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Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Grammar: Is "whom" history? From the mouths of babes | Johnson, The Economist

After discussing the amusing "mouths of babes" part of the headline for this article,  blogger Johnson gets to the "whom" question.

Thinking Johnson was getting to "yes," I liked this paragraph:
Since whom is becoming less common, many people can't use it properly even when they are aiming for Formal. (A common mistake is using it in a subject role, for example: That's the candidate whom I hope will win the election. Here, the mistake is in thinking that I hope turns who into an object. But the clause is really who will win the election, with I hope just an interpolation.) The unease over whom just makes people avoid it more.
But then Johnson writes:
I think whom has a long life left in it, though, for non-grammatical reasons. Educated people prize language, and the mastery of Formal. Their status at the top of the social heap is an incentive to treat the proper use of whom as a sign of intelligence, not just the Formal register. 
OK, Johnson is writing tongue-in-cheek, sarcastically ... Right? I'm not so sure, unfortunately. The following statement about "Educated people" disappointed me:
They do most of the edited and published writing we consume. And so whom will live in print for a good long time, even as many of those same people ignore it when they're chatting at the proverbial water cooler.
Ohhh why? Why must pomposity rule among publishers (and educators)?

I am a major advocate of respecting the differing definitions and uses of similar words, but language must also change to respect common, familiar use--and the continuing difficulty of following certain unneeded or outdated rules. Whom needs to go the way of the outdated use of he/his/him as a generic pronoun.

My online editorial style manual also tries to clarify use of who and whom. But I think it's a lost cause, one that is not worth continuing.
This article appears today (Oct. 2) in Garbl's Style: Write Choices--available at the Editorial Style tab above and by free email subscription.

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