An American Editor

September 5, 2012

The Business of Editing: Whom or Who?

Filed under: Business of Editing,On Language,On Words,Professional Editors — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
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Sometimes language usage can be very difficult. This is especially true when we rely on our ears. If a construction doesn’t sound right when spoken, we often assume it cannot be right when written. This is the problem of whom and whowhom often sounds incorrect when it is correct.

Because the growth and modernization of language rarely follows the written-oral (aural) trajectory and nearly always follows the oral (aural)-written trajectory, word usage comes and goes based on the latter trajectory. This has been recognized for years, as evidenced by Grant White’s, an 18th century grammarian, pronouncement in 1870 predicting the death of whom. In his great treatise on the American language , The American Language (1936), H.L. Mencken wrote that “Whom is fast vanishing from Standard American.” The predictions of death have been ongoing, yet whom remains a part of the lexicon.

One problem with whom is that it sounds stilted. A more fundamental problem is that so many people do not understand when to use whom and when to use who.

Who is the subject of a verb (“It was Jon who put out the fire”) and the complement of a linking verb (“They know who started the fire”), whereas whom is the object of a verb (“Whom did you speak with?”) or a preposition (“She is the person with whom we need to speak”).

Yet when I look at the foregoing description, I do not find that my understanding of when to use who and when to use whom is any easier to implement. The subject versus object distinction is helpful but not always clear.

Perhaps a better method for determining which is correct when is what I call the substitution principle, which is found in The Gregg Reference Manual (10th ed., 2005 by William Sabin). According to Gregg (¶1061 c and d),

Use who whenever he, she, they, I, or we could be substituted in the who clause.

Use whom whenever him, her, them, me, or us could be substituted as the object of the verb or as the object of a preposition in the whom clause.

The substitution principle makes the choice easier. Using examples from Gregg, here is how it works, beginning with who:

Who booked our conference?
Who shall I say is calling?
Who did they say was chosen?

The substitutes for the foregoing who examples are, respectively:

He booked our conference.
I shall say he is calling.
They did say she was chosen.

Now let’s look at whom:

Whom did you see today?
To whom were you talking?
Whom did you say you wanted to see?

The substitutes for the foregoing whom examples are, respectively:

You did see her today.
You were talking to him.
You did say you wanted to see her.

The substitution principle seems to work fairly well. Yet it does not avoid the problem of whom sounding stilted and wrong. And because it sounds stilted and wrong, it is likely that it will not be properly used. Perhaps it shouldn’t be used at all.

Perhaps we should rewrite sentences that demand a whom or at least those that make us wonder if it should be whom rather than who. How many of us react positively to “Whom are you going to endorse in the next election?” Whether read or spoken, it comes across as stilted. We are more likely to write and say, “Who is your candidate in the next election?” or even “Who are you going to endorse in the next election?” because it reads and sounds more natural to our aural sense.

The question neither asked nor addressed so far is this: Does it matter if we use who in place of whom? My thinking is that it does not matter because we will write and speak the who sentence in a form that aurally sounds natural and correct, and thus no one will question the use of who and wonder if it should have been whom. Having said that, the reality is that, as with most things in the English language, everything depends on context.

The failure to get who and whom correct in fiction is of less concern than in nonfiction. Yet even in nonfiction, unlike other words, the misuse of who and whom is rarely, if ever, misleading or a cause of miscommunication. To my way of thinking, that is the key to language usage: If there is no miscommunication, then the ultimate goal has been met; if there is a chance of miscommunication, then correction is necessary.

For most of us, it will be the rare sentence that will cause us to pause and remark, “I wonder if this should have been whom and not who.” Should such a case arise (i.e., one where we pause and wonder), we should rewrite the sentence or apply the substitution test and make the correction. In the absence of that  “aha” moment, I think we should simply let the matter go because it is not causing any miscommunication or stumbling.

Yes, there is a grammatically correct usage for who and whom; but the purpose of grammar is to ensure understanding. Automatic application of grammar rules for the sake of applying them does not further grammar’s goal in this case. Flexibility has been the cornerstone of English grammar over the course of time.

What do you think?

5 Comments »

  1. I’ve never understood why we need both “who” and “whom.” I can’t think of a single instance when confusion has arisen because the writer or speaker chose the wrong word. Let’s get rid of “whom” because, as you say, it sounds stilted and pretentious, even when used correctly.

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    Comment by Laura — September 5, 2012 @ 11:23 am | Reply

  2. Hm. That’s an interesting point. I think, out of habit, I would continue fixing errant uses of “who” because “who” cannot be the object of a verb. But I suppose if we all stopped using “whom” that would change. Either way, I think there are enough sticklers on this subject that “whom” will survive a little while longer.

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    Comment by Ariel Price — September 5, 2012 @ 3:46 pm | Reply

    • I think you’re right. I think one of the reasons it’ll survive is that it gives grammar mavens a sense of superiority and elitism when they use it correctly. I’m probably as guilty as anyone on that count.

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      Comment by Laura — September 6, 2012 @ 8:42 pm | Reply

  3. […] When to use who and whom. […]

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    Pingback by Stumbling Over Chaos :: Leaves’ll be fallin’ when linkity comes callin’ — September 7, 2012 @ 11:31 am | Reply

  4. Thanks for the substitution tip.

    Personally, I’d prefer to do away with whom — I can’t remember the last time I heard the word in casual conversation. Thee and thou have largely disappeared, but for some reason, whom is hanging in there.

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    Comment by Vicki — September 24, 2012 @ 6:42 pm | Reply


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