As the word is increasingly neglected and scorned in popular culture, die-hard grammarians fight to save it; the ‘Whom Appreciation Society’
When Twitter users open their home pages, they are greeted by an inset box at the top of the screen in which three words appear in gray type: “Who to follow.”
Correct grammar? Certainly not.
Plenty of Twitter users, including members of the blue-checkmarked elite, have complained about that oversight. “The ‘whoms’ put up a good fight, but we ultimately opted for a more natural cadence and the ‘whos’ won out,” says Twitter spokeswoman Brielle Villablanca.
This sort of grammatical nonchalance doesn’t sit well with many people, among them Thomas Steiner, a systems engineer at Google.
Mr. Steiner, a German who lives and works in Hamburg, says Twitter’s language annoys him. “As a non-native speaker, I make a lot of effort to learn the language, and the people who should know better don’t,” he says.
In his spare time, he wrote a free browser plugin that automatically corrects the “who” to “whom.” He “fixed the internet,” gushed one user of the program.
Mr. Steiner has a kindred spirit in British scriptwriter James T. Harding, who recalls that, as a teenager, he used to go through music videos and correct the soundtracks. That was around the time he established an imaginary group called the Grand Order of the Whomic Empire. Today, the case-sensitive Mr. Harding runs a lightly visited Facebook group, the Whom Appreciation Society.
Twitter's “Who to follow” box and the box with the corrected “Whom to follow” text using Thomas Steiner's free browser plugin.
Thomas Steiner, the programmer of "Whom to Follow”PHOTO: THOMAS STEINER
As for when “whom” is appropriate: It is the correct choice if the word is the object of a preposition or a verb, such as in Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” The choice should be “who” if the word serves as the subject of a sentence or clause.
Ben Yagoda cares about such matters, as the author of several books on language and a professor of English and journalism at the University of Delaware. Still, he doesn’t insist on 100% whom-compliance either. For Twitter, he says, “It would be worse to say ‘whom to follow.’ It’s so stilted. I mean, here you are on social media with all these exclamation points and whatever.”
The writer Calvin Trillin has gone further: “As far as I’m concerned, ‘whom’ is a word that was invented to make everyone sound like a butler,” he once wrote.
Think about it: Would anyone listen to a band called “The Whom”? And for that matter, would the signature phrases of “Ghostbusters” and a certain Bo Diddley song have worked if they read “Whom ya gonna call?” and “Whom Do You Love?”
Ernie Hudson, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray and Harold Ramis in “Ghostbusters II.”PHOTO: COLUMBIA PICTURES/EVERETT COLLECTION
Even Mr. Harding, the scriptwriter, makes concessions for how people actually talk. One exception is a recurring character in a script he wrote, a 1,224-year-old vampire. “She uses ‘whom’ when it’s appropriate because she’s old-fashioned,” Mr. Harding says.
Arrayed in galactic war against these accommodating types is Doctor Whom, a “grammatically correct TimeLord” created by Adam Roberts, who, besides being a professor of 19th-century literature at Royal Holloway, University of London, is a prolific writer of science fiction.
In a nod to the subtitle of Lynne Truss’s grammar best seller “Eats, Shoots & Leaves”—which is “The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation”—Doctor Whom has adopted a “zero tolerance approach to parodication,” according to the cover of a book about him, as he travels through time righting grammatical and other wrongs.
The cover of A.R.R.R. Roberts's book 'Doctor Whom'.PHOTO: THE ORION PUBLISHING GROUP
“I’m a grammar pedant in a lighthearted way,” says Mr. Roberts. “There’s a difference between being a grammar Nazi and a Nazi.” Mr. Roberts continues to use “whom” when it is proper and encourages others to do so too, because “there’s just something elegant about it.”‘
There could be other advantages, if a 2014 Wired article is to be believed. The magazine sifted through thousands of profiles at dating sites Match.com and OkCupid trying to figure out what sorts of things made someone a more desirable date. Among other tips for success—be into yoga, don’t mention religion, learn to surf—Wired found that men who used “whom” had 31% greater success at getting dates.
“This changes everything!” wrote the University of Pennsylvania’s normally buttoned-down Language Log. “It’s not just about the inflectional marking of relative and interrogative pronouns any more, people; it’s about getting more sex!”
Carelessly throwing around “whom,” though, can raise the risk of the embarrassing misstep known as a hypercorrection: using what the speaker thinks is correct grammar, but isn’t.
Mr. Yagoda sees this with his students. They might write, “I will talk to whomever knows the answer.”
The correct word there, of course, is “whoever.”’ Reason: The object of the preposition “to” isn’t the word that comes right after it but the whole clause that follows, and “whoever” is that clause’s subject.
“Whom” has hung on somewhat better with the written than the spoken word, but it is losing ground there, too. A scan of thousands of titles through Google Books shows one use of “whom” for every five of “who” in the year 1800. By the start of the 20th century it was one to every six, and by the beginning of the 21st century it was one to 11.
So, is “whom” headed the way of “thou,” a word people now encounter mostly when reading religious texts or Shakespeare?
Edward Sapir, an anthropologist and linguist of the last century, predicted in a 1921 book on language that “within a couple of hundred years from to-day not even the most learned jurist will be saying ‘Whom did you see?’... No logical or historical argument will avail to save this hapless ‘whom.’ ”
While internet language is hardly helping rescue the word, Mr. Yagoda thinks it will hang on as an object of prepositions, if not of verbs. He never expects to see a letter starting with “To who it may concern.”
Mr. Harding sees reason to lament the way his generation has largely stopped using “whom.”
“It’s a shame in a way, because they’re missing out on a way to correct people and be annoying.”
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" (http://johnbrownnotesandessays.blogspot.com/2017/03/notes-and-references-for-discussion-e.html). Affiliated with Georgetown University (http://explore.georgetown.edu/people/jhb7/) for over ten years, he shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."