Whoville vs. Whomville

The always amusing Alexandra Petri of the Washington Post writes about allegations that the word “whom” is doomed.

The Whos down in Whoville are perfectly safe. But the Whoms, down in Whomville, having staid, WASPy dinners of roast beast and refusing to pass Little Susie Lou Whom a slice unless she uses the subjunctive correctly in her request — they are in grave danger. Whom is struggling. After all, whom is, as numerous writers have noted, the literary equivalent of waving an enormous flag that proclaims you a Stuffy Old Twerp, a Bombastic Blowhard Who Thinks He’s In England, or In 1800, Or Possibly Both. You might as well invite people to go fox-hunting later and murmur sexist things into a tea service for all the goodwill it will earn you.

Whom is no one’s favorite object pronoun. All it plays now are the rusty ill-paid gigs of Old-Timey, Vaguely Biblical-Sounding Phrases. For Whom The Bell Tolls. For Of Those To Whom Much Is Given, Much Is Required. To Whom It May Concern. From Whom All Blessings Flow. It pops up now and again on “Downton Abbey,” but who knows how long that will last, given what “Downton” does to featured characters. . . .

The subjunctive, over in the neighboring ward of the hospital, wants to know what is going on, as it were. “If ‘whom’ were to go extinct,” it murmurs, “surely I would be next. But I do not think it likely.” The subjunctive never thinks it likely, which just shows what it knows. . . .

The trouble with grammar is that it is like all those days you walk down the street with your underwear on the right side of your pants. Does anyone comment on those times? No. It is the one time you slip up that everyone mentions. Grammar Nazis never stop you on the street to say, “What a beautiful subjunctive that was. Clear as a bell, and I loved the appositive you were rocking earlier. Fierce!” They just chase you down, like Javert, shouting, “Whom! Not who! Whom!” Grammar Nazi is one of the few Nazi comparisons that we have permitted to stand unchallenged. Few things are so irksome as the person who snaps up at you shouting, “Don’t give it to me and Tanya! Personal pronoun comes last!”

Perhaps it is time we changed tactics. The vinegar approach to grammar certainly does not seem to be bearing much fruit. Maybe we should try honey. After all, grammar is the unseen wire undergirding even the most acrobatic sentence. English is not an inflected language where subject and object are always instantly clear, and it’s the hard-working Whoms and Whos of this world that help us skirt that issue. The more of these invisible wires we cut, the uglier our sentences will get. Compliment a stranger’s grammar today. It may be our only hope.

Remember what John Donne might have said, in that famous whom phrase Garber alludes to in her headline: “Any pronoun’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Language; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” Of course, it tolled for “thee” a long, long time ago. Don’t let it toll for whom.

via Save the Whoms!.

I like the Downton Abbey reference.

“Who” is for the subject of the verb (like “I,” “he” and “she” and “they”) and “whom” is for the object of the verb or the preposition (like “me,” “him” and “her” and “them”).  It’s odd that we are losing the subject/object distinction with the interrogative and relative pronouns “who” and “whom” but not the other pronouns.

No one seems to be saying “Give it to I,” “Give it to he,” “Give it to she,” or “Give it to they.” Perhaps those will fade away next.

We have, however, long ago lost the case distinctions with the second person pronoun:  “you.”   That was the plural object form.  The singular subject form was “thou,” with the objective “thee.”  The plural subject form was “ye.”  Now, strangely, it’s the plural objective for everything:  “You owe me money.” “I will give the money to you.”  “You are my friend” (singular).  “You are my friends” (plural).

Do you think we should just let linguistic change happens, as it has from Beowulf through Chaucer through Shakespeare through today, or should we resist and fight it?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Pete

    Whom cares? Nevertheless, a very enjoyable read on the topic at hand is the book “Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English” by Patricia T. O’Conner.

  • TE Schroeder

    While I don’t go out of my way to blast people for poor grammar (exception begins ….. NOW), it seems that much grammar gets mangled as people believe they are using it correctly or at least trying to sound more sophisticated. “Just between she and I…” Wrong. Twice.

