is not required, who generally replaces whom. Sentences such as It was better when he knew who to pay attention to and who to ignore sound perfectly natural, despite violating the traditional rules.

If you’re wondering just how uncommon whom is in speech, Mark Liberman has numbers. AHD5 also remarks that in many contexts whom sounds “forced or pretentiously correct”.

Macmillan Dictionary has a practical note on syntax: “immediately after a preposition whom is generally used: the man with whom she lived. It would, however, be more natural to say: the man she lived with.”

Oxford Dictionaries says it’s normal practice to use who instead of whom, that this is “broadly accepted in standard English, but in formal writing it is best to maintain the distinction.”

Is there a hint of polite exasperation in Merriam-Webster’s comments about the grammarians who invented the aforementioned rules? In its discussion it says that actual usage of who and whom

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. Another is that they have made some people unsure of themselves . . .

M-W’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage adds that “what sets us apart from Shakespeare is greater self-consciousness” — the 18th-century grammarians’ intervention has made us watch our whos and whoms — but this greater self-consciousness “appears to have changed actual usage very little”. It goes on:

objective who and nominative whom are much less commonly met in print than nominative who and objective whom. In speech, you rarely need to worry about either one. In writing, however, you may choose to be a bit more punctilious, unless you are writing loose and easy, speechlike prose.

Speaking of speechlike prose, the Columbia Guide to Standard American English (1993) entry on whom says:

English has long given us Conversational, Informal, Semiformal, and occasionally even Formal uses where, at the beginnings of clauses where whom is called for, who occurs instead. . . . the closer a preposition is to its object pronoun, the more likely we are to use objective case: Who did you go with? but With whom did you go?

This probably rings true for most people. I know if I were aiming for a more formal version of The person I wrote to, I would front the preposition and say The person to whom I wrote, never *The person to who I wrote, which just sounds wonky.

Bryan Garner, in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, says whom has long been stilted in certain contexts, but that there are “constructions in which whom remains strong — and more so in AmE than in BrE.” Garner led me to J.Y.T. Greig, who in 1928 wrote the following in Breaking Priscian’s head: or, English as she will be spoke and wrote:

Every sensible English speaker on both sides of the Atlantic says Who were you talking to? and the sooner we begin to write it the better. Whom is a relic of the bad old days when inflections were cherished for their own sake . . .

R.L. Trask took a similarly blunt line, claiming in Mind the Gaffe that most people find whom “utterly mysterious”, and that the journalist who said George Bush’s slogan Who do you trust? should be Whom do you trust? “must have spent several generations living in a cave”. Both quips are a bit extreme, but you can see what he means.

*

So. Does the bell toll for whom?

Several commentators, including H. L. Mencken and Anthony Burgess, felt it was in danger of extinction, but Merriam-Webster says the evidence indicates otherwise: that whom “shows every indication of persisting quite a while yet”. I agree, but I think it’s likely to become ever more restricted to formal written English. Mike Pope says whom is moribund in demotic English, and that’s OK:

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.

Corpus graphs show a clear decrease over time, and an interesting breakdown by genre. You can click through the following images for more information.

Google Books ngram:

Corpus of Historical American English:

British National Corpus:

Whether you celebrate whom’s retreat, find it regrettable, or are indifferent about its fate, there’s no denying the decline in quantitative terms. I call again upon John E. McIntyre, who presents the state of play as follows:

In conversation, who appears to have supplanted whom, almost universally. There is no going back.

In formal writing, such as an academic paper or book, whom remains on its precarious perch.

In middle-level discourse, such as journalism, which aims at a conversational tone while adhering to the conventions of standard written English, whom is slowly slipping away, and probably should.

*

To summarise:

Who and whom have been used interchangeably since the 1300s. The rules arose in the 18th century, and appear to have had only limited effect on usage.

In many formal contexts, replacing whom with who as the object pronoun will elicit frowns and criticism. The more formal the context, the more whom is expected to appear where the traditional rules ordain. You should aim to understand the rules if your house style includes them, or if your intended audience is academic or very formal.

In less formal contexts, things are generally more relaxed. Some publications uphold the traditional rules as much as possible; others don’t. Certain syntactical arrangements call strongly for whom, such as right after a preposition: to whom it may concern. In casual language whom is rare, and probably getting rarer.

