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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

For 'Whom' the Bell Tolls ... Elvis?

Yeah! Another writer pounds a nail into the whom coffin. As Megan Garber writes in The Atlantic:
We break the old rules, then, because new rules are, effectively, replacing them. Few of us still use whom in speech, and we've adopted that practice in our writing, particularly in more-casual forms (e‑mails, texts, IMs). What scholars refer to as “secondary orality,” the tendency of written language to adopt the characteristics of speech, is for many of us the new linguistic reality. According to the language blogger Stan Carey, “Whom is unnecessary—indeed, it’s out of place—where a conversational tone is sought.” We type with our telephones and we chat with our keyboards and we write, increasingly, as we talk. And—to whom it may concern—our words rise, and fall, accordingly.
That said, I just looked again at various respected grammar and word usage references. They all note the common misuse, misunderstandings about use, and eventual demise of whom in the English language. Heck, one book notes that whom has been on its deathbed for 150 years!

Yet all the references I checked continue to provide advice on using whom (and who) correctly. Whom is like the Elvis of of grammar. Some writers and editors still see its use as valuable to aiding reader understanding. Most people, though, don't use it much, correctly or incorrectly. When will this Elvis actually leave the building?

And though I want to prod its full departure, I feel I should provide some advice to aid those few writers who still listen to whom. Here's my advice in Garbl's Editorial Style and Usage Manual:
who, whom Often confused. Who does something, and whom has something done to it. Use whom when someone is the object of verb or preposition: The man to whom the car was rented did not fill the gas tank. Whom do you wish to see?
A preposition (such as to, at, by, for, from, in, toward, upon and with) often comes just before whomWho does something to whomWho is the word in all other uses, especially when someone takes an action as the subject of a sentence, clause or phrase:The man who rented the car did not fill the gas tank. Who is still here?
To test for correctness: Who equals he, she or they while whom equals him, her or them. Replace who or whom in the sentence with one of those pronouns. If it sounds wrong, it probably is. 
that, which, who, whom ... When an essential or nonessential clause refers to a human being or something with human qualities (such as a family), introduce it with who or whomThat -- but not which -- also may be used to refer to human beings, as well as inanimate objects. Don't use commas if the clause is essential to the meaning. Use them if it is not. 
Theodore M. Bernstein, The Careful Writer, 1977: "Which normally refers to things, who to persons, and that to either persons or things."
us, we Sometimes confused. We and other "nominative" pronouns--including he, I, they and who--typically go before a verb as the subject of a sentence or clause (a group of words with a subject and a verb). Us and other "objective" pronouns--including her, him, me, them and whom--typically come after a verb or preposition.
Be careful when writing sentences with two clauses, like these: Please help us who are your children. This is a grand day for us who are your children. The word ending the first clause should be the "objective" pronoun us, not weUs is the object of the verb help and the preposition for. Also, the word beginning the second clause should be the "nominative" pronoun who. ...

The Atlantic article on whom is featured today, March 27, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Style: Write Choices, available at the Editorial Style tab above and by free email subscription.

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