    But my biggest fingernails-on-the-chalkboard grammar issue is, “If you want more information, please speak to myself.” Dear reader, no one, not even God, can speak to myself. (Exception over)

    While I would prefer a little more care in people’s observation of grammar rules, I won’t allow myself to become a Grammar-Nazi over it. I know that I bungle my share of grammar rules, too.

  • fjsteve

    I disagree that it makes one look stodgy or, at least, not as stodgy as referring to oneself in the third-person. Personally, in addition to aiding in the communication of the subject at hand, I find the use of proper grammar to be helpful in communicating that one is reasonably well-educated. In this respect, it is good for business as long as one uses it properly. Nothing exudes pretentiousness like the improperly proper use of grammar such as “to whom are you referring to?”

  • TE Schroeder

    Sam: “Don’t you have tables to wait on?”
    Diane: “Sam, do you realize that you ended that sentence with a preposition?”
    Sam: “Don’t you have tables to wait on, Mullethead?”
    Good grammar solves a lot of problems.

  • Orianna Laun

    I am starting to think that people who complain about grammar Nazis did poorly in English class. Then again, maybe they were not subjected (pun intended) to grammar. Sure, they had to use it on that one section of the ACT, which they likely bombed because their school taught them “whole language” and they never learned the nuances of subjective and objective pronouns that are removed from their verb or object of the pronoun. They use commas indiscriminately and apostrophe’s (mistake intentional) abhorrently because nobody bothered to teach them where they belong because their teaches wanted them to “get just their meaning on paper,” not knowing that their “just”is a misplaced modifier. I can say this because I was taught grammar in my Lutheran grade school, but my public high school taught nothing of the sort. It was assumed one knew how to write a paper and use proper grammar, so I missed four years of learning that craft. We were given a one-week grammar brush-up before the SAT because our teacher wanted us to do well because she genuinely cared about us. I have also taught grammar at the elementary and high school levels and have found that there are many students who have missed much instruction into the workings of language. Being able to write well is based upon knowing how the language works. Then again, I am on social media, and It is clear that very few care about writing well–or coherently, for that matter.

  • Paul

    Thank God, the Texans still have a plural second person pronoun: “Y’all be a-commin’ back!”. No respectful Texan would ever say, “Y’all put yer shoe on!”. That hurts worse than: “For Who the Bell Tolls? It Tolls for You”! :)

  • SKPeterson

    I thought it tolled the ewes. Each ringing of the bell was to signal the count of sheep in the chute. Learn something new everyday or maybe I just Dunne’d get it.

    Anyhow, like all y’all, I’m fixin’ to get back to work.

  • Pete

    Didn’t somebody say, “bad grammar is something up with which we should not put”?

  • Carl Vehse

    @8: “Didn’t somebody say, “bad grammar is something up with which we should not put”?

    …or apparently, something like that.

  • JH

    I maintain that my grammar education in 7th-8th grade was one of the most useful and lasting things I’ve learned in school. Nothing prepares you like an intense round of sentence diagramming.

  • fws

    English Tutor (alec guiness0 to the Young Last Emporor in the movie “The Last Emporor”

    Young emporor: “Master, why do we have to study gramar?”
    Tutor: “Because a gentleman Always says what he means and means what he says. And withhout gramar, a man can do neither.

    St Paul: “ALL things (including slang and vernacular gramar) are lawful, but not all things are useful.”
    “Be all things to all men”. “Against love there is no Law.”

    Good gramar is Always a means to an end. (excuse my misspelling of gramar. I have a portuguêse spell Checker that is messing me up!). That end is to humble ourselves and pour ourselves out as a living sacrifice for others. This looks like being useful.

    I was told that the king of Spain , Philip, had a bad lisp. In order to please and not offend him, castilians from that time on learned to speak their Spanish with a lisp. I dont know if the story is apocriphal or not. It is still a great story. May I suggest that we are to treat one another in the same loving and humble way, covering one another´s faults with love.

    God, through attorneys and courts, legal documents, educators and parents WILL enforce His Law in those whom he has placed the vocation to do that. We, having Faith that God does rule all, are free from having the burden of policing other adults. This is so unless we háve been placed into a vocation where this task is entrusted to us.