If in doubt, trust your ear. If that doesn’t work, default to who. You can use whom as you see fit, but you’ve no business telling people they should use whom in conversational English. This is the tone used in Twitter’s phrase Who to follow. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it.

Your thoughts would be welcome, here or on Twitter.

Updates:

The Economist’s language blog, Johnson, has followed up on this post with “Whom do you trust?“:

It’s hard to say anything new about “whom”, but it does raise a broader question: how to think about these questions. . . . The middle option [e.g., Reuters' advice] always seems like a sensible one, but the objection is obvious: “who decides what’s natural?” Are you just fine with such a rough rule? Or do you crave a framework that doesn’t require on-the-fly judgment?

At the Baltimore Sun, John E. McIntyre says he usually advises people to stick to who, and here’s why:

Colleagues, literate, educated, adult native speakers making a living with words, regularly come up to me to ask, “Should this be who or whom in this sentence?” They’re not barbarous. . . . They just don’t hear it. They don’t know whether to use the pronoun as subject or object unless they pause to parse the sentence. And that’s in ordinary, journalistic sentences, not rococo Nabokovian constructions.

Even when they do try to work it out, they commonly get it wrong.

In Whom to (V), Arnold Zwicky analyses the grammar of Twitter’s “Who to follow” (he agrees with my conclusion) and of a related phrase, “whom to believe”, which he finds “Not unacceptable, but very much not what I would say or write.” He links to several other edifying posts on the subject.

Stephan Pastis’s comic strip Pearls Before Swine finds the human race divided into good people and ‘whomers’ (hat tip to Cassie Armstrong):

Arnold Zwicky analyses whom in quantifier constructions in non-restrictive relative clauses, e.g., “Tell your workmates, some* of whom will…” (*or all, a few, both, many, most, none, each, any, or a number). He quotes Geoffrey Pullum: “whom is not dead in informal speech, it’s just extremely reduced in its distributional range.”

A clear and commonsense summary of who vs. whom by Michael Rundell at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

Megan Garber at the Atlantic provides a brief account of whom‘s apparent “inexorable decline”, quoting from this post and remarking that the word “costs language users more than it benefits them”.

I’ve written a little more about this at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, of particular interest to anyone concerned or alarmed by the decline of whom.

52 Responses to “Who to follow” is grammatically fine

  1. ‘Whom’ comes to us from ‘hwam’, the dative case of Old English ‘hwa’, which meant ‘who?’ or ‘anyone’, someone’. It wasn’t used as a relative pronoun. The accusative masculine and feminine form was ‘hwone’, and the accusative neuter was ‘hwæt’, so those who wish to roll back the tide of language should really be arguing for either ‘whon’ or ‘what’ rather than ‘whom’.

  2. Harry Lake (age 66, freelance translator since 1972) says:

    Sadly no time now to enter into detail, but certainly when it comes to ‘standard’ British English I agree with everything you say, I think. Whom has its place, and its place is not everywhere! On BBC Radio 4 Matthew Parris has a programme called Great Lives. It must be said that he makes a great effort to be consistent, but every now and then the facade slips and he ends his opening remarks by asking his guest: ‘Who have you chosen for your Great Life?’ It sounds much more natural. (The programme is available on the BBC website as a podcast.)

    To me as a Brit (itself a word I’m glad my father is no longer around to hear me use), most uses of ‘whom’ now sound affected. (And I’m one of those dinosaurs who use the plural after ‘one of those … who’, and who still say ‘I used not to’.)

    Anyway, ‘Who to follow’ strikes me as shorthand for something, and I’m not absolutely sure what!

    Cheers,
    Harry

  3. thepoormouth says:

    To e honest it looks fine and sounds fine to me. I agree with Harry, whom looks like an affectation

  4. Chiew says:

    I’ve been waging a personal war against all those tweeps who have incorrectly accused Twitter of a grammatical faux pas and I certainly hope Twitter won’t change it. I wrote a post, not as detailed as yours, obviously, nor do I carry the same weight as you: http://aclil2climb.blogspot.com.es/2011/10/when-to-use-who-or-whom.html.

