1 Nov 2009

More evidence of the death of “whom”

Posted by dumpendebat

Even the New York Times, America’s newspaper of record, has lost the ability to get the who/whom distinction right. Here’s a sentence from an article in today’s Sunday Book Review section:

Rand, whose books are full of masterful, sexually dominating heroes, quickly fell in love with this confused boy, whom she decided was the “intellectual heir” she had been waiting for.

If you’re ever confused about when to use who and when to use whom, use the “he/him-substitution” method.

Who = subject = HE
Whom = object = HIM

You can see where the author of this book review went wrong if you use this “he/him” method.

Take the clause where the author went astray: whom she decided was the “intellectual heir” she had been waiting for.

First, see if “who” would work. Try substituting “he” for “who”:

(1) She decided he was the "intellectual heir" she had been waiting for.

That looks and sounds like good English. So far, so good. No problem with who.

Next, try substituting “him” for “whom,” and look what happens:

(2) *She decided him was the "intellectual heir" she had been waiting for.

Yikes! That’s not how we say it in English, readers. That’s ungrammatical.

“Him was the intellectual heir” is obviously ungrammatical. Thus, you can’t say “she fell in love with this boy… whom she decided was the intellectual heir.” No, “she fell in love with this boy… who she decided was the intellectual heir.”

Whom is worthless, readers. We don’t need it in English anymore. It’s a relic of the long-ago days when English still had a functioning case system.

Even college-educated native speakers of English have trouble using whom correctly. This is OK — whom serves no purpose. It’s a relic. It would be all for the best if we would just let whom die a natural death, like it would have done hundreds of years ago if left to its own devices. But it hangs on artificially, deployed almost randomly on occasions when someone is consciously trying to write or speak in a “formal” register.

Notice, too, how the author of the book review had no compunction whatsoever about ending that sentence with a preposition. That’s good, that’s healthy. That’s how people use English in real life. Most educated speakers of English understand that “never end a sentence with a preposition” was always a very silly, arbitrary “rule” (a “rule” that was dragged screaming into English from Latin grammar, no less), and it no longer raises eyebrows when we ignore that ridiculous “rule” even on semi-formal occasions (such as a NYT book review).

But here, the author was so afraid that who might be “wrong” that he fell victim to hypercorrection and stuck in whom instead.

It’s time to say goodbye to whom, a relic that has long since outlived its usefulness.

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