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Whom: Is This Rare Pronoun Really Dead?

question

To whom it may concern:

Over the past 200 years written use of the pronoun whom has declined by half, and half again over the last 50. It makes sense. In the colloquial world of email and texting, thinking about the correct usage of whom can just slow writers down. The word can make sentences sound more formal, but if used incorrectly whom makes a speaker sound insincere when they’re trying to sound smart. So, why not delete whom from the dictionary entirely? Because for all its flaws, whom might still have something to say.

(What words might be removed from the dictionary? Find out here.)

Let’s start with the correct usage. Whom is a pronoun that refers to a person not present in the conversation. Technically, ‘whom’ is the objective-case pronoun of the subjective-case pronoun ‘who,’ where ’whom’ refers to the object of a sentence and ‘who’ refers to the subject. It’s the difference between the accusative form, ‘whom’ and the nominative form, ‘who.’

So, you’re at a party and you run into someone you think you recognize, you say “Hello, who are you again?” this is perfectly correct. If the person is right in front of you, they are ‘who’ because you are speaking with them directly. Whom comes into the conversation when you realize that the person you’re talking to didn’t come to the party alone. “Oh, I see you’re holding four hats there. With whom did you come?” or you might say, “Hey, you had to be invited to this party. Of whom are you a guest?” (You could say “whom are you the guest of?” but that would be ending the sentence with a preposition and that’s a whole different blog post).

In this way, whom can be about mystery. The person/people about whom you’re asking are far off, and their representative pronoun adds a layer of distance.

In the case of unknown identities, this aspect of whom can turn a business letter into a detective story. “To whom it may concern” (the standard salutation that replaces ‘Dear,’ at the beginning of formal letters) could be addressing anyone: the CEO of a company or the hotdog vendor that found the letter on the street. In other words, whom makes space for writers and speakers to address that which is absent or unknown, a sort of grammatical spyglass through which to imagine the hidden figure just around the corner.

Do you think whom is worth keeping? Tell us what you think.

347 Comments

  1. Georgio -  March 24, 2014 - 11:05 am

    Oh Sauncie. You had me up to your use of “irregardless”. That’s not a word. If it was, it would break down to “without without regard”. I’ve noticed throughout my 47 years as a hick from Texas that people say that when they’re trying to appear intelligent. And then there’s the “supposably” that those koo-koo kids in Oklahoma like to say. And don’t get ME started on Arkansas…

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  2. Sauncie -  March 24, 2014 - 10:19 am

    Boy-oh-boy, some of you people really have too much time on your hands. (“That’s the pot calling the kettle black.”) My parents are German immigrants and I hated being teased as a child for their accents and so I went out of my way to learn to speak clearly and precisely. This topic is interesting to me. Here’s the deal with “whom:” If you ask a question and you can answer it with “him” instead of “he,” then whom is the correct word irregardless of male or female, i.e. “I came with him” is the correct response to: “With whom did you come.” You wouldn’t say, “I came with he.” This has always worked for me and I don’t have to remember prepositions….bla-bla-bla. Yes, of course we should keep whom in our language! Just because there are lazy dummies out there that don’t give a rat’s hoot about our language, doesn’t mean those of us that do want to speak the English language correctly should stop caring. I’m still pissed about “Ebonics” and Spanish as this country’s second language because they’re either too stupid or lazy to learn this country’s language. They have no respect for the blood spilt on this land by our fore-fathers who ALL learned to speak English. [DON'T GET ME STARTED!!]

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  3. Harvey Wachtel -  March 24, 2014 - 6:37 am

    The thing that makes the determination of the case for “who” more difficult than that of other personal pronouns like “he” is the fact that it can be used as a relative pronoun. When “who” is the subject of a dependent clause that is the object of the independent clause, it’s easy to use “whom” inappropriately, as in “I want to thank whoever put the bomp in the bomp-de-bomp-de-bomp”.

    I think the confusion that this has caused (exacerbated by the tendency of traditional grammarians to parse sentences insisting that individual pronouns in phrases, rather than the phrases in their entirety, are objects or whatever of sentences, as in “I don’t like him riding the subway alone at night”) is a large part of the reason people have been shying away from “whom”.