    Every time they tweet, I replied and tell them off (nicely, of course). Most don’t even acknowledge.

    But the war rages on and they’re still tweeting about it. One thing I’m sure of, Stan, is that 99%, if not 100%, of all those moaning about its incorrectness are US English speakers.

    Cheers,

    Chiew @aClilToClimb

  5. Chiew confirms my suspicion that objections to such usage are largely American. American English seems to be much more rule-driven than our variety. Does this reveal a wish to be more royalist than the king, I wonder?

  6. Claude says:

    I’m having so much fun with all that. Thanks, Stan! I have put your amusing post on Facebook for my Tweeting friends. Let me confess that my heart goes for the classy owl. Maybe because I feel so smart and knowledgeable when I say “whom” at the right place, to the right person, at the right time. I would hate to say goodbye to it all!

  7. johnwcowan says:

    Barrie: It certainly does: being able to get this sort of minutiae “right” substitutes for actual status among the nerve-wracked bourgeoisie.

  8. John Lawler says:

    What Language Log calls “Anxious Cluelessness” seems more prevalent in Am. than in Br.Eng, but perhaps that’s because we Americans haven’t gotten class, race, immigrant, economic, and local dialects sorted out, and are taught zero about the English language in schools.

    That’s if we’re lucky. If not — and most of us aren’t — we are taught some variant of the usual Catechism of Shibboleths (in which whom features prominently). This is normally ignored, except by the credulous.

    As for the status of whom itself, I’ve been on record for twenty years, at least, that it’s a Zombie word, like hast, forsooth, and Ye Olde, shambling around trying to get work in fake-formal sentences, like the ones here.

    When i was teaching ESL, I advised students never to use whom, since it never occurs except in a fixed phrase — and there you just memorize the phrase — or when it’s the object of an immediately preceding preposition, and that’s a construction that can always be avoided: — just use Who did you give it to? instead of To whom did you give it?

  9. the ridger says:

    Personally, I only use “whom” directly after a preposition, but not when stranding, which I do often – and I’m pretty sure it’s because I’m old and that’s how I learned it. I don’t blink at “from who” when I hear it – might even say it for all I know, really. It’s no more difficult to parse than “from you” or “from it” or “from any noun” after all.

    (“Whom” in the wrong place grates far worse than “who” ever does. Probably because it unfortunately makes me snap-judge the speaker as pretentious, and I then have to overcome that – only to find that pretty frequently I was right.)

    Why English-speakers fight so hard to hold the fading remnants of case marking on pronouns baffles me…

  10. Marc Leavitt says:

    Stan:
    The choir to whom you are singing, are those who agree with you.

  11. Charles Sullivan says:

    I can’t help but think ‘whom’ is on the way out just like how ‘thou’ and ‘thee’ are now ‘you’ for both subject and object 2nd person pronouns.

  12. Jonathon says:

    It’s interesting that who is, as far as I know, the only word aside from the personal pronouns that survived Middle English with any of its case forms intact. It’s no wonder it’s losing its oblique forms; it’s unique, and such grammatical wrinkles tend to get smoothed out over time.

  13. stuartnz says:

    Thanks for a fascinating article. The MS Word loop was great fun, and it was very interesting to know that “whom” is not as nar to extinction as I had thought. I was delighted to read that it has been described as moribund, exactly the term I’ve been using of it myself for a decade or so now. In standard NZE, it’s definitely moribund, probably heard most frequently in the hypercorrection setting. Other that it, it’s like the extra-special fine china, only brought out to show off in front of the sort of people to whom that sort of thing matters.

  14. My concern with this essay is the unwritten subtext that we experts, the language professionals, the editing class, understand “whom” and use it correctly. We do not hypercorrect, and we do not use “whom” against the sense of the idiom. We’ve mastered it and execute it in prose beyond any accusation of fault. Kudos all ’round.

    The hoi polloi, alas, cannot be trusted with “whom,” pitiful rabble that they are, and so the official guidance here is that casual, ordinary persons should just forget all about “whom” because it’s really too difficult to handle. So ignoring it is A-OK. It’s a bygone relic and so march forth with “who” in all cases and don’t worry about us – we’ll just be laughing at you behind your back.