    So we are free to be all things to all men. If we speak the tongues of angels and have not love……

    I had 5 years of classical Latin. This is an excelente (gramar check strikes again!) way to learn gramar. But it is really not at all fun. Learning the discipline of Latin is pure mortification of the flesh.

  • fws

    teach a child to love english , it´s beauty and power, and savor a good , grammatically elegant turn of phrase.
    Read to your child often.
    You will not have to teach him grammar. He will make it a hobby!

  • tODD

    In my opinion, there is nothing more dangerous than announcing on the Internet that you care about grammar. Doing so is sure to bring about a reaction, both from those who don’t care about writing style … and from those who do!

    FJSteve said (@3):

    I disagree that it makes one look stodgy or, at least, not as stodgy as referring to oneself in the third-person.

    Unnecessary hyphenation. Moreover, the sentence is confusing. Likely it needs an em dash before “or”.

    Personally, in addition to aiding in the communication of the subject at hand, I find the use of proper grammar to be helpful in communicating that one is reasonably well-educated.

    Ooh, misplaced modifier. You’re not the one doing the aiding; the use of proper grammar is. That’s minus ten. Would’be been better written, “I find that, in addition to aiding in the communication of the subject at hand, the use of proper grammar is helpful in communicating that one is reasonably well-educated.” You rarely need to insert the word “personally” into an expression of opinion. It’s understood, and it generally serves only to weaken your stance.

    Orianna said (@5):

    …their teaches wanted them to …

    Spelling. Minus one.

    …many students who have missed much instruction into the workings of language.

    I’m not familiar with the phrase “instruction into”. Did you mean “instruction in”?

    …I am on social media, and It is clear that very few…

    Improper capitalization. Minus one.

  • tODD

    I think we’re losing these distinctions precisely where the rules are ambiguous and yet add no helpful meaning to the sentence.

    Should you say, “I guessed who it was”, since “who” acts as the subject of the latter verb, “was”? Or should you say, “I guessed whom it was”, since “who” acts as the object of the former verb, “guessed”? The de facto answer is: No one cares, because the meaning is clear in either case, and most non-grammarians so inclined could spend far more time arguing the matter than the idea conveyed is worth.

    Rules that help us by properly distinguishing one idea from another will always stay around. Rules that only exist because they were possibly once helpful, but now serve as the basis for trivia questions on grammar tests, not so much.

    Anyhow, Veith asked:

    Do you think we should just let linguistic change happens…

    Well, I certainly won’t let that improper conjugation slide without notice, but in general, that’s akin to asking whether we should do something about plate tectonics. In the world of language, you get one vote. So does everyone else. Good luck.

  • fjsteve

    tODD,

    Please note that I said reasonably well-educated. But I still don’t see the misplaced modifier. I’ll admit to the clumsy construction of my first sentence but, when you think about it, the number of hyphens in the sentence, were it structured properly, is the same. So it’s a wash.

  • kempin04

    The real question raised for me is this:

    Why does the use of proper grammar sound so winsome and elevating in the mouth of an Englishman, and so pretentious and petty in the mouth of an American?

  • fjsteve

    @tODD, never mind. I see it now.

  • tODD

    FJSteve, good. Now never again confuse hyphens and dashes in my presence. :)

    Kempin (@16), Stockholm syndrome? Though I think you meant, “Why’s purty words sound nicely from a UKer?”

  • kempin04

    tODD, #14,

    “Rules that only exist because they were possibly once helpful, but now serve as the basis for trivia questions on grammar tests, not so much.”

    To whom in may concern:

    I believe the previous to be an incomplete sentence. It is, at least, technically incomplete, though the context would make it perfectly clear to whomsoever should read it. I hate to be the one by whom such a comment is made, and I don’t want to be a commenter of whom negative things are said, but those to whom you wrote might appreciate knowing that even you are fallible, though you are a grammarian in whom I place the highest confidence.

    (Of course it is perfectly clear in context, but where’s the technicality in that?)

  • kempin04

    Grr! Left an undeleted line at the bottom! Go ahead . . . mark me down.

