Object whom

From a Gail Collins op-ed piece in the NYT (2/24/11, p. A27), “Revenge of the Pomeranians”:

Also, why is the federal government in danger of shutting down? Whom can I blame for this? Does it have anything to do with what’s going on in Wisconsin? Did Congress pass a budget last year at all? Why not?

The whom caught my eye. It’s prescriptively “correct”, since the lexeme WHO is serving here in an object function (in this case, it’s the direct object of blame), but still it was jarring to me, especially in the context of Collins’s breezy and informal style. (Not that Collins was necessarily responsible for the whom in this column; it might have been introduced by an editor.)

Earlier discussion of such cases here, in connection with this passage in the NYT:

As Mr. Netanyahu was fond of saying [of Israeli proposals for Palestine], you can call that a state if you wish, but whom are you kidding? (Hussein Agha and Robert Malley, “The Two-State Solution Doesn’t Solve Anything”, NYT op-ed piece, 8/11/09, p. A17)

Some more items from my file of passages where a “correct” whom in object function struck me as somewhat discordant:

So whom would you choose as your musical dream date for this Götterdämmerung moment: the chaste nun-in-training who loves nature and children, or the sexy nightclub singer who loves a cabaret? (Ben Brantley’s theater column, NYT 1/20/07, p. A15)

To anyone whom limited space and memory have caused me to omit, please forgive me and know that I am thankful. (Jabari Asim, acknowledgments for The N Word, p. vii)

The two most authoritative collections [of hadith, the sayings and doings of Muhammad], Rowson says, don’t mention sodomy. In the remaining four, the most important citation reads: “Those whom you find performing the act of the people of Lot, kill both the active and the passive partner.” (Nadya Labi, “The Kingdom in the Closet”, The Atlantic May 2007, p. 80)

An inventory of postings on who vs. whom in Language Log and this blog can be found here. The most important material is in the first seven sections of “Whom shall I say [ ___ is calling ]?” (here), where I explain two systems of case marking for WHO (distributing Form1, variously called nominative, subjective, or subject case, and Form2, variously called accusative, objective, or object case): the older Prescriptive System (still taken by many to to be the “correct”, indeed the only correct, system), which I’ve elsewhere called System A, and the newer Standard System (which has been spreading at least since Shakespeare’s time, to the point where usage critics were already concerned in the 19th century that whom was “disappearing”), which I’ve elsewhere called System B.

In System A, Form2 of WHO is associated with object function (though with several important complexities), while in System B, Form2 of WHO is used for an object (of a preposition or a verb) only when WHO is actually in construction with its governor. (Details in the “Whom shall I say” posting. An especially important detail is that case marking for WHO is not entirely parallel to case marking for definite personal pronouns like HE.)

A fair number of speakers shift between the two systems on stylistic grounds, using System B generally but shifting to System A in contexts they believe call for an extremely formal style — yielding what I’ll call System A/B. Doing this requires some judgment as to which contexts call for System A, and different people have different takes on the matter, so the way is open for differing assessments of the results. I’m a pretty consistent System B user, so I’m likely to find some occurrences of whom (from users of System A or A/B) discordant in their contexts.

Usage advice tends to be deaf to all these complexities and subtleties and to fall back on unexamined dogma about case marking. Take, for example, the treatment of who vs. whom in Grammar Sucks (hereafter, GS) by Joanne Kimes with Gary Robert Muschla (pp. 151-6), which I talked about in an earlier posting.

[Note: I am about to trash a piece of this advice book, not because I’m against giving advice about grammar, usage, and style — quite the contrary — but because  I object to bad and unhelpful advice, especially when it’s based on fallacious assumptions and delivered in a patronizing tone.]

GS‘s exposition on who and whom is framed by an insulting irrelevancy:

This dastardly duo of pronouns are [I would have used is, but let that pass] responsible for more confusion than the transgender movement of the 1980s. (p. 151)

and continues:

… as confusing as these two ponderous pronouns can be, there is no reason to worry your pretty little head. [how patronizing is that?] For once again, I’m here for you and will teach you a simple trick of the trade that will help you determine which pronoun to use. Since who is a subjective case pronoun, it can be used in the same types of constructions that he, she, and they can. (He, she, and they are subjective case pronouns.) Since whom is an objective case pronoun, … (p. 152)

Well, you can see where this is going. It assumes that WHO and the definite personal pronouns follow the same scheme of case marking (though this is not so even in System A, and it is dramatically not so in System B) and that this scheme aligns the cases straightforwardly with syntactic functions (perhaps via a bit of verbal magic in which subjective and objective cases are by definition aligned with subject and object functions). These are all hypotheses, requiring some demonstration, but in GS they’re just asserted as truths.

