The power of lore and dogma

I’ll start with an image from Peter Galazka, passed on by Tim Evanson on Google+, involving who vs. whom and (in)formal style, and then move to Geoff Pullum on “Normal and Formal” on the Lingua Franca blog, also on who vs. whom.

First, the image:

Yes, this has two men kissing — a potent and pleasing image for me. But I’m posting it here for the way it deploys the forms of the interrogative pronoun WHO — using the “nominative” form who when it’s in the object function within a PP — a canonical place for the “accusative” form whom, you would think.

(I’ll continue to use the traditional case names, which I’ve put in scare quotes here, though I’d prefer arbitrary labels, like “Form1” and “Form2” in this posting, so as to avoid the suggestion that you can conclude something about the syntax of these forms from their names.)

But I hope that if you have a reasonably open mind, you’ll agree that the who above is a lot less jarring than the who in

(2) For who is it shocking?

would be. The difference is that

(1) Shocking? For who?

has the PP for who “in situ”, in an AdjP shocking for who, understood as a predicative in something like

This is shocking for who?

(an exclamatory query), while (2) has the PP for who fronted in its clause. WH PPs in situ are informal, conversational, while fronted WH PPs are neutral in style — but formal if they have the form whom as object. The result is that (1) is stylistically concordant, while

(1′) Shocking? For whom?

is somewhat discordant, in the same way that a P-object who is somewhat discordant in echo  (or incredulity) questions and reclamatory questions:

A: I talked to Mark Zuckerberg.
B [incredulous]: You talked to who? / ?whom?

A: I talked to [mumble-mumble-mumble].
B [trying to retrieve the mumbled part]: You talked to who? / ?whom?

(The preposed question mark indicates some degree of stylistic discord, not ungrammaticality.)

Some earlier postings on this blog on the interaction between style and the choice of who vs. whom:

4/25/11: The siren song of whom (link): on Sluicing

4/18/12: Who(m) to V (link): on to-infinitival interrogatives, with a mention of WH echo / reclamatory questions

5/12/12: Quant of whom (link): on Quantifier + of whom relatives

5/14/12: Another informal WH construction (link): on exclamatory interrogatives

5/20/12: That’s WH! (link): on the X, that’s WH! construction in answers to questions

In each of these cases (except Quantifier + of whom), the informality of a construction favors who over whom even though the pronoun WHO is serving in an object function — this contrary to usage lore and usage dogma stipulating that whom is the only acceptable form for WHO in such functions.

Which brings me to Geoff Pullum on the Lingua Franca blog at the Chronicle of Higher Education site: “Normal and Formal” on January 18th:

It is time to address the commenter whose reaction to my remarks about they with singular antecedents was to say this:

Too bad this article about pronoun agreement has a grammatical error in the first sentence: “… who I will call Mary” should be “whom I will call Mary”. Even the lead-in had a similar error: “Who are you supposed to trust on grammar if you can’t trust a native-speaking grammarian’s own considered usage? Geoff Pullum wonders.” Shame on you, New York Times and Geoffrey Pullum.

My post concerned the riddle of why some people are so extraordinarily reluctant to take anything they read, even well-edited prose by expert native speakers, as evidence about English, rather than evidence that some inarticulate clod has mangled it. But even as I try to explain why such dogmatism is a conceptual error, people commit it again. Those I am trying to reach seem unable to understand or even hear me. It is like talking to a cat.

… The accusative form whom (recently discussed by my colleague Lucy Ferris) is a classic marker of elevated style level in contemporary Standard English. The style that most of us use in e-mail and conversations is clearly distinct from a strictly formal one that is appropriate for official occasions or particularly solemn prose.

For brevity, I will call the two roughly characterized styles Normal and Formal. Every grammarian knows the differences. I know them far better than most because of my actual grammar-writing and grammar-teaching activities.

… proper use of English is not defined by relentless use of Formal… Formal can sound very clunky indeed. (Strict compliance with New York Times style means sticking almost entirely to Formal, and that’s not necessarily a good thing about the Times.) The point is to decide on the impression and tone you’re aiming for. And I’m writing a blog post, for heaven’s sake, not an inscription to be chiseled into a college president’s headstone. I’m chatting with you and a few thousand other close friends and colleagues. I want to sound roughly the way I would in conversation. We’re all educated, but we use Normal in our everyday interactions and office meetings, and (I certainly hope) in our teaching.

