Whom’s Law of Hypercorrection

I won’t subject readers to another long, rambling post on whom. But I want to note the tendency, strongest among those who are anxious to use whom “correctly”, to use it even when who would be generally considered the grammatically appropriate choice: as subject pronoun.

Ben Zimmer at Language Log recently criticised a book review at the New Yorker in which Nathan Heller wrote: “The glorious thing about the ‘who’ and ‘whom’ distinction is that it’s simple.” This is an easy assumption to make if your grasp of who/whom grammar owes to the oversimplified instructions of the many prescriptive guides that neglect to examine register* or the trickier possible cases.

As Zimmer points out, Heller also wrote (unless his New Yorker editor is responsible): “But what about Sir Isaac Newton, whom some contend was autistic?” This hypercorrection shows why who/whom usage is not simple. The recursive structure in the Isaac Newton line is a frequent source of confusion, not least among journalists. It recurs on the NY Times‘s grammar and usage blog After Deadline:

NYTimes.com After Deadline who vs whom

There’s no reason to think this uncertainty will abate any time soon. As John E. McIntyre observes from the Baltimore Sun copy desk:

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?” . . . 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. One of the most common errors it falls to my lot to fix is whom as the subject of a clause that is the object of a verb or preposition.

This is what happened in Heller’s line (But what about Sir Isaac Newton, whom some contend was autistic?). It looks like a straightforward grammatical structure, but this seeming simplicity is deceptive and leads many writers astray. It may help to think of “some contend” for a moment as peripheral or parenthetical, and focus only on the embedded relative clause. Ben Zimmer again:

the “who(m)” fills the slot in the clause “Some contend (that) ___ was autistic.” It’s the subject of the embedded relative clause “___ was autistic,” but it’s tempting to use “whom” in sentences like this, if you’re the type of person looking to use “whom” in the first place.

Which brings us to what I’ve dubbed Whom’s Law: The more strict or anxious someone is about using ‘whom’ correctly even in informal English, the more likely they are to use it hypercorrectly.

By hypercorrectly I mean subject whom, as in the examples above, or in *Whom shall I say is calling?, which is essentially Who is calling? Whom here may be an effort to sound as formally correct as possible, or to err on the side of caution. But the proximity of shall I say wields undue influence, and error duly results.

For something that began as a philosophical pun, the parallels with Hume’s Law (also known as the is–ought problem) are pleasing. To use RationalWiki’s phrasing, Hume’s Law says “you can’t derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. The law is also a rebuttal of the naturalistic fallacy, or inferring how the world ought to be from the way it is or was in the past.” And whom, if not exactly moribund, is in long, steady decline.

A caveat: MWDEU notes that Otto Jespersen defended subject whom, and it shows up in the work of Shakespeare, Dickens, Boswell, and other accomplished writers. But the widely recommended convention in contemporary prose is to use whom only as an object pronoun and then only according to audience, taste, syntactic context, and degree of formality desired.


mort walker cartoon - beetle bailey - whom shall i say is calling

* 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.


16 Responses to Whom’s Law of Hypercorrection

  1. Barrie says:

    As Geoffrey Pullum concluded here http://chronicle.com/blogs/linguafranca/2012/11/30/one-rule-to-ring-them-all/:

    ‘There seems to be no agreed unitary rule governing the inflection of “who” where it functions as subject of a clause to which it is not adjacent.’

    • Stan says:

      Yes, and MWDEU concludes similarly. But you would imagine the New Yorker would have picked one rule by now, and I would bet on its being the one prescribing who in the Newton line. Pullum’s follow-up suggests “that the dispute between two varieties of purist can go on forever” – which is like what happened to Microsoft Word, though the grammar here is unambiguous:

  2. Harry Lake says:

    Does Whom’s Law cover the surely far commoner hypercorrection in sentences like ‘as he said to my husband and I, …’?

    (Of course, in real life that would now be ‘like he said…’.)

    I can well remember (at least I believe I can) my kindergarten mistress Miss Love drumming it into us that ‘It’s not “Johnny and me went fishing”, it’s “Johnny and I went fishing”‘, and so on. Presumably this what all teachers repeatedly told their charges in the 1950s, without thinking of the consequences of not reinforcing the corollary. As a result, it is (or seems) rare these days to hear anyone using the word ‘me’.

    Or is this I’s Law of Hypercorrection?

    • John Cowan says:

      It’s not a hypercorrection: it dates back to Shakespeare’s day, when “correct English” wasn’t even a concept, and “grammar” meant Latin grammar exclusively.

      • Harry Lake says:

        Hmm, not sure I follow you here. We are not in Shakespeare’s day. Even in his day, grammar existed even if the word didn’t.

      • John Cowan says:

        Harry: Hypercorrection is the process of over-applying a formal rule that isn’t natural to a particular speaker: thus those that say ‘Arry for Harry may, in attempting to add /h/, add it where it doesn’t belong, and say haristocrats for aristocrats.

        But this cannot be the origin of to my husband and I, because similar phrases are on record as long ago as the 16th century, when there were as yet no formal rules for speaking or writing English. In particular, one of Shakespeare’s upper-class characters says “all debts are cleared between you and I”, showing that the form was natural and acceptable in his day.

  3. Irene Taylor says:

    It was made incredibly easy for us (or for me, at any rate) at school. We parsed words to within an inch of their lives in fifth grade, so grew to have an awareness of verbs and their subjects and their objects. Then in high school we did clauses to death, so who/whom has never been a problem. It’s a case of ‘cherchez’ the verb. As far as the troublesome I/me and we/us are concerned – leave out the partner and concentrate on the first person. Works for me :)

  4. Stan says:

    Harry: I’d say the same principle applies broadly to any potential hypercorrection: the more strict and anxious someone is about whatever usage is formally ‘proper’ by tradition, the more likely they are to use the associated hypercorrection. Whom’s is a fairly banal law! I still hear the word me very often; I don’t think it’s in any danger of being supplanted by hypercorrect I.

    John: I’m not convinced that Shakespeare and others’ use of subject whom means it’s not a hypercorrection in current cases. What’s considered the correct form has been codified more since then, by conventions such as house style if not by grammatical fact, as for example in the NYT’s repeated treatment of the ‘error’.

    Irene: You are lucky to find it so easy.

    • Harry Lake says:

      Everyone knows that the best English is spoken in Ireland. Perhaps, Stan, people in your country don’t make the mistake I highlighted, but I can assure you it is common in England. That’s not to say ‘me’ is in danger of being replaced altogether, of course, but surely that wasn’t what we’re talking about?

      • Stan says:

        Sorry, Harry: when you said it seemed rare to hear anyone using me any more, I misread and thought you meant in all contexts – that you were being hyperbolic for effect. Between you and I-type constructions are common in Ireland too. But again it’s a grey area: you and I and other such coordinated pairs can be seen as compound units, so their constituent elements might not be subject to the familiar requirements for case marking. It’s a post for another day.

        Incidentally, I read another hypercorrect whom this morning, in a formal letter: “We work with people whom have…”

  5. […] to continue the theme of whom usage, is a doorstep encounter the detectives have with an old woman of […]

  6. […] has examples with whom, or see my post “Whom’s Law of Hypercorrection“. […]

  7. […] style upholds the rule, as you’d expect, but its writers (or copy editors) repeatedly get confused, often hypercorrecting who to whom in a misguided effort to be formally grammatical. In short, […]

  8. […] Whom’s Law of Hypercorrection […]

  9. EvelynU says:

    The trickiest case of all, I believe, is as follows: “Give the package to who(m)ever comes to the door.” The less you care about correctness, the likelier you are to get it right!

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