Friday, April 5, 2013

Whom you gonna call?

Just after reading an amusing Atlantic piece by Megan Garber on the decline of the pronoun whom, I saw on the sports page of the Orlando Sentinel this morning the headline: "Whom to trust--a coach or an accused robber?"

I wondered if the readers of the sports page were really so demanding and traditional in their grammatical usage as to expect "whom" in this construction since, as Garber and others have pointed out, "whom" has been slowly dying for a long time; it's been on a decline since 1826.

Will we speakers and writers of English be using who instead of whom as the object of a verb or preposition exclusively in the future?  Garber and others say Yes, that it will have disappeared in 50 to 100 years because it costs readers more than it benefits them. It has become a pompous word.

The problem?  Confusion over whether the word is in the subject or object slot in a sentence, as in these examples, which make "who" the correct or standard choice and "whom" the antiquated choice since, yes, grammar does change as language usage changes.

1.  Jack said to his wife, whom he had just learned had been unfaithful to him with the man next door, "Go to hell."  Problem: The writer thinks that "whom" is the object of "learned" when in fact it is the subject of "had been unfaithful," the "he had just learned" being parenthetical.  It is easy to be confused by the grammar of such a sentence.

2. I don't believe in relying on whomever is sitting at the table.  Problem: "whomever" is not the object of "on," as the writer thinks, but the subject of the verb "is sitting."  Few people bother to figure such things out.

WHO has been traditionally been the personal pronoun used in the subject slot, WHOM in the object slot. Now, with "whom" being increasingly loathed and avoided, we can use "who" not just for subjects but in general--unless the effect is totally jarring.

So it's Who do you trust?  and Who you gonna call?--or preferably, Who are you going to call?  And, instead of "To whom am I speaking?" we can say something simpler: "Who is speaking?"

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