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  4. Emily -  March 23, 2014 - 11:10 pm

    I’m good with keeping whom. And I do use it when appropriate. I always go with the “if it follows a preposition” rule personally. The lost word that bugs me more nowadays is than. Then is not the same as than, but is way too often incorrectly substituted. I cringe every time I see “More often then not” or “She was shorter then him”. You should add an article on the proper use of than.

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  5. Patricia -  March 23, 2014 - 6:36 pm

    The only reason why I sometimes use “whom” instead of “who” without deliberating over it to the extent that it slows down my conversation is because French is really particular about not having prepositions at the end of the sentence. As a result, I’m used to translating and thinking:

    to whom
    about whom
    for whom

    etc, with prepositions in the middle of the sentence and “whom,” if necessary, right after. If you repeat a phrase often enough, it’ll pop into your brain whenever the situation is relevant.

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  6. Shiloh -  March 23, 2014 - 10:29 am

    I don’t think “whom” is dying because of laziness. I think in part it is a reflection of the cultural influence on language. In Ohio and other mid-west regions, a grammatical tendency is to move the preposition to the end of a sentence. For example, people in Cincinnati, Ohio would never say “to whom are you speaking?” Most people in that area tend to move prepositions to the end of the sentence, so it sounds more like this “who are you talking to? There, who is correct because its place is still in the subject part of the sentence. Whom is rarely used then in that part of the state because the prepositions all tend to appear at the end of the sentence and the “object” of the preposition is moved to the subject place of the sentence. It’s the way Cincinnati speakers order their sentence. And it’s completely about regional usage.

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  7. FmMaj9 -  March 23, 2014 - 9:51 am

    The article about Who and Whom is confusing and poorly explained. “Who” is for the SUBJECT of a sentence, which includes sentences with intransitive verbs (verbs that have no object) such as “to be”: “Who are you?”
    “Whom” is always an OBJECT of a sentence, whether it be direct, indirect or a prepositional phrase. “You came WITH whom?” “Whom are YOU trying to kid?” “You gave IT to whom?” “Whom did HE tell?”
    This stuff about mystery and a person not present is RIDICULOUS AND WRONG.

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  8. blood -  March 23, 2014 - 7:34 am

    i think it should people should remember grammar

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  9. Anonymous -  March 23, 2014 - 6:35 am

    To James A.C. III or whomever it may concern, (Sorry, had to)

    I am fairly sure “they” can now be used as a pronoun which doesn’t specify gender. The other option being “he or she” but “they” is a lot more concise.

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  10. Robert A. Branch -  March 23, 2014 - 2:17 am

    I think “whom” definitely should (and MUST) be kept. While I understand the reasoning behind standardization, there are many things about human language that Homo sapien simply doesn’t understand. Basically, I don’t think it’s wise to start changing something you never fully understood to begin with. Did you know Homo sapien has only had written language for about 10,000 years? While numbers form the “universal language,” words form the language of life. To get to the point: there’s too many things that too many people still misunderstand, causing unnecessary conflict and dissension, and taking a closer look at human language in its more literal sense can help with that. Humanity will lose that opportunity if it allows the word to change with the times, instead of judging the times with the word as was meant.

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  11. Anthony Cusumano -  March 22, 2014 - 8:29 pm

    I am an 8th grade student, and I pride myself in how I often use proper grammar. And I take Latin as my school language, so it helps to understand the meaning of certain english grammar rules. And I have been using the word “whom” in my common day dialogue for the past couple of years now. Sometimes I will even correct friends for saying “who” instead of “whom” and they get mad at me. But I have always prided myself in having very proper grammar. And the part where the Latin comes in is that when I learned about Nominative and Accusative cases I realized why to use “whom” versus “who”. And now that I have read this, I am glad to know I have been using “whom” correctly, and I don’t just sound stupid when I use it in a sentence.

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  12. Richard Shewmaker -  March 22, 2014 - 8:08 pm

    Only dying in the realm of the ignorant. I for one still battle the split infinitive when I can and jump on “try and” every time it rears its “whaaa?” head.