In such contexts, the actual frequency of clauses beginning with whom in contemporary English conversations and e-mails approaches zero, especially for main clauses. Things have been headed this way for more than a hundred years. When Lord Henry asks Dorian, “Who are you in love with?” in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray [1890], it doesn’t mean Lord Henry flunked grammar; it means he speaks in Normal style, like most of us.

Geoff is confronting the idea, widespread in America, that beginning clauses with whom is obligatory in WH gap-filler constructions (interrogatives or relatives) when the gap is in a non-subject function. The idea originates as usage lore handed down by teachers and passed on informally and then reinforced as usage dogma articulated by authorities — this despite the practice of expert native speakers, even in carefully edited prose. It’s hard to credit the power of lore and dogma.

Now consider the commenter (“wordcat”) who wrote:

I’m a little concerned … at the ease with which you treat the ultimately arbitrary and fluid distinctions you draw [Normal vs. Formal] as carved in stone. Why are you so quick to dismiss as “unnatural” the choice “Whom are you supposed to trust”? To some of us such construction comes quite naturally. The label seems unnecessarily pejorative. I know many Brits and Americans of all generations who would quite readily go for the “whom” construction and seem perfectly normal when they say it. I think you should be a little more generous in this respect, otherwise you risk appearing as  nitpicking and parochial as your heckler.

wordcat just dismisses the distinctions of style that Geoff explained and feels aggrieved that the choice of whom might be seen as “unnatural”, when wordcat finds this choice natural. But of course Geoff didn’t say that choosing whom is always wrong, only that it’s a poor choice in many contexts, where you risk sounding pompous, prissy, socially distant, and so on.

Another commenter (“nordicexpat”) responds to wordcat with some facts:

There’s almost always a significant difference between what people say and what they think they say, which is why linguists increasingly use corpora (a collection of texts in machine readable form) rather than intuition to support their claims. If you check the Corpus of Contemporary American English (a 425 million word corpus) you will only find 150 examples of “whom” appearing at the beginning of a sentence. If you limit your search to spoken English, the number drops down to 23. If you look at the British National Corpus (a 100 million word corpus), you will find only 20 examples of “whom” appearing at the beginning of a sentence. And, again, if you limit the search to spoken English, the number drops down to 3. While I am sure that there are many people who say that [they] would readily use “whom” instead of “who” in a construction like “Whom are you supposed to trust?” the simple fact of the matter is that not many people do.

In a way, it’s astounding that the corpus figures are so low, given the scorn heaped on non-subject who. But it seems that in this case the power of lore and dogma engenders explicit negative judgments about other people’s usages (Geoff Pullum can’t write grammatical English!) without having much effect on the implicit choices made by speakers and writers.

(I wonder, in fact, how many of those sentence-initial whoms in written English were the result of editing to satisfy style sheets.)

6 Responses to “The power of lore and dogma”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Lane Green on Google+:

    I do love Geoff’s shorthand of “normal” and “formal”.

  2. Greg Lee Says:

    I have no whom in my native English at all. But I don’t recall ever in my life being corrected by someone who said I mistakenly used who for whom. Part of that is avoiding people who care about using archaic forms, and part because I’m good enough at grammar to work out, mostly, when, in old-style English, one would have said whom. I think it’s a silly game, and I just wish people would get over it. Using whom, in my opinion, has nothing to do with language and everything to do with social prejudice.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Your position is essentially the same as Mark Liberman’s (on Language Log).

      This position does take more than just using who consistently. You also have to avoid situations that call for fronted P (like the Quant of whom construction I posted about) or else live with things like “the students, some of who had taken statistics courses”. But avoiding these situations isn’t a great burden, since they are few.

  3. Marc Leavitt Says:

    Except for the occasional over-emphasis of an interrogative for comic effect, “who” wins the day.

  4. arnold zwicky Says:

    In an ad in the NYT of the 27th, the paper opts for whom in an incredulity question. The ad, for a new column in the paper, “The Well-Mannered Wedding”, asks the questions:

    You said THAT to the bride?
    You wore WHAT at the ceremony?
    You took WHOM to the rehearsal?

    In general, the paper is a great whom booster.

  5. with whom « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] (Some discussion in my “The power of lore and dogma”, here.) […]

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