    So that’s my problem, Stan. We can’t have it both ways. Either we hold out the rule for use and champion it, or we advocate for its demise.

  15. stuartnz says:

    “The hoi polloi, alas, cannot be trusted with “whom,”

    Surely the sort of people who are tetrapyloctomously pedantic about the use of “whom” are the same sort of people who complain about the article reduncancy in “THE hoi polloi”? I ask merely for information.

  16. languagehat says:

    Yes, they are. Well observed!

  17. David L says:

    Not just Shakespeare but also Lowell George. Little Feat has a song “Truck Stop Girl” with these lines:

    As he went inside, he was merrily greeted
    by the girl with who he was in love

    “Whom” would have sounded ridiculous. It’s a great little song, btw.

  18. terrycollmann says:

    Never mind about Lowell George, what about Bo Diddley?

    “Eileen took me by the hand, she said ooee, boy, I understand – whom do you love? Whom do you love? Whom do you love? Whom do you love?”

  19. robert e says:

    David L hints at a consideration that is consistently and annoyingly ignored by those who cite writers like Shakespeare regarding the usage of “who”/”whom”, which is that theatrical projection and elocution were of prime importance when they composed those lines.

    In that context especially, “whom” is a perceptively longer and rounder syllable than “who”, and in many cases is also more difficult to elide or unstress.

  20. robert e says:

    P.S. I meant: theatrical as well as poetic considerations.

  21. Stan says:

    Barrie: True. Anyone who tries to roll back the tide of language runs into inconsistency before they’ve even begun.

    Harry: Thanks for your thoughts on this. I too think whom has its place, but in everyday encounters there is seldom much need for it. I wonder if Matthew Parris notices his wayward whos!

    Jams: In many contexts, to many people, yes.

    Chiew: People tend to dislike being contradicted, especially if they’re sure of being right! Thanks for the link: your post is a helpful summary of the grammar, and I agree with your remark that it’s “a case of what comes out naturally”. Interesting observation about the geographical source of complaints. Many of the tweets and articles I saw, of which the above are but a selection, were from AmE speakers, but the sample size was too small to warrant any conclusions.

    Barrie; John C.: Whatever the reason, there appears to be a similarly US-centric preference for the that/which rule.

    Claude: I’m sure the owl will find a suitable partner with whom to hoot in a classy fashion! Being able to say whom “at the right place, to the right person, at the right time” is altogether admirable; to persist in saying it at the wrong place, to the wrong person or at the wrong time is what happens when the rule supersedes pragmatic sense. Thank you for sharing the post, by the way. It’s much appreciated.

    John L.: The advice you gave your students strikes me as very sensible, but I wouldn’t go so far as to categorise whom alongside hast, forsooth and Ye Olde. Not yet, anyway! It’s still in fairly common currency in writing, and unlike those zombie words it’s generally used without irony — although, as you point out, the constructions it appears in can always be rewritten, unless they’re fixed phrases.

    Karen: I’m a frequent strander too, so I don’t find much need for whom. It’s difficult to decide how often I use it, and in precisely what contexts. I think you’re right that pretentiousness sometimes explains hypercorrect whom, or it can be a question of insecurity: people in certain situations feeling anxious to use it “properly”. As for what motivates the fight for “the fading remnants of case marking on pronouns”, my old post on language correctness, corruption, and doom has a few suggestions.

    Marc: Some of them, anyway. (And I see what you did there.)

    Charles: It does seem to be gradually slipping out of use, but not in all contexts. Very formal writing is likely to retain it for a long while yet, I think.

    Jonathon: That’s a good point. I hadn’t thought of it as a grammatical wrinkle before.

    stuartnz: Glad you enjoyed it. MS Word’s infinite loop made me laugh too! Whom as fine china is another good analogy. It may be fragile in everyday use, but boxed away in academic prose it should survive many more decades.

    Mededitor: Hmm. I don’t see how you inferred all that. Laughing at the “pitiful rabble” behind their back? I see nothing remotely suggestive of such a tone in what I’ve written or quoted. Nor do I see any need to decide once and for all between championing the rule or arguing for its dismissal. Different contexts call for different approaches. Someone editing a document, or creating or revising a style sheet, will need to decide one way or another — but there won’t be unanimity among language professionals, nor does there need to be.