  • kempin04

    I just wish the optative would get as much attention as the relative pronoun.

  • Orianna Laun

    Sorry, tODD, I am typing while nursing. (There is something to announce on the Internet!) It is difficult to be 100% all the time. That is what proofreading would be for. Sure, English grammar was started by trying to force the English language into a mold that was reserved for the Latin language. Consequently, sometimes it doesn’t not fit. Other times, it breaks rules where Latin would not. Does language change over time? Sure. Should we encourage slip-shod use of it because it will change anyway? Should we not teach grammar anymore because nobody uses it or know the proper way to use it? Besides, grammar Nazis have a right to work too.
    By the way, your “only” is misplaced in the sentence kempin04 references in comment 19.

  • kempin04

    We must not neglect the imperative!

  • kempin04

    Let us be sure to give the cohortative honor as well.

  • tODD

    Orianna (@22), you said:

    Sure, English grammar was started by trying to force the English language into a mold that was reserved for the Latin language.

    I don’t think that’s true. English, like all languages, has its own grammar.

    What you appear to be referring to is the problem with certain prescriptivist grammarians (of fairly recent vintage) insisting that English, rather than following its own grammar, hold to rules of Latin grammar. And that’s silly. In Latin, you literally can’t split an infinitive. It’s one word. In English, you can — to the degree that we even really have infinitives (and aren’t just applying Latin concepts to languages unfamiliar with them, as Kempin appears to be doing, however amusingly).

    Should we encourage slip-shod use of it because it will change anyway? Should we not teach grammar anymore because nobody uses it or know the proper way to use it?

    Come on. It isn’t all-or-nothing. The question at hand is whether this particular construct is useful. Grammar will always be useful, and it will always exist, because we need to communicate. The question is whether we should fight to maintain rules that are no longer perceived as useful. The history of English has been one in which the historical use of cases has slowly fallen by the wayside. Perhaps you wish it weren’t so, but the subjunctive isn’t exactly necessary anymore to get ideas across. And, as Veith noted, we already went through a simplification of our second-person pronouns. It’s likely to be the same with “who” and “whom”, even if people like you and I continue to enjoy obeying the increasingly irrelevant rules.

    By the way, your “only” is misplaced in ["Rules that only exist because they were possibly once helpful, but now serve as the basis for trivia questions on grammar tests, not so much"]

    Can you explain?

  • helen

    By the way, your “only” is misplaced in ["Rules that only exist because they were possibly once helpful, but now serve as the basis for trivia questions on grammar tests, not so much"]

    Rules that exist only (?)

    they were helpful once, possibly, (?)

    (?) because I learned grammar more by reading British literature than by formal instruction, although I do remember a brief period of sentence diagramming. I doubt I could repeat it accurately now.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com bike bubba

    Somehow I’m reminded of a string of English teachers who seemed to bring grammar to class as a punishment. “Be good, kids, or we’re going to learn about the evils of the comma splice!”

    And mostly, it worked, except as a way to teach grammar.

  • Orianna Laun

    Only is one of the most misplaced modifiers. The rules exist only because would be better placement. It is nit-picky, this is true. Most of grammar is, I suppose; especially to those who could care less. I like grammar, but it was not until recently did I see the value in it. My students hated it. They also hated poetry and music appreciation. They could care less about conjugating verbs or onomatopoeia or the fugue form. To survive in today’s world (one could argue) you don’t need to know these things. Besides, that is what search engines are for, in the event you do.
    If “whom” must be sacrificed on the grammar guillotine, so be it. Still, I beg the higher beings who determine grammar this: please don’t make “your” and “you’re” interchangeable.

  • kempin04

    Up to now I have pretty much been goofing around, but I do have a quasi-serious comment to make.

    I think culture plays a role in this, even if in a marginal or less than conscious way. We are a culture that values rebellion and the circumvention of rules. We do. Some cultures take pride in the heritage of their grammar. We tend to scoff at it. We are not troubled to see an infinitive split, and we feel a bit of satisfation that it is so easy to refute those who question our grammar with a simple smug repetition of the catch-all absolution:

    “You know what I meant.”