Then we get to

Who did you send the package to?

At a first glance, most people would find this sentence to be just peachy keen. [oh, spare us the cutesy tone!] In fact, if this question were on the SATs, most people would only warrant a score worthy of a local community college. [and spare us the social put-downs!] For in truth, the sentence is incorrect. In it, the prepositional phrase is split, the preposition to being placed at the end of the sentence (more on why you should never do this — at least on the SATs — in chapter 14 [yes, that old usage superstition that “preposition at end” is incorrect!]) Although the construction is very common today in both informal and formal conversation and writing, it doesn’t mean that you can use who. You still must use whom because an objective case pronoun is needed. (pp. 153-4)

Wrong is wrong, and right is right, no matter what.

Remember that this is supposed to be advice for people who need it — to succeed in school, on the job, at work, and in social relations. So the conclusion of this section is especially remarkable; after working through parallels between who/whom and he/him, GS insists on whom rather than who in

I wonder ___ Bill contacted.

and sums up:

If you didn’t get that one …, don’t be too hard on yourself. I said at the beginning of this section that the whole who/whom thing is confusing. But maybe you were okay with the transgender thing of the early ’80s since things do have a way of evening themselves out in the end. Just be patient, and when in doubt, use who. Not that it’ll be correct, but most people substitute who for whom [the verb substitute is telling here] and only the geniuses in grammar ever know the difference. [then why the hell are we getting this advice?] Besides, you have a fifty-fifty chance of being right. Sure, people who use who and whom correctly are distinguished from the crowd [so superiority, not competence and effectiveness, is the point of the exercise], but they’re often made fun of behind their backs. [“Whom ya gonna call? WHOBUSTERS!] Like I said, things have a way of evening themselves out in the end [I still don’t get the moral lesson that GS is trying to teach here]. (pp. 155-6)

Laugh, weep, or rage — take your pick. I’m going for rage right now.

12 Responses to “Object whom

  1. Eamonn McManus Says:

    Whom do you think you are kidding Mr Hitler?

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Love(r)ly. Of course System B has been long identified with vernacular, “sloppy”, non-standard speech, despite the facts of elite usage. In any case, “Whom do you think you are kidding?” would be just absurd, as would have been “Whom Do You Trust” for the name of a 1950s tv show.

  2. jbl Says:

    Wow, that was fun. In your terms I prefer the prescriptive system when writing and sometimes when speaking; but though I recognize the “wrongness” of standard system usage that prefers “who” to “whom”, I can live with it and use it myself in speech. But each of the examples demonstrating incorrect “whom” in your lengthy Language Log explanation felt wrong to me instinctively. (In my thinking I have always used subjective / objective to decide which is correct, but I guess I have always been pretty good at picking the clause that who[m][ever] belonged to.) Anyhow, I never saw the issues of “who[m]” deconstructed to this level before.

    “To whom are you referring, sir?” “Youm, that’s whom!”

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Just a reminder: the examples I collected with “whom” were all prescriptively “correct” (but you knew that). What’s interesting is that you seem to share my unease with them. Looks like there are some shared values here that cut across our actual usage.

      • jbl Says:

        I don’t know if unease is what I feel, but I do notice these and often stop to check that they are correct. The examples I recognized as “incorrect” (prescriptively) were from “Whom shall I say [ ___ is calling ]” sections 9-11 or so.

  3. Ellen K. Says:

    “Since who is a subjective case pronoun, it can be used in the same types of constructions that he, she, and they can.”

    That strikes me as preposterous right there. Seems to me most constructions that use who or whom are not constructions where you could use he, she, or they, or him, her, or it. And even “Who is going?” I do not personally see as the same construction as “He is going.”

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Yes, it can take some contortion to construct the definite personal pronoun counterparts to the examples with WHO; you have to “undo” the extraction of WH elements.

  4. The Ridger Says:

    Wow. Somebody has some issues with transgender folks – I really can see no point at all in that being there except to gratuitously insult people.

    However, I must say that in the hadith example (“Those whom you find performing the act of the people of Lot, kill both the active and the passive partner.”) the whom feels proper. This may be because it lends the whole sentence a combined archaic/translated air of spurious authority, or it may just fit with the rest of its stiffness (“the act of the people of Lot”).

  5. Dangling advice « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Arnold Zwicky's Blog A blog mostly about language « Object whom […]

  6. The siren song of whom « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] be stylistically much more natural (discussion of some other cases of “Object whom“ here): Jackie [a man] wants to make love, but Veronica has something on her mind. She’s been seeing […]

  7. Who(m) to V « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] function. The earlier prescriptive standard (what I call System A in my “Object whom” posting) turns out to be difficult for people to master; people are inclined to use whom in more places […]

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