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December 09, 2018  |  "Who": and then there were 5  |  1822 hit(s)

There was a flutter of discussion recently on social media (again) about who and whom. Mary Norris, an editor formerly of the The New Yorker, argues "So does civilization depend on the vulnerable 'whom'? Yes." John McIntyre, long-time editor at the Baltimore Sun, instead argues Just use "who"—in other words, forget about whom.

A not uncommon pro-whom position is that it's important to maintain the distinction for the sake of clarity. Is that true? I've been thinking about something I read recently about case marking in English, which is what the whole who/whom thing is theoretically about. We case-mark some words in English—that is, we change their form to indicate whether they are the subject or object in a sentence:

  • She called him and then sent them a text.

She is the subject; him and them are objects. We use specific forms of the pronouns here to indicate who's doing what. Just for fun, let's create a Very Incorrect Sentence:

  • *Her called he and then sent they a text.

I think we agree that in this sentence, the case marking for the pronouns is all wrong.

But let's look at a similar example:

  • Mary called John and then sent the editors a text.

Same sentence, only this time we use nouns instead of pronouns. Which is the interesting point: in all of English, we use case marking to distinguish subject and object for a mere seven words: I (me), he (him), she (her), we (us), they (them), who (whom), and whoever (whomever).

Notice what's missing in this list of case-marked words:

  • Other pronouns (you, it, the indefinite one). Unlike he, she, we, et al., these pronouns don't have distinct forms for subject and object.
  • Possessive pronouns (my, your, his, hers, its, our, their, mine, yours, ours, theirs, whose). Same: one form to mark them all.
  • Relative pronouns (that, which). Ditto.
  • Reflexive pronouns (myself, yourself, himself, herself, itself, ourselves, themselves, oneself)
  • Determiners (a, an, the, this, that, these, each, every, any, all, some, no)
  • Cardinal and ordinal numbers (zero, one, two, second, twelfth)
  • Adjectives
  • Nouns

Why is this significant? Well, English used to mark all of these types of words for subject and object, back when English was still Old English/Anglo-Saxon. And languages like German and Russian still do mark them (well, nouns less so) even yet today. But we've lost subject and object marking on all of these types of words, all except that short list of seven, and we seem to be able to understand sentences just fine.

Here are a few example in which words of these types are acting in different roles. I've marked all of the terms that are acting as subject or object.

  • The owner herself gave it a thorough cleaning with the new vacuum cleaner that she just bought herself.
  • After Mary called you, she texted you the address. Did you get it?
  • My new phone beats my old phone by a mile.

Again, except the couple of words from the short list of seven marked words, nothing is explicitly marked. To pick out a few instances, in the first sentence, herself refers once to the subject and another time functions as an indirect object. In the second sentence, you plays the part of (in order) direct object, indirect object, and subject. In the third sentence, my works for both the subject and the direct object.

Is there any ambiguity about what function any of these words play in the sentence? No. We don't need to mark any of these words as subjects or objects because we can tell from just the word order. Consider these sentences:

  • My new teacher called you.
  • You called my new teacher.

Identical forms of the words, but the order of the words tells us who the subject and object is. That's true for all of the example sentences. In fact, you could even go back to the Very Incorrect Sentence and argue that in spite of the pronouns being all wrong, it's still pretty clear who did what, because we can make a very good case (haha) based on just the word order.

What we're experiencing in English is that who and whoever are moving off the already short list of case-marked words. In conversational English, and as McIntyre suggests, we get by without whom. It's hard to argue that this is affecting our ability to understand the role that who plays in a sentence. Have a look at these sentences:

  • Who did she call just now?
  • Who did you give it to?
  • Who does the insurance cover?
  • Tell me about the person who you met today.
  • I have three brothers, one of who is a doctor.
  • We don't know who we will hire.
  • Who's fooling who?

All of these sentences use who where it "should" be whom. But it's not possible for a native speaker to misunderstand the intent behind each.

If you want, you can maintain that whom has a place in English grammar, and we should use it correctly in formal writing. If you do, though, be clear about why losing whom is an issue. Maybe civilization hinges on the use of whom, as Mary Norris posits. But it's not because we're going to be confused if it follows the path of so many English words before it.





Michael LaRocca   10 Dec 18 - 6:41 AM

I blame Noah Webster. But then again, I always blame Noah Webster.

 
Eric Bram   10 Dec 18 - 7:53 AM

Yes, that is a valid opinion, and I grant thee that thou art entitled to thy opinion. And yes, we shall survive the demise of whom since the meaning will usually be clear using who even as an object. But not always, so there remains value in keeping whom.

 
Jonathon Owen   10 Dec 18 - 9:58 AM

Eric Bram: Can you give an example of where it's unclear?