    So yes, grammar does evolve. Language does change. But I think that we, particularly, as english speaking americans, delight in hastening that change.

    Word.

  • tODD

    Orianna (@28), two points. First, there are no “higher beings who determine grammar”. It isn’t top-down. We all get one vote.

    Secondly, it’s “couldn’t care less”, meaning that they were at the nadir of caring. If they “could care less”, then they still cared, at least a little bit.

    Kempin (@29), perhaps — though if you look at the history of English, you’ll find quite a lot of change happening before English ever hit these rebellious shores. It may have more to do with the patchwork amalgam that is English, rather than the control of one cultural group.

    Regardless, I am puzzled by the one example you chose to mention: “We are not troubled to see an infinitive split.” That is the silliest of would-be grammar rules. It literally is not an English grammar rule. It comes from a group of people who thought that English should be more like Latin, since Latin was supposedly better. It is not an error to, you know, split infinitives.

  • SKPeterson

    Why English should attempt to adhere to Latin sentence structures is beyond me. English, at its root, is a Germanic language, with a veneer of quasi-Latin in the form of French via the Normans, with a smattering of old Norse, Celtic, Latin and Greek words thrown in to confuse the Chinese. However, even within this Germanic base, English is more fluid, inventive and organic, as a language than German or even to the Latin with which some are so apparently devoted. Let the infinitives be split, the declaratives rest, and the contexts be unfurled. Our language, be it Queens or Bronx, will live on.

  • fjsteve

    I personally like the even more nonsensical “could care a less”.

    Kind of adds a like country charm.

  • kempin04

    tODD, #30,

    “Regardless, I am puzzled by the one example you chose to mention: “We are not troubled to see an infinitive split.””

    To begin with, I had intended to boldly split that infinitive, only to realize–too late–that “to see” voided my effort. Sigh. Without getting that wrong, no one likely noticed my improper use of “who,” which just wrecks that whole ironic note I was trying to achieve.

    Anyway, I chose the example because in my opinion the split infinitive epitomizes the snooty correction of grammar with no connection to actual usage. I suppose I could have chosen to end my sentence with a preposition. It might have made it clearer where I was coming from.

  • kempin04

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6nj6Ozj_UA8

    (You have to skip ahead to 5:30.)

  • Orianna Laun

    tODD, the whole “higher beings” was a joke. I didn’t feel comfortable saying “grammar gods.” That may be my Baptist-Lutheran upbringing. And yes, my students–most of them–had to care a little bit. After all, there was a grade involved, and the pesky (I also say that more or less jokingly) state required English for them to be able to graduate from high school. There were some who (pardon the phrase–I don’t wish to make the same mistake twice) didn’t give a d@&n. Maybe the person of whom I am thinking secretly LOVED grammar. After all, she took it three times.
    My two children are still in the midst of language acquisition. One is learning words; the older is learning how to use them. The older still says things like “foots”or “feets” for the plural of “foot.” We work on proper usage so that communication is clear. After all, is that not the point? Sure, who even knows the difference between the pluperfect and the past potentate (another joke there) anymore? Does that mean there is no value in knowing, even if there will never be the opportunity to use it?
    It reminds me of the professor who was at the lunch counter and ordered strawberries and cream. He received a bowl of strawberries with cream poured over them. He called the waitress over and informed her he had ordered “strawberries AND cream,” but she had brought strawberries WITH cream.” She asked what the difference was. He said, “Would you say a woman AND child is the same as a woman WITH child?”
    Yes, language evolves, but it actually devolves. I will post a link when I find it, as my computer is apt to reload pages when I switch screens.

  • kempin04

    Completely off topic, but does anyone here use a chromebook?

  • Orianna Laun

    I wish I could find the article I read years ago which discussed how language is becoming less complex. It showed how ancient languages had many verb tenses and plurals were constructed in a more complicated manner. Alas, that article was shared with me by a collegue in hard copy form before social media and links and all, so I cannot find a link to the article without serious digging. In lieu of that, I will offer this one. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/interactive/2013/feb/12/state-of-the-union-reading-level


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