    Stuart; languagehat: I’m staying out of the hoi polloi argument for now!

    David: Thanks for the song suggestion; I just listened to it. I don’t know if I’d find whom ridiculous there, but certainly it wouldn’t sound as good or as natural to me as who.

    Terry: A fine example, and a great song.

    Robert: That’s a very good point. I’m sorry if I annoyed you by not making it.

  22. robert e says:

    Stan, you didn’t annoy me at all–you didn’t cite Shakespeare, merely those who did.

    My writing was a bit muddled, too. More clearly (I hope): The value of dramatic speech as support for grammatical “rules” is suspect because the playwright’s first considerations are the character’s speech patterns (correct or not) and the requirements of theatrical performance, and in some cases prosody. At best, it’s second-hand information about the way certain kinds of people spoke (or were thought to have spoken) in a certain era, distorted by artistic exigencies. I’m picking nits, perhaps, but I think no more so than who/whom partisans.

    Thanks for the great article and research!

  23. Sean Jeating says:

    Well, after all, already Hemingway was aware of that for whom the bell tolls.
    – – –
    Nothing new, still: Another interesting and amusing post, Stan, and your commenters add(ed) to it. Thank you.

  24. Barrie says:

    Hemingway was quoting John Donne.

  25. Marc Leavitt says:

    Stan:
    Another thought:

    Is it ‘who,’ ‘whom’?
    We shall presume
    That ‘who’ wins out,
    How can we doubt?

  26. Sean Jeating says:

    @ Barrie: Ha! Thanks for that. Unsatisfactorily educated Germans ought to be very careful when writing comments.

  27. [...] out of a couple of articles on the word “whom” and if it should die or be revived. from criticizing the correctness of twitter’s “who to follow” to graphing the prevalence of whom in recent books, it seems to be something grammar police are [...]

  28. Stan says:

    Robert: Thanks again for your thoughtful and constructive contributions. It’s an aspect of historical usage to which I hadn’t given enough consideration.

    Sean: You’re very welcome. Discussions such as this one become immeasurably more interesting with comments, I find, otherwise it’s just me yakking on and quoting excessively!

    Marc: I like it. To respond in kind:

    Who will claim
    The numbers game,
    But whom keeps pace
    In its own place.

  29. Marc Leavitt says:

    Stan:
    Good on ‘ya, mate!

  30. Marc Leavitt says:

    Pardon the inverted comma.

  31. A number of years ago I followed a link to a grammar quiz in which the authors claimed they were not prescriptivists and that their answers were backed up with references to descriptive sources such as dictionaries. Which would have been nice if it were true.

    One of the questions was about whether “whoever” or “whomever” was appropriate in a given sentence. I naturally chose “whoever” because in my dialect, as in many others, no such word as “whomever” exists. The quiz writers, however, insisted on “whomever”.

    So far so ordinary. There are plenty of grammar quizzes where the author’s personal opinion is presented as objective truth (though I expect few of them claim a descriptivist philosophy). What was extraordinary in this case was the reference provided to back up their answer.

    It was a dictionary entry on who vs whom — and as such had nothing whatsoever to say about forms ending in -ever. The quiz writers simply assumed that “whoever” corresponds to “who” and “whomever” corresponds to “whom” in a regular fashion. Apparently it didn’t occur to them that this — and not the distinction between “who” and “whom” — was the more likely point of contention and needed to be defended (or better, abandoned).

  32. [...] your favorite subject, you should meet Stan Carey, who last week posted 4,000 words on his Sentence First blog about the usage of who and whom [...]

  33. Stan says:

    Adrian: That’s strange. It’s one thing to design a grammar quiz whose answers are of limited or questionable correctness (nothing new there), quite another that the quiz writers went to the trouble of providing references that turned out to be misleading. To assume that facts about usage could simply be extended from who(m) to who(m)ever is quite an amazing leap to make.

  34. Reblogged this on Project Chiron and commented:
    Anyone else bothered by Twitter’s “who to follow”?

  35. Barrie says:

    Just a footnote. The lyrics of popular songs generally tend toward the demotic. Not, however, in the case of the final lines of Johnny Mercer’s great song, ‘April in Paris’:

    Whom can I run to?
    What have you done to
    My heart?

