Whom: More Than A Matter of Grammar

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A reader browsing the DWT site reacted disdainfully to the use of who as an object in a DWT post about letter writing:

With all due respect, if you’re going to give advice, not only on content but on grammar, surely you need to double and triple-check that what you write is correct.

The reader is referring to a note that prefaces a post about how to write a letter of reference:

I will be using “candidate” to refer to the person who the reference letter is about, “you” to refer to the person writing the reference letter, and “recipient” to refer to the person receiving the letter.

I do indeed double- and triple-check all my posts for accuracy before hitting the Send button. Sometimes I read a post as many as six times and still manage to miss some source of embarrassment.

It happens that I’m not the author of the post that offended the reader, but the person who did write it knows the uses of who and whom perfectly well. I expect she made a conscious decision to write who.

Unlike the pronoun pairs I/me, he/him, she/her, we/us, and they/them—the misuse of which is a clear sign of ignorance or rebellion—the pair who/whom is a special case.

The object form whom is in the natural process of disappearing from English.

In its entry for the word, the OED defines whom as “the objective case of who,” but notes that it is “no longer current in natural colloquial speech.”

In all but the most formal writing and speech, the use of whom has become a sore point with many speakers.

A common television trope in comedies and dramas is that of one character using whom in a sentence and being promptly ridiculed by other characters. In the context of popular culture, whom smacks of elitism. Bloggers targeting a popular audience may be wise to choose who instead of whom in some contexts to avoid alienating their readers.

On the one hand, it is reasonable to expect writers who blog about language to pay strict attention to standard usage. On the other hand, even respected style guides point out that a writer may wish to avoid using whom according to where it falls in a sentence.

The Penguin Writer’s Manual acknowledges that whom “is being increasingly relegated to very formal use in modern English, especially in questions.” It gives this perspective on a recent DWT discusssion, the tendency to substitute that for who or whom when introducing an adjective clause:

Many people would argue that if the man who I saw yesterday is grammatically incorrect, the man whom I saw yesterday sounds pedantic, and it is better to say the man that I saw yesterday or, simply, the man I saw yesterday.

Many writers choose to use who instead of whom when the pronoun is separated from the governing preposition, as it is in the construction “the person who the reference letter is about” (instead of “the person whom the reference letter is about”).

Language is a fluid medium, historically and stylistically. The concept of “correct English” changes over time.

Whom is a word in transition. It won’t be the first pronoun form to drop from use. Until it goes the way of thou, thee, and ye, some speakers will use both forms in the old established way; some will use whom in certain contexts, but not in others; and some poor confused souls will try to use whom as a subject. Traditionalist that I am, I’ll probably go on using whom in my own writing, but I hesitate to condemn established colloquial usage in the writing of others.

Related posts:
Who vs Whom
Beware of “Whom”
With All Due Respect

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1 thought on “Whom: More Than A Matter of Grammar”

  1. Why stop at whom? Let’s say, “the person about whom the reference letter is [written].” Then, we can say something once, then go back and say it again so someone can understand it. That way we say everything at least twice and we get to have longer conversations!

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