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, 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.
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 overlook 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.
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 concurs 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]
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.
There’s also a video and some 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. Language Log has examples with whom, or see my post “Whom’s Law of Hypercorrection“.
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. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage says it’s 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.
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.
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.
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.
The Sentence first archive has more on whom, including its hypercorrect use.