“Whom”: to reprise

Here’s a curious incident at the NYT, courtesy of author and economist Paul Krugman. On Twitter yesterday, Krugman mentioned an upcoming article and attempted to forestall criticism of its headline’s grammar:

The implication was that the headline would include, per Krugman’s preference, the word who where traditionalists would insist on whom. The rule mandating whom as object pronoun is relatively recent and often ignorable, but style guides are necessarily conservative.

NYT 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, it’s a mess, and much of the confusion results from people’s belief (or nervous suspicion) that whom must always be used where it’s grammatically possible.

nytimes after deadline who vs whom grammar confusion

Today, Krugman tweeted his article, but it seem the who/whom dispute produced a stalemate. The original title, ‘Who to Despise’, was replaced – not by ‘Whom to Despise’ but by a headline that sidesteps the contentious grammar entirely: ‘Worthy of Our Contempt’.

I noticed Krugman’s initial tweet because it links to a post I wrote in 2012 about who vs. whom, ‘“Who to follow” is grammatically fine’, and traffic to Sentence first was spiking.

The post defends the phrase who to follow as normal English, whereas whom to follow is pedantically formal (both are grammatical). It persuaded a few readers, but complaints about who to follow remain common, even among people who should know better.

Still, I’d love to see the exchange at the NYT that led to the headline being changed. Did an editor suggest ‘Whom to Despise’, and did Krugman reject it as excessively formal?


Ironically, and almost inevitably, Krugman’s article contained an example of the hypercorrect whom I described above:

NYT worthy of our contempt who whom hypercorrection

It was then edited to delete whom from the ungrammatical phrase *whom they know poses a danger, but you can see the original text via the Wayback Machine. The same error will recur, in the NYT and elsewhere, until editors develop a better sense of whom.


23 Responses to “Whom”: to reprise

  1. I may have mentioned before that “whom” avoidance means that “which” is often used for people in the phrase “many of which”.

  2. Tom Maxwell says:

    I’m not too bothered by the use of ‘who’ instead of ‘whom’. What bugs me is the people – who should know better – who anxiously use ‘whom’ when ‘who’ is more correct. It’s a bit reminiscent of people who say or write ‘he spoke to John and I’, another anxious tic…

  3. Just imagine teaching the difference between who and whom to a crowd of 20 hormone-filled 16-year-old kids in Brazil, and then having authentic English language material ignore the rules (which then show up in standard tests they have to take)…

    yes, exactly…

    • Stan Carey says:

      Right. While it’s useful to know the difference when you’re writing in standard English, many professional writers (and even editors) are at a loss over it, and little wonder.

  4. sarahlivne says:

    Down here in kiwiland, where they are well into a second generation that has only very brief anecdotal encounters with formal grammar (i.e. the teachers don’t even know the rules, so they would certainly not teach them to anyone), the only time you would see a ‘whom’ would be in hypercorrection efforts, in the wrong places, or when some English immigrant makes an effort, resulting in phrases like “each one will decide with whom they want to work with”, where so much effort has gone into the ‘whom’ you really can’t blame the guy for not keeping track of his straying prepositions.
    The “John and I” construct is the norm. It’s as if someone was here 20 years ago punishing any occurrence of “John and me” by 30 lashes, regardless of whether or not it’s preceded by a preposition. I have yet to meet someone who says “to John and me” in this country.
    And ‘who’ is definitely starting to get replaced by ‘which’. I don’t think it’s because of the avoidance effort of the ‘whom’, though. I see it happening when kids, who just can’t be bothered to differentiate ‘who’ situations from ‘which’ ones, simply never get corrected. Certainly not with the offended American tone that implies it’s very rude to treat people like objects and makes you remember never to make that mistake ever again in your whole entire life. Because kiwis are so easy going – nothing offends them. So there’s no need for ‘who’ (except in questions).
    I’m not a great fan of unnecessary pedantry, but I do get frustrated when I realize I’m the only one around to whom it jars (sorry, I tried to write ‘to who’ but I really can’t). Maybe it’s because I’m a bloody immigrant who had spent so many years spitting blood to learn this freaking language, having been told countless times “you can’t get anywhere in life without proper grammar in English” (and then relearning it over and over again to suit different countries separated by this common language), and now I’m living in a supposedly English speaking country (or so say the locals) and there’s nobody to teach this grammar to my kids. As David Mitchell once said – I want all those years I spent learning how to use my apostrophes back!

    • astraya says:

      ‘to whom’ (and similar) are likely to be the last remaining uses of ‘whom’.

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s interesting about the trend towards which, and it tallies with Ed’s observation in the UK. It’s not a pattern that has struck me here, yet, but I’ll be keeping an eye out for it.

