The Case Against “Whom”

By Kevin Burton

Most often I side with tradition in the great language debates. The grammar and usage rules that make editors at the New York Times smile, make me happy as well, usually.

   I yearn to save the past participle the way some people seek to save the whales.  I hear “should have went” and my skin crawls. If I don’t or can’t correct this error it bugs me. I say inside, “I should have gone over there and corrected him.” 

   Adverb abuse is an evil to be stamped out. People chop the “ly” off of words that clearly need them. We don’t do things quick, we do them quickly. We don’t, sing loud, we sing loudly. I wish these manglers of language had to carry the little chopped off letters on their shoulders all day for everyone to see, like dandruff. 

   But then, there is “whom.”

   I hate “whom” and will not defend it.

   When I write, “whom” is like a child’s tricycle left in the middle of the sidewalk. It forces me to stop and deal with it before I can move on.  Most of the time the presence of “whom” doesn’t add clarity to a sentence. I just don’t want to be bothered with it.

   The rule is “who” is for subjects of a sentence, “whom” is for objects. Yes, you should know the rules before you break them.

  “Whom” doesn’t even look right to me. It looks as if it should be pronounced to rhyme with “prom.”

   I remember watching college basketball on CBS years ago. They would put up a graphic suggesting which player a team should foul for strategic reasons, which player is most likely to miss the foul shots. The heading for the graphic was “Who To Foul.”

   And then the calls came in.  The usage police, who might just as well stick to watching PBS, said the graphic should read “Whom To Foul.”

   Technically they were correct. This was college basketball after all. But this made some of us roll our eyes.

   Times Consulting Editor and author of “The Careful Writer,” the late Theodore Bernstein, had a name for the type of viewer who would take time to call CBS on this. He called her “Miss Thistlebottom.” (I say this even though Bernstein himself was a defender of “whom” especially in written language.)

   Imagine a coach in a close game, calls timeout, tells his players exactly who to foul and the point guard says, “no coach, it’s whom to foul!”  Imagine now that the coach is Bob Knight and you begin to get the flavor of my distaste for “whom.”

   But it looks as if I can save my fury for other things. It seems my side is winning. London news magazine The Economist wrote last year that “whom” is fading from use. The Writing Center at George Mason University agrees, at least when it comes to casual speech. In January, NPR used the headline “To Hell With Whom (And More On The Inexorable Evolution Of Language” for one of its segments.

   You just don’t see “whom” around town much anymore.  I did encounter “whom” in the Triple-A tour book. They write “Whom to Call” in the section that lists emergency phone numbers. That’s a fine thing for them to do, if they don’t want to hear from Miss Thistlebottom. I get it. As for me, I don’t do “whom.”

   Exceptions?

   Well I would never write “To who it may concern” for fear it would draw attention away from whatever message I was trying to deliver.  But if somebody else wrote that, I wouldn’t trip over it at all. I would count it another nail in the coffin of “whom.”

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