Who are you going to believe about whether to use whom?
If you think you can get a little obsessive about your favorite subject, you should meet Stan Carey, who last week posted 4,000 words on his Sentence First blog about the usage of who and whom.
That’s not counting charts, graphs and a video.
Carey, an Irish “scientist and writer turned editor and swivel-chair linguist,” is not the only person to whom who vs. whom is fascinating. Follow-ups on the Guardian’s Mind Your Language Blog, on the Economist’s Johnson language blog and on the You Don’t Say blog by Baltimore Sun copy editor John E. McIntyre account for another 1,000 words.
Whew! Who has the time to read all that, and whom cares about who vs. whom anyway?
Who vs. whom is one of those grammar questions that isn’t so much a grammar question as a philosophical one. The rules about when to use “whom” are pretty straightforward. Here’s a good practical tip from the Office Grammarian post linked above:
Think of it this way: rephrase the sentence and take out who/whom. If you rephrase and use he/she/they, then “who” is the right one, but if you rephrase and use him/her/them, then “whom” is the right one.
I think—I’m not even sure—that it’s a little more complicated than that in a few situations, but use that trick and you’ll be in the top 1 percent of who/whom users.
The philosophical part comes in when you use “whom” and you feel like a stiff, awkward ninny, even if “whom” is correct. Imagine Bo Diddley singing “Whom Do You Love?”
As Mike Pope writes on his mike’s web log, “If native speakers of a language — including many people who obviously read and write just fine — need schooling to learn a feature of their native grammar, that feature of the grammar is on artificial life support.”
Here’s a short summary on the state of whom, about which there is general but not unanimous consensus at the links cited above and elsewhere:
- In formal writing, “whom” is still used. It is not “on life support.”
- In everyday speech, “whom” is almost nonexistent. When it is used, it is almost always used self-consciously, by people who want to make a point of speaking formally.
- In less formal writing, which includes journalism, it’s a mixed bag. Whom still gets used—sometimes correctly!—but, as National Geographic’s Style Manual puts it, “conversational use is blurring the lines and whom is disappearing from informal writing.”
Here’s how Reuters puts it in its Handbook of Journalism:
Who is the subject, whom the object of a verb. As a rough guide as to which word to use, substitute he or him for the who or whom and see which makes sense. But we should follow common usage and be ready to use who as the object where this sounds and looks more natural, e.g. Who she met at the midnight rendezvous was not yet known.
So, now that I’ve added almost 1,000 more words to the pile: Who to believe? Or whom to believe?
I’m a proponent of informal, casual but still grammatical writing. That is, I think you should write the way you talk, more or less, assuming you talk like a reasonably intelligent person. And it’s highly unlikely that you use “whom” when you talk, although if you find yourself with a who/whom choice immediately after a preposition, you have to go with whom, as in the third paragraph of this post, or the phrase “for whom the bell tolls.”
But that’s rare enough that about half of the blog posts ever written about who vs. whom have headlines that are a play on the phrase “for whom the bell tolls.”
You have to know your publication. Carey’s post takes a survey of various style guides and notes which demand fealty to the formal rules and which are, like Reuters, more liberal. Given the casual tone of most Bleacher Report content, “who” is generally fine, though we certainly don’t object to the formally correct use of “whom.”