  36. Stan says:

    That’s true, Barrie; whom is the exception rather than the rule in song lyrics, and Mercer’s is an interesting example given the position of the preposition.
    The Magnetic Fields have a few whoms in their songs, e.g. the very melodic ‘With Whom to Dance‘, and the lugubrious ‘I Don’t Believe in the Sun‘:

    The moon to whom the poets croon
    Has given up and died

    which relies whom for a closer rhyme.

  37. The discussion seems to ignore what I consider the main issue about who-whom: does the distinction increase or decrease the text’s cognitive fluency. I elaborate in “‘For Who [sic] the Bell Tolls': Who-Whom and the native-speaker dogma in descriptivist linguistics.” – http://tinyurl.com/79fw36z

  38. Stan says:

    Thank you for the comment and link, Stephen. I think that people will continue, for the most part, to use whom when it comes naturally — and to forgo it when it doesn’t.

  39. [...] Stan Carey has posted about a kerfluffle on Twitter, in which various tweeters have objected strongly to the name of the [...]

  40. Andrew Duncan-Jones says:

    to flesh-eating Dragon: i know it’s a different language from yours, but the OED describes ‘whomever’ simply as ‘ the objective case of WHOEVER’.

  41. Sean Jeating says:

    Coming to think of this very posting I was tonight, when re-reading John McGahern’s ‘Along the Edge’ [The Collected Stories, p. 194:
    [...] And if she had come to him instead of leaving him, those limbs would never reach whomever they were going to …

  42. Stan says:

    Sean: Either whomever or whoever would work for me there. McGahern may have felt the latter would be a little too casual.

  43. [...] on judging what is or isn’t acceptable — which poses, among other questions: acceptable to whom, when, and [...]

  44. [...] they did and it was stetted – but I certainly have no problem with it. See my earlier post on who and whom, and Lane Greene’s recent report for Johnson of a four-year-old girl’s reaction to whom [...]

  45. [...] Stan Carey, on his superlative Sentence First blog, addresses this issue. I can’t improve on what he’s said and how he’s said it, so here’s a taste [...]

  46. [...] By comparison, bingo cards of grammar/usage peeves are surprisingly rare. On Twitter recently I described a Guardian article as “peever’s bingo” because it contained so many timeworn usage peeves, like literally and whom. [...]

  47. [...] and wonders if PBS is trying to “appeal to the hip crowd”. I think this is misguided: using who in such contexts has less to do with hip affectation than with simply sounding normal. Acknowledging in an endnote [...]

  48. [...] not marking who(m) in the accusative case, discussed by Arnold Zwicky here and here, and Stan Carey here. That said, I believe that (at least some) people who never use were in (1) do not have a [...]

  49. […] example. Could care less isn’t wrong – it’s an idiomatic variant. Whom is on the way out in most contexts. Dangling participles aren’t so bad. The Oxford comma is just […]

  50. Angie Steele says:

    I don’t agree that ‘who’ “sounds natural and normal, whereas whom in the same context runs the risk of sounding fussy, affected, and pretentious”. It sounds right to me, and avoiding its use (for fear of sounding pretentious) leads to dumbing down of our language. “To whom did you give the book?” “I gave the book to him.” You wouldn’t say “I gave the book to he.” “Who did that?” “He did that.” You wouldn’t say “Him did that.” So… whom > him and who > he. :) Níl sé deachair.

    • Stan says:

      Angie: No, it’s not hard, but it’s changing. English has dropped all sorts of inflections over the centuries, and none of these changes has ‘dumbed down’ the language. I think most people would strand the preposition in your example: “Who did you give the book to?” But I do say in the post that whom is holding out in that niche just after prepositions.

      • Angie Steele says:

        Yes, I would say “Who’d you give the book to?” but “To who did you give the book?” would be wrong (as things stand). In this context, we need to keep ‘whom’. The less/fewer argument is always interesting. While I would say “Fewer than 10 items” I’d be happy to say “Less than 100 euros” as I see those 100 euros as a wodge of cash rather than 100 individual euro notes. Oh what joys this language brings us! :) My English husband is learning Irish at the moment. Now there’s an interesting challenge! :)

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