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.
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