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Karen Virag

GETTABLE GRAMMAR: Whom—don’t leave us! We hardly knew ye!

Mr T gazes and points with both hands directly at the camera. His sleeveless arms betray rippling biceps. This black, muscled icon stands silhouetted against a bright green back ground.

Mr T gazes and points with both hands directly at the camera. His sleeveless arms betray rippling biceps. This black, muscled icon stands silhouetted against a bright green back ground.In the April 2013 Atlantic magazine, writer Megan Garber gleefully wrote: “Whom, I am thrilled to inform you, is dying.” And though I agree that whom seems to be going the way of the floppy disk, I don’t share Garber’s glee. Perhaps it’s because I think that grammatical inflection (when words change form to reflect their function in a sentence) allows for a greater range of elegance and expression. Or perhaps it’s a generational thing. After all, Garber ascribes part of the reason for the demise of whom to the preponderance of casual communication spurred on by the digital revolution—I don’t use happy-face icons, either.

Unlike that and which, who changes according to its grammatical function in a sentence. The subjective form is who; the possessive whose; the objective whom. As the Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage tells us, in spoken English, who has largely displaced whom in informal use, and who usually begins a question, regardless of whether it is subjective or objective. Now let us turn to the inimitable Mr T for examples of who in action: “Who called me a sissy?” (who as subject); “Who you callin’ dumb fool, fool?” (who as object).

The Oxford Guide also says, though, that whom is still required in formal usage (e.g., “Whom are you addressing as a dumb fool, fool?”) and after a preposition (“To whom shall I leave my collection of Mr T memorabilia?”). Things start to get a little dodgy, though, when a form of who governs a dependent clause or phrase. Consider this sentence: “Mr T demanded restitution from the woman whom he claimed had stolen his gold crucifix.” What this sentence actually wants to say is that Mr T wanted restitution from a woman who stole his crucifix, or so he claimed. Within the dependent clause, who is the subject of stole. Therefore, the sentence should read, “Mr T demanded restitution from the woman who he claimed had stolen his gold crucifix.”

So, with apologies to a devilishly clever Jacobean poet priest named John Donne, I adjure you—ask not for whom Mr T trolls; he trolls for thee.

Gettable Grammar is a monthly series of conjectures, opinions and postulates by Karen Virag.

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2 Comments on “GETTABLE GRAMMAR: Whom—don’t leave us! We hardly knew ye!”

  • Whether it’s a matter of tradition, inertia, or grammatical codependence, I don’t see us parting ways with «whom» any time soon. There’s something lovably obstinate about a word that hasn’t been a feature of spoken English for, oh, forever, but hangs around just the same. Even the redoubtable New York Times editor Theodore Bernstein couldn’t get rid of it. His 1975 «doom whom» campaign was a failure, maybe because his heart wasn’t really in it: despite his bluster about ditching the word, Bernstein thought we should keep using it after a preposition. Can’t live with it, can’t live without it…

  • Kate Icely

    says:

    Excellent! I also lament the loss of whom. It’s one of many grammatical inflections that seems to be disappearing….

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