      Regarding to who(m): This syntactic position, just after a preposition, is one where whom will prevail for a while, even among people who generally favour who in optional cases. I cover this point in my earlier post, e.g.:

      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.

      It will also survive in set phrases like for whom the bell tolls, and in formal registers such as scholarly writing and literary English.

  5. Why all the perseveration? One is correct, the other not. Nominative or accusative. Let us discuss the atrocious use of she and her, in this case. ie.’Her and I went downtown together’, etc etc. If we allow the continued degeneration of our language then what will be next? Let us get rid of ‘me’ and use only ‘I’. So much simpler. n’est-ce pas?

    • Stan Carey says:

      Language commentators have a responsibility to describe the facts as accurately and impartially as possible, even if those facts are messy or complicated. Hence the extended treatment of whom.

      If you read my earlier post, you’ll know that who and whom have been used interchangeably since the 1300s, and that the rule governing their use appeared only in the 18thC and has had limited influence on usage.

      There is no evidence that English (or language more generally) is degenerating, centuries of doom-mongering notwithstanding. Linguistic change and variety are signs of a language in good health.

  6. astraya says:

    “Hey, Stan! I’ve just started on Twitter. Have you got any suggestions about whom to follow.” or “Dear Mr Sentence First, I have just activated a Twitter account. I would be grateful if you could advise me about whom to follow.” Do people actually talk or write like that? Even (or especially) those who fulminate about ‘who’ being ‘incorrect’?

    COCA has one instance of ‘whom to follow’, and not in the context of social media. Polish/Canadian/US political analyst Zbigniew Brzezinsk is quoted as saying, in a formal but seemingly unscripted tv interview, ‘the Egyptian people don’t have yet a variety of political voices to whom to listen and whom to follow’. (There three other instances of ‘don’t have yet (direct object)’ on COCA and none of ‘to whom to listen’.)

    COCA also has six instances of ‘who to follow’ – five of them about social media, three in ‘Good Housekeeping’ and two in ‘Teacher Librarian: The Journal for School Library Professionals’; that is, edited, printed writing. The other instance comes from a Washington Post article about young Russians in the Putin era. It quotes “a well-to-do international relations student” as saying, apparently spontaneously, “we don’t know what to follow, who to follow or what to do”.

    • astraya says:

      or, for the first example, even less formal but still retaining ‘whom to follow’: “Any suggestions whom to follow?”

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks for reporting the COCA examples, David. They validate Pullum’s handy categories of Normal and Formal English, the latter very formal in this case, since even edited prose has increasingly adopted who in many common constructions. And the world hasn’t fallen or diminished as a result.

      For the record, I do receive occasional messages (emails, for instance) that use whom along the lines of your first paragraph; anecdotally I would say it’s more prevalent among older generations and people for whom English is not a first language.

      • astraya says:

        Slightly apropos: Last night I dreamed that I was struggling to compose a message on some sort of communications/social media app. One option was to ‘insert Language Log article’ (presumably link to it), in the same way that eg Facebook allows you to insert a photo or video. Sorry, but my subconscious considers LL as the default language blog, not this one!

        • Stan Carey says:

          Hey, that’s great! I don’t think I’ve had a Language Log dream, at least not that I recall. I only hope my subconscious would have such good taste, given the chance.

        • sarahlivne says:

          Does this imply readable text in a dream? I think there was some discussion around that in an earlier post and nobody seemed to remember whether or not they could read text in a dream.

  7. Lady Demelza says:

    I remember when somebody tried to explain the nominative and accusative cases to me when I was learning German by saying “it’s the difference between who and whom.” I stared at her blankly and said – “I’m from Australia – we don’t have ‘whom’ there.” Still to this day, I cannot think of a single example of hearing anyone use the word ‘whom’ in real life, with the single exception of the fossilised ‘to whom it may concern’ address for formal letters. It’s something I’ve only ever heard on TV or read in books.
    As for reading text in dreams, I have read enormous amounts of text in dreams. I can also clearly see foreign alphabets such as Greek or Cyrillic in dreams, even though I can’t read them in waking life. It’s common for me to dream that I am lying there reading a book, and then get such a shock when I wake up and open my eyes – it seems to me as though the book just suddenly disappeared into thin air.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Even leaving the Australian part aside, who/whom is not the best example to use to explain the difference between nominative and accusative!

      What you say about foreign scripts in dreams is very interesting. I’ve dreamt of English text, and of unrecognisable letters, but I don’t think I’ve dreamt of specific non-English texts that the dream rendered more or less accurately. And though I read from books every day, I seldom dream of the activity.

  8. […] no reason to think this uncertainty will abate any time soon. As John E. McIntyre observes from the Baltimore Sun copy […]

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