Who's afraid of whom? You know who

Posted Thursday, Mar. 28, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
A

Have more to add? News tip? Tell us

At the Atlantic, Megan Garber alerts us to the news that "whom" is falling out of fashion.

Whom is creeping slowly out of our vocabulary, trying to avoid notice, like someone crawling up the middle aisle during a movie.

"It's not who you know," the Rev. Peter Gomes used to intone, "it's whom." It was the sort of statement one expected from someone dubbed the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister at Harvard.

People recommend that we take an approach to "whom" similar to Mark Twain's approach to "very": "Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very'; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be."

We can do without "whom." Or can we?

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. Or Of Those to Whom Much Is Given, Much Is Required. To Whom It May Concern. From Whom All Blessings Flow.

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.

"To whom am I speaking?" People just don't talk like that anymore. )

Usage, on the whole, has declined. Michele Bachmann recently was tossing around rogue "literally"s on the House floor, announcing that Obamacare needs to be stopped before it "literally kills." Literally is the adverb that cried wolf. Literally has awakened us at 3 a.m. too many times, shouting that the British are coming. "Literally?" we ask, grabbing our muskets. "No, figuratively," it says. "But we needed it to sound urgent!"

It is Bachmann's kind of careless usage that has diluted literally to its present state, when you almost always assume "figuratively" is meant when you hear "literally."

Good grammar is like all those days you wear your underwear on the right side of your pants: It goes sadly unremarked upon. But slip up one time and that's what 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 also one of the few Nazi comparisons that we have permitted to stand unchallenged. 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.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog for The Washington Post.

Looking for comments?

We welcome your comments on this story, but please be civil. Do not use profanity, hate speech, threats, personal abuse, images, internet links or any device to draw undue attention. Our policy requires those wishing to post here to use their real identity.

Our commenting policy | Facebook commenting FAQ | Why Facebook?