Friday, January 16, 2009

Does "Whom" Still Exist?

After a winter holiday, the Grammar Gang is back! We want to poll our readers and ask whether the word "whom" still has a place in their everyday vocabulary. Do you still use, or perhaps hear others using, the relative/interrogative pronoun "whom?" Or do the people who use "whom" all sound like nineteenth-century Victorians who just stepped out of a time machine?

What is the word "whom" anyway, and how should you use it?

"Whom" is a pronoun that always refers to a person. You would never use "whom" to refer to your pet rock or your most recent video game purchase. Secondly, "whom" provides a signal that the person in question is the direct object of the verb. In other words, whomever (see!) the "whom" refers to is receiving the action of the verb (not performing the action). As my German 102 instructor once said, the direct object is the thing that is being verbed.

"Whom" can function as a relative pronoun or an interrogative pronoun. Though the names of these words may sound scary, they stand for a group of words that you probably use everyday. The relative pronoun introduces additional information about someone or something. There are specific relative pronouns:

who, whom, that, which, whose, where, when, and why

The name, relative pronoun, comes from the type of clause that it introduces, namely the relative clause. These clauses are subordinate clauses (i.e. cannot stand alone as complete sentences), and they provide additional information about someone or something. Here are two examples:

The man, who is standing in the corner, is my father.
The boy, whom the teacher told to go outside, is crying.

There are many questions surrounding relative clauses at the moment. Some of them have to do with punctuation (to comma or not to comma), and some of them have to do with the pronouns themselves, such as whether you can use "that" to refer to a person. For more on relative clauses, you can visit the materials published by the OWL here:

So, who will answer this post? And to whom shall I reply?


Dedene said...

First of all, thanks for the good explanation of whom.

I still use this word, instinctively. But I tell my French students who are learning English to forget about it in day-to-day use. I want them to recognize the word but I'm less concerned if they learn to use it.

med tutor said...

I seldom use the word "whom", except in formal situations. I occasionally speak the word but almost never write it.

Anonymous said...

'To whom it may concern'
I think that 'whom' is becoming unfashionable in everyday English speech but is still used in formal writing like the phrase above in letters of introduction or references.
I like to use whom when I am looking to emphasise a point when speaking. For example: 'To whom am I speaking?'
Great grammar point Brady!


Rachel Cotterill said...

I'm erratic about whether I use it in speech. I avoid it in my writing (unless editorial guidelines dictate otherwise) because I would prefer to be consistent, and being consistently correct requires much more effort than a simple search/replace at the end to remove any 'whom's which have crept in.

Does anyone apart from me still use 'one'? I got mocked for that at school but I still say it instinctively.

Brady Spangenberg said...

Great point, Rachel. "One" is another pronoun that is falling into daily usage oblivion. I think the loss of the indefinite third person pronoun is even more lamentable than "whom," mostly because "one" is being replaced by "you." It is possible to avoid "whom" in one's writing, mostly because it is only used in a few specific cases. On the other hand, there are many more instances that require "one/you." As most of us have come to learn, it only takes one "you" to wreck a perfectly good paper in the eyes of our readers.

Rachel Randolph said...

Great blog! I really enjoyed this post on the use of whom and whether it still exists. I used to be intimidated by the word and avoided using it, but once I finally understood the rules of usage, I started to use it more often.

Dianna Booher's book, Booher's Rules of Business Grammar: 101 Fast and Easy Ways to Correct the Most Common Errors (McGraw-Hill) has an easy memory tip that has helped me.

Substitute he (the subject word) and him (the object word) for who and whom and let your ear do the rest. If he sounds right, use who or whoever. If him sounds right, use whom or whomever.

I know the word is fading and in most cases can be avoided, but it never hurts to know the proper usage.

To your continued success,
Rachel Randolph

Anonymous said...

I'm with Susanna on this one. Sometimes you're on the phone and you expect the caller or receiver to identify themselves as a matter of courtsey, but they don't! It then sounds rather rude to ask, 'Who am I taking to?'. However, asking 'To whom am I speaking?' makes the point politely and achieves the required response.
I think this is the only context where I use 'whom'.

RoseAddict said...

I love your German instructor's definition of a direct object as something that's being verbed. lol

I not only use whom, but I also know when to use it and why. More and more I hear bombastic people using the word when they want to sound important and knowledgeable. Instead, they just sound stupid. And no, I don't sound like a Victorian escapee; I sound like someone who paid atten in third grade. It's not that complicated.

This was a good post, mostly. However, the statement that "Secondly, whom provides a signal that the person in question is the direct object of the verb. In other words, whomever (see!) the whom refers to is receiving the action of the verb (not performing the action)" was incorrect. Whom can signal that the person may be a direct object. It can also be an indirect object, or more commonly, the object of a preposition, the prepositional phrase serving as an indirect or direct object. Your final question (And to whom shall I reply?) is an example of the latter. But whom is always an object of something, be it verb or preposition.

A related pair of words that are very often misused is whoever and whomever. People often assume that the word form after a pronoun has to be the object whom or whomever. But when there is a whomever clause serving as the object of a preposition, then whomever is not the object itself; then entire clause is. Whoever would be the subject of the verb in the clause, so using whomever is a mistake.

Example: I will give the pen to whoever raises her hand first. (Not whomever.)

Anonymous said...

Which of the following two sentence is correct and does use of a phrasal verb (stand for) make a difference to the usual rule of "whom" after a preposition?:

1. Who do NGOs really stand for?
2. For whom do NGOs really stand for?

(NGO = non-government organisation (a charity in everyday parlance).

Brady Spangenberg said...

This is a situation that really does not have a good answer. Both sentences seem awkward, but there really aren't any other options. The first recommendation is to substitute "what" for "who/m," because "who/m" should really be used in place of persons, and (argue with me if you like) organizations are not people. Secondly, the best advice is to select another, non-phrasal verb like "mean," as in, "What does NGO mean?"

Hope this helps,

Andrea Duff said...

Hi - I indadvertently deleted a comment which I distinctly remember had a reference to the use of 'whom' as being 'academic BS'. I wonder if whoever (note, I did not say 'whomever' or 'whomsoever' wrote it could post it again because it was a feisty and useful post - I thought.