Says Whom?

Has anybody but me noticed how people are bending over backward not to be caught saying “who” when “whom” is, supposedly, correct? Like, “Whom do you think it is?” when every English Composition teacher knows it should be “Who do you think it is?”–because “is” is an intransitive verb, which means it does not take an object. So, when you diagram the sentence (what? you don’t know how to diagram a sentence?) it reads, “You think it is who,” (I don’t know how to put an actual line diagram into this paragraph, so trust me). Ergo (Latin for “therefore,” which is appropriate here because most of this grammar business is an attempt to make English conform to rules of Latin grammar [the ending “m” is a sign of the accusative or objective case in Latin…ergo…]) in this case “who” rather than “whom” is correct.

That’s a fairly easy one because “Who do you think it is?” sounds right to most of us. But how about, “It depends on who[m] you ask.”? Diagrammed it reads, “It depends on you ask whom.” Clearly objective case, calling for “whom.” Right? But it sounds awful, unless knowing you’re using correct grammar makes that kind of barbarism sound pleasing, like (or should I say “as”?) knowing they are eating healthy food makes it taste better, to some people.

It’s really pathetic, by which I mean painful, watching the anxiety some of us endure about our who‘s and whom‘s. I mean, it’s our bloody language, isn’t it? We change it all the time, though certainly not without anxiety for those who can’t accept that language is a living thing and will evolve whether they approve or not. It was a no-no not so long ago to end a sentence with the word “at,” as in, “We have no idea where we’re at.” Now it’s commonplace, in fact acceptable, to do so, even among the best educated. Currently I hear more and more broadcasters using “went” for “gone,” as in, “He had already went to the mound.” That one really hurts my ear, but I know that if the usage persists long enough “gone” will go the way of the prohibition against ending a sentence with “at.”

But back to “who” and “whom.” I think I have a way out for anyone afraid of using the wrong word (this may sound very French to some, the French being adamant that they do not speak in double negatives [“ne…pas“], which would be an illogical thing to do and therefore impossible for any French person; but I assure you what I am about to propose is 100% American): When in doubt, say “who.” Because in most tricky situations it really should be “who”–and not just because it’s our language and we should be able to speak it in a way that feels comfortable to us. “Who” can in fact be defended on grammatical grounds just as well as the French defend their double negative (the latter being a time-honored usage in English, by the way, even among the literati).

Here’s how. When we say something like, “Who do you like in the upcoming election?” it can reasonably be argued that we are really saying, “Who is it you like in the upcoming election?” Ta da. Intransitive verb, therefore nominative case “who.” Diagrammed: “You like who is it [or, it is who] in the upcoming election.” “Who” must be nominative case because it is the subject of the phrase “who is it.”

I think you’ll find this works in most cases. If someone corrects your “who” to a “whom,” just tell them “who it is” is “understood,” i.e. there but unsaid. Which I think is perfectly valid, which is why we say it that way naturally. In France, busboys and street cleaners don’t hesitate to correct your French. They also have a language academy that decides what is and what is not acceptable French, with real penalties for using banned words and phrases in public. Some of us would like to have that for English as well. The rest like things just the way they are, however unruly things get.

If your academic success, though, depends on getting it right, ie. according to currently accepted grammatical rules, you’d better learn when to use who and when to use whom the way the teacher wants.

About Thomas J. Hubschman

Thomas J. Hubschman is the author of Look at Me Now, My Bess, Song of the Mockingbird, Billy Boy, Father Walther’s Temptation, The Jew’s Wife & Other Stories and three science fiction novels. His work has appeared in New York Press, The Antigonish Review, Eclectica, The Blue Moon Review and many other publications. Two of his short stories were broadcast on the BBC World Service.

Posted on November 3, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. As supposed help, this article was vague and unclear. Bad. Fail

  2. No doubt, Rita. It was not meant to be taken literally. It’s meant as a comment on the absurdity of our preoccupation with verbal correctness at the expense of natural English.

  3. I don’t remember reading this post before, but if I had I would have loved it. Like you, I learned all about transitive and intransitive verbs, when the objective and when the subjective should be used, etc. And like you, I think as a consequence of this learning, too many people miss the fact that language is not a fixed rule-book. It’s a living process that changes with the times, with those who use it, and the situations in which we are speaking or writing.

    It seems to me that with global communication, those rules and various situations in which they are used are changing faster than ever.

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