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The Bell Tolls for ‘Whom’

16 June 2017

From The Wall Street Journal:

When Twitter users open their home pages, they are greeted by an inset box at the top of the screen in which three words appear in gray type: “Who to follow.”

Correct grammar? Certainly not.

Plenty of Twitter users, including members of the blue-checkmarked elite, have complained about that oversight. “The ‘whoms’ put up a good fight, but we ultimately opted for a more natural cadence and the ‘whos’ won out,” says Twitter spokeswoman Brielle Villablanca.

This sort of grammatical nonchalance doesn’t sit well with many people, among them Thomas Steiner, a systems engineer at Google.

Mr. Steiner, a German who lives and works in Hamburg, says Twitter’s language annoys him. “As a non-native speaker, I make a lot of effort to learn the language, and the people who should know better don’t,” he says.

In his spare time, he wrote a free browser plugin that automatically corrects the “who” to “whom.” He “fixed the internet,” gushed one user of the program.

Mr. Steiner has a kindred spirit in British scriptwriter James T. Harding, who recalls that, as a teenager, he used to go through music videos and correct the soundtracks. That was around the time he established an imaginary group called the Grand Order of the Whomic Empire. Today, the case-sensitive Mr. Harding runs a lightly visited Facebook group, the Whom Appreciation Society.

As for when “whom” is appropriate: It is the correct choice if the word is the object of a preposition or a verb, such as in Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” The choice should be “who” if the word serves as the subject of a sentence or clause.

. . . .

There could be other advantages, if a 2014 Wired article is to be believed. The magazine sifted through thousands of profiles at dating sites Match.com and OkCupid trying to figure out what sorts of things made someone a more desirable date. Among other tips for success—be into yoga, don’t mention religion, learn to surf—Wired found that men who used “whom” had 31% greater success at getting dates.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire)

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15 Comments to “The Bell Tolls for ‘Whom’”

  1. I thought “whom” was only appropriate when there was a word like “to”, “from”, “about”, etc. used. Like in “for whom the bell tolls”. Not like in “who to follow”.

    “Go to him.” -> “To whom should I go?”

    “Follow him.” -> “Who should I follow?”

    Is that not right?

    Maybe the reason most people don’t use “whom” is because it’s too complicated for most people to remember when to use it. And because it’s way more obnoxious to see someone use “whom” when they shouldn’t (or tell people incorrectly that they should be using “whom”) than to not use it when they “should” since it’s basically an optional word these days anyway.

    • Like people saying to me: “I could care less (about whatever)” and my reply is: “So why don’t you?”

      It leaves most of them confused and/or sputtering. 😉

    • No, that is nor correct. It is ‘Whom should I follow.” The subject of the sentence is ‘I’ and ‘whom’ is the object.

      It is no more complicated (and in fact exactly the same as) than knowing to say ‘Should I follow them?” rather than ‘Should I follow they?” It is the kind of distinction we make all the time in ordinary speech.

      • Except that you almost never hear “whom” in ordinary speech. So for most people, it never becomes natural, nor very easy to remember. ‘Whom’ is one of those words that’s on the verge of becoming obsolete, since the vast majority of the English-speaking population is perfectly content to use ‘who’ in any cases where ‘whom’ is technically more correct. This is one of those things where your view on it largely depends on whether you go more for descriptive or prescriptive grammar.

    • It’s not all that complicated. I drilled into our kids the two little rhymes.

      I, he, she,
      Who, they, we

      Me, her, him,
      Whom, us, them

  2. As long as we’re being prissy: Hemingway wrote a novel called “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, but it is not Hemingway’s novel that is being cited as an example, but the phrase — which is really John Donne’s.

    For those who still feel unsure when “whom” applies, Grammar Girl explains it here: http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/who-versus-whom

  3. Patricia Sierra

    I have a strict rule re who and whom: Say whatever feels correct, not necessarily what is correct.

  4. IMO the best way to learn English grammar is to study German grammar. Worked for me.

    • I found an easier way.

      Have two parents who speak the language well. Grammar was second nature for me and my siblings. No effort was involved. We didn’t learn the names of various elements of grammar, but instinctively learned to speak and write as our parents did.

      Then pass the gift down to the next generation.

      It started with my Irish immigrant grandparents. I only knew two of them, and both spoke very well. Neither finished grammar school in Ireland. When I visited the remote village my grandmother came from, I noticed they all spoke very well, far better than found in the average US town.

    • Ha, that’s exactly how I ended up learning the ins and outs of “whom.” And as one of the last vestiges of the English case system, I find it far easier to use than the much more traditional German system for who/whom/whose (which is more like wer/wen/wem/wessen.

      But the good news is that as soon as the meaning “clicks,” it’s super simple in either language.

      For my own writing, I always use the correct form of “who” in the narrative, and go for style in dialogue, which is also how I handle all the other grammatical stuff.

  5. I really think this is a rule people should just let go. It’s on it’s way out anyway. It doesn’t come naturally to younger people both because it it’s simply more difficult to say and it sounds old fashioned. And arguing or correcting people on it just makes you look like an annoying pedant.

  6. I think “whom” is obsolescent. I wouldn’t call anyone who uses it (correctly) as wrong or archaic, but I also wouldn’t say someone who uses “who” instead is incorrect, either. Just be consistent.

    One of the advantages of self-publishing is that you can create your own house style, which can include rules like that.

  7. May I weigh in about another pet peeve, the dangling modifier/phrase? E.g., “Entering the room, the air smelled of onions.” The air entered the room?

    This may strike some as a nitpick, but I often find that, due to dangling modifiers and phrases with misplaced subjects, a sentence becomes confusing or downright misleading.

    As for who/whom, my style as a novelist is to use what sounds natural in dialogue or internal monologue, but the correct “whom” in other writing.

  8. My grammarian father taught me a couple of little mnemonic rhymes that help me keep grammar straight. “I he she, who they we” and “me her him, whom us them.” If I’m in doubt, I recast the phrase with one of the alternatives from the same couplet. “The bell tolls for…uh…they? No, them. So it’s ‘whom.'”

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