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  13. Mike Hale -  March 22, 2014 - 12:17 pm

    What’s with this location of the individual having ANYTHING to do with the who-whom question? The simple memory aid is, “Who hit whom?” (Memorize that.) Who is the doer* of the action and whom is everything else. It’s that simple. It doesn’t matter who is present and who is in another room, not at the event, or out-of-state.

    If the word follows a preposition or verb, use WHOM. So, first go to the verb and see where the word falls in relation to that. Before or after? The doer or the done-to? So where does the location of the person about whom you are speaking come into play? (Or is it “Come in to play?”—lol) I do not think it comes in to the question at all.

    *–Remember the linking verb “to be” is not an action. Thus, before and after the verb is all “who”.

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  14. Zippi -  March 22, 2014 - 10:43 am

    I was told that I am archaic, because I use “whom.”
    “So, you’re at a party and you run into someone you think you recognize…” Something is missing, there, methinks.

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  15. Dethanos -  March 22, 2014 - 9:08 am

    The only people using whom are those who believe adherence to archaic rules somehow elevates them above the masses.

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  16. O.Yeah -  March 22, 2014 - 6:03 am

    I’m not sure I believe you. According to your party example, I should say
    “Whom came with you?” because that person is not in front of me. The rules can’t include both presence and objective vs. nominative case, because sometimes they disagree!

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  17. Bill -  March 21, 2014 - 4:49 pm

    I like pizza.

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  18. Lavaun in Denver -  March 21, 2014 - 3:05 pm

    Sorry to run into the paranoid right even in a discussion about the use of the proper pronoun!!! “Word Nazis” like me are neither liberal or conservative, except in trying to conserve the beautiful English language. Neither “whom”, “him”, or “her” — all the direct or indirect object in a sentence (rather than “who”, “he”, and “she”, which are pronouns in the subject of a sentence or clause) are outmoded. When people use the subject form of a pronoun instead of the correct object form, they sound like uneducated ignoramuses trying to sound cultured. e.g., “They donated this to he and I,” instead of “They donated this to him and me.” Likewise, “Who did you hit?” should be “Whom did you hit?” Back in the day, teachers of the 5th & 6th grades required students to parse sentence (we actually drew diagrams to clarify subject, verb, object–if any, phrases with participles or prepositions, subordinate clauses, etc.). This helped us immensely to understand immediately what form of a pronoun we should use. Now, students are allowed to write almost anything and, as long as it is a semi-coherent sentence, the teacher will let it pass.

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  19. Vince -  March 21, 2014 - 8:17 am

    A lot of people in the comments seem immensely confused. Some seem to think this article is arguing that “whom” should be taken out of the dictionary, which is not the case at all. It’s simply asking if anyone actually uses it anymore. There are still plenty of words in the dictionary that no one uses in every day speech. For example, does anyone still use the word “cleave” to mean “stick together?” Of course not, but people used to, so that’s why it’s still in the dictionary. The point of this article is not to argue for the removal of “whom” from the dictionary, but whether the word is even used today.

    Anyway, English is no longer a case based language as it was prior to the Norman Conquest. We have almost no cases for our verbs and nouns any more. Why? We don’t need them! All we need is word order to make sense of things, not cases. So why are we holding on to “whom” so dearly? It’s merely the accusative case of “who.” It’s outdated, unnecessary and serves only to make the speaker sound pretentious by appealing to arcane rules of grammar. That said, there’s no reason not to know “whom” and how it’s used. It comes up all the time in scholarly work and older writing, so it’s helpful to know how the word works. But is it a dead word in the practical, everyday sense? Absolutely.

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  20. Jay -  March 21, 2014 - 7:47 am

    I was about to shout IT’S WHO, NOT WHOM when I saw the headline “Whom is dying?” before realising that it was actually referring to the word whom. I clearly need some sleep.

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  21. C. W. Sims -  March 21, 2014 - 6:59 am

    Let’s remove the word syzygy from the dictionary. I’m 76 years old, and this is the very first time I’ve used it.

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  22. C. W. Sims -  March 21, 2014 - 6:43 am

    Aw contrary, Mark Baker. Sometimes bad grammar simply comes from ignorance. Perhaps you aren’t really paranoid. Maybe the Marxists are after you.

    Reply
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