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.
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:
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.