Whoville vs. Whomville

Whoville vs. Whomville March 25, 2013

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?

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