Struggling With “Whom”, And Now It’s Going Away?

whomeme1While learning a second language, there are often little things that present unexpected barriers to getting it just right.

Who versus Whom is such a thing. When you learn English as a second language at school, you are taught that the object form of ‘who’ is ‘whom’. The proud advanced English learners will use throw their ‘whom’ at whoever is willing to listen. Or was that whomever? No, I don’t think so…

Anyway, the matter isn’t made easier by those privileged English-as-their-native-tongue speakers’ and writers ‘ seemingly random use and neglect of whom, substituting it with “who”, and with “that”.

I always flinch when I see people write, “Charlie, the guy that sold me the car, has a new bike.” I’ve learned (cough, or let’s say that I remember I’ve learned) that you use “that” when you refer to a thing, and “who” when you refer to a person. The Grammar Girl says that too, but also points out exceptions. Who wants to mess with Chaucer, after all? But she also says, that the above rule is always good when you want to be on the safe side. So, that’s probably what I’ll continue to do, but maybe I can teach myself not to flinch any more when I see how someone refers to a person with “that.”

Why do I waffle about this, whom do I want to impress?

Last week I read on dailywritingtips.com that my beloved “whom” is on the way out. (I would have reblogged that article, but whoever is in charge there won’t let me.)

They write,

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In its entry for the word, the OED defines whom as “the objective case of who,” but notes that it is “no longer current in natural colloquial speech.”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

Sniff. I cry now.

l2pbqThey also write this,

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.

Crying some more. Are you as confused as I (or is that me? Who is confused? No, I am the subject, aren’t I? Oh dear… )–if you are, go and read the whole article. Daily Writing Tips is always an interesting read.

What would we non-native speakers (and writers) do without a good beta reader? We’d be toast. Which reminds me, it’s my beta reader and friend’s birthday on Friday. I shall write a homage to her. To who?

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5 thoughts on “Struggling With “Whom”, And Now It’s Going Away?

  1. I think you should quit stressing over this. The OED is right;in fact, “whom” has been on its way out for a long time. All languages change over time, because they are spoken by humans, who also change over time. Some rules change slowly and others quickly, but it’s hard to predict what drop out fast and what will stick around awhile. As an English teacher, I taught many, many kids how to use “whom” correctly, but in my own writing, I avoid it whenever I can. I love your subject, “the man I saw yesterday…” – crisp and clean and precise, with no “who” or “whom” or “that” at all. That’s what you should strive for.

    If you really want to use “whom”, go right ahead, as long as you use it correctly and consistently. In your sentence above–“The proud, advanced English learners will use their ‘whom’ at whoever is willing to listen”–is correct, as you wisely suspected. “Whoever is willing to listen” is a noun clause used as the object of the preposition “at”, with “whoever” as its subject. However, the sentence itself is awkward–you can “use” a thing “for” something, “by” some time, “with” gusto, “for” the good of mankind, or even “at” five o’clock, but by and large, you don’t use something “at” a person in English. Since you had a feeling that “whoever” is correct, you obviously have the pattern down, so stop crying and just carry on using “who” and “whom” if you want to.

    Also, please tell Yoda to put his “WHOM” in quotation marks, because his meaning is fuzzy. His unique and charming sentence structure–putting his predicate noun or predicate adjective first, as in “Brave you are” or “A Jedi he is”–that’s fine, since everybody understands his meaning. He’s just demonstrating the human tendency to impose the grammar and sentence structure of his native language (whatever it was) on languages he learned after the age of 5 or 6–in this case, English. Language was meant to be fun, so have fun!

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    1. Thank you for your comment. I’ve written the above with tongue slightly in cheek, so don’t take my crying too seriously, please. 🙂

      I was surprised to learn that using “whom” is considered to be pedantic. I mean, who wants to be pedantic, right? I doubt that I’ll get used to using “that” instead, however, I do like the version “…the man I saw yesterday…” and will try to remember to use this kind of construction more often.

      The “using at”… yes, that’s the kind of blooper you’ll find here quite often, I always struggle with prepositions. My blog posts aren’t beta read, and sometimes I just don’t see things. I changed that to “…throw their “whom” at…”

      I also changed the Yoda image, I’m afraid the Yoda speech creator isn’t sophisticated enough for the quotation marks, I didn’t really think about it and just copied/pasted.

      As you can see, I have fun with the language. I need more practice, though, and always appreciate it when people point out mistakes. Thanks again.

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    1. These are scary tables. 🙂 I’m glad indeed (as a learner) that most of these have vanished. Things like that gradually happen in German, too, of course. Sometimes I’m a bit sorry, I find some of the old constructions pretty and enriching–on the other hand, a language lives through those who use it, and they will shape it to their needs and wants. Linguists and language purists may think differently. I think as long as the knowledge about origin and changes isn’t lost, it’s fine.

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