April 17, 2004

I really don't care whom

The Fusco Brothers cartoon for April 13 ( see it here) had a woman saying to a man in a bar:


The woman's remark is a little threefold grammar lesson in its own right. Here's the issue: is the whom correct?

Well, there are three or four layers to this. First, the word whom is understood as the predicative NP complement of was. In ordinary English this is a function that goes with accusative case on a pronoun: if you knock on my door and I call out Who is it?, you, as a normal person, knowing that I would recognize your voice, would say It's me. If you said It is I, I would not be nearly so inclined to let you in. It is I is an extremely formal usage, encouraged by really old-fashioned prescriptivists but not seriously used these days by anyone except the unbearably affected.

That, other things being equal, would mean that the case on who should also be accusative. But other things are not equal.

Whom is very restricted indeed for most speakers, and it is highly implausible that it would be used as the complement of be. That is, hardly anyone would be inclined to say, You claim your ancestor was whom?. We would be much more likely to say, You claim your ancestor was who?. The case marking with the pronoun who is the exact opposite of what we find with personal pronouns like he or I.

In addition, accusative case on who does not typically survive when the word is shunted to the beginning of an interrogative or relative clause. That is, even for people who would say You talking to whom? (e.g., to re-query an answer that wasn't heard correctly), it is highly unlikely that if they started the sentence with the wh-word they would use the accusative form: Whom were you talking to?. In normal conversation, the frequency of whom at the beginning of a clause (as opposed to preceded by a preposition) is now virtually zero. And this does not indicate near-universal error: there is no way Who were you talking to? can be regarded as incorrect use of the language. If you are teaching English to foreign learners, you should unquestionably teach them to who in such contexts, not whom.

So, although we would expect accusative on an ordinary personal pronoun after was (as in It's me), what is typical on a wh-pronoun at the beginning of a clause is the nominative (Who were you talking to?). So in fact the accusative in the cartoon is not grammatical in Standard English as normally used. It is what is known as a hypercorrection.

But I should also mention that there seem to be some people who regularly and unconsciously say things like I wonder whom they imagined was going to believe them. That is, they appear to convert who to whom whenever it ends up following a verb, regardless of whether it would have been nominative if left in its logical position (compare Who was going to believe them?). We would expect those people to say I really don't care whom regardless of what followed. Possibly the woman in the cartoon is one of those speakers. In that case whom would indeed be the expected form. But it is not clear that the resultant variety of English could properly be called standard. Prescriptivists would regard I wonder whom they imagined was going to believe them as clearly an error, because whom is actually understood as a subject (the subject of was).

Do you find this confusing? I certainly hope so. Anyone who wasn't a bit confused by this point couldn't have been paying attention. Things are in a confused state. The form whom is dying. For lots of speakers it is really only used right after a preposition in a relative clause (anyone to whom this is confusing), and perhaps sometimes at the beginning of a relative clause (those whom I have succeeded in confusing). It hardly occurs in interrogatives at all (I looked for whom in a couple of months of my recent email, mostly from fellow professors, and I didn't find a single example of it in an interrogative).

It isn't true that, as the grammar pontificators often imply, that the rules are fixed and perfectly simple and everyone ought to know them and it's only laziness if you don't. Often the rules are quite difficult to puzzle out, and very complex and awkward when you've identified them and stated them explicitly. Recently the college-educated daughter of a linguistics professor I know wrote to her dad to ask about a perfectly simple example:

>> Hi Dad - I have a grammar question for you (actually, its my            
>> co-worker's, but I'm the only one with a linguist for a dad...)      
>> The sentence is:  There are 3.6 million New Yorkers on Medicaid, of  
>> who/whom 2.4 million reside in New York City...                      
>> Is it who or whom?

He was astonished to get this, because of course here it is very simple: unquestionably, whom would be normal in this case because it's right after a preposition, and that's the one place whom is still common. But young people in their twenties are beginning to lose their grasp even of that last bastion of whom. It's not surprising. The present situation is multi-layered, subtle, and devilishly complex to describe. At least one linguist has decided there is no correct description of it at all, the situation is just chaos. It's also thoroughly confusing, and of course, just about totally irrelevant to understanding.

The study of grammar interests me academically, and although I am prepared to rage and fume against people who pontificate about it mistakenly, I don't blame people who find the who/whom distinction deeply puzzling. The woman in the Fusco Brothers cartoon probably guessed wrong about whether to say who or whom, but you can hardly say she had no excuse.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at April 17, 2004 04:23 PM