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To whom it may concern

Everett True
As you probably know by now from the way I bang on about it, I tend to think that language evolves according to the dictates of its users, and that notions of what's 'correct usage' can only be considered indicative guidelines rather than rules.

So it is in that spirit that I've decided to stop using 'whom' (and whomever). Not that I really used it much in speech anyway, but I did every now and then in writing instructions and the like.

Consider, for example, these two sentences:
  • Ask the player whom they want to attack.
  • Give the prize to whomever you think deserves it.
In speech you would use who and whoever, wouldn't you? Even if you were talking to the Queen. So it seems to me that there is no actual register of communication that I use (apart from the occasional faux-archaic, like the title to this post) in which the -m forms should be preferred. Out it goes!

But what do you think?
Poll #1827655 For whom, the bell tolls (or does it?)
Open to: All, detailed results viewable to: All, participants: 33

Do you use 'whom' yourself?

View Answers
Yes, whenever it's correct to do so
4 (12.1%)
Yes, although tbh I'm not sure if I always do so correctly
5 (15.2%)
Yes, every now and then, but often I use 'who' instead
16 (48.5%)
Only in quotations, archaisms and the like
3 (9.1%)
No, and tbh I'm not sure when one's supposed to
2 (6.1%)
No way, even though I know some people think I should
1 (3.0%)
Other (in a comment)
2 (6.1%)

And what about 'whomever'?

View Answers
Yes, whenever it's correct to do so
1 (3.0%)
Yes, although tbh I'm not sure if I always do so correctly
3 (9.1%)
Yes, every now and then, but often I use 'whoever' instead
10 (30.3%)
Only in quotations, archaisms and the like
10 (30.3%)
No, and tbh I'm not sure when when one's supposed to
4 (12.1%)
No way, even though I know some people think I should
2 (6.1%)
Other (in a comment)
3 (9.1%)

Tags:

Comments

( 28 comments — Leave a comment )
venta
20th Mar, 2012 17:00 (UTC)
I'd go for something like "Yes, whenever I'm writing something which I think ought to be in formal English". So a business letter, or a bit of documentation at work.

I probably flip between who/whom in ordinary writing, and am pretty sure I'd never actually say whom.
undyingking
20th Mar, 2012 17:16 (UTC)
I have a small relative who, when called upon to read aloud something containing 'whom', pronounced it wom. To much stifled adult hilarity.
triskellian
20th Mar, 2012 18:33 (UTC)
Nice punctuation in the poll title, there :-)
undyingking
20th Mar, 2012 18:43 (UTC)
Thanks, glad that was spotted!
cardinalsin
20th Mar, 2012 18:37 (UTC)
What are the rules for using whom/whomever, anyway?
undyingking
21st Mar, 2012 08:57 (UTC)
Whom is pretty straightforward. You use 'whom' rather than 'who' in cases where you would use 'me' rather than 'I'. So:
  • Who did this? / I did this.

  • To whom was this done? / It was done to me.

  • Have you heard from him? / Whom have you heard from?


Whomever is trickier because, although it obeys the same principle, it's sometimes difficult to spot the case. Easy examples:
  • I am a genius. / Whoever did this is a genius.

  • I like him. / I like whomever.

But:
  • I like whoever did this, not I like whomever did this (because 'whoever did this' as a noun phrase doesn't take -m- in the accusative like bare 'whoever' does).

Lots of people, maybe most people, get that last one wrong.
onebyone
21st Mar, 2012 09:21 (UTC)
From whom have you heard?

Edited at 2012-03-21 09:22 (UTC)
undyingking
21st Mar, 2012 09:55 (UTC)
Yes, better, I didn't really think that one through :-)
mr_malk
21st Mar, 2012 12:44 (UTC)
Quite so. The sort of English up with which I will not put!
onebyone
21st Mar, 2012 13:44 (UTC)
Or anyway, the sort up with which we would be well-advised not happily to put.
onebyone
21st Mar, 2012 09:43 (UTC)
"because 'whoever did this' as a noun phrase doesn't take -m- in the accusative like bare 'whoever' does"

Similarly: "I like the person who did this", not "I like the person whom did this", and "find out who did this", not "find out whom did this". Within the noun phrase, "who" is nominative in both examples, and using the noun phrase in a different case doesn't change that.

Edited at 2012-03-21 09:43 (UTC)
undyingking
21st Mar, 2012 09:56 (UTC)
Yes, that illustrates it nice and clearly, thanks!
onebyone
21st Mar, 2012 09:36 (UTC)
Etymology: you use "whom" instead of "who" when in German you'd use "wen" / "wem" / "wessen" instead of "wer". That is, the accusative/dative/genitive cases.

English doesn't preserve a meaningful difference between accusative and dative, and it seems (to me) to be a relative of the dative German pronoun we've kept for our accusative and genitive cases ("to whom", "of whom"). For all I know that could be coincidence, I'm not going to claim that the ancestors of modern German necessarily had the same consonants in there at the time they separated from the ancestors of English, which I'd guess was approximately the Saxon invasions.

Edited at 2012-03-21 09:39 (UTC)
undyingking
21st Mar, 2012 10:15 (UTC)
Mm, my COD says that 'whom' descends specifically from the Old English (ie. Anglo-Saxon) dative 'hwām'.

(Bah, there isn't an HTML entity for a-macron, I had to use Unicode.)
jackfirecat
20th Mar, 2012 19:01 (UTC)
>In speech you would use who and whoever, wouldn't you?

in those examples, yes.

Curse radio buttons: there's no ticky wom box.

I, too, like the poll title.
undyingking
21st Mar, 2012 08:57 (UTC)
Mm, I'm out of practice at doing these polls. Wom for the win.
cleanskies
20th Mar, 2012 20:20 (UTC)
I use the archaism for emphasis and effect
undyingking
21st Mar, 2012 08:42 (UTC)
Verily thou dost.
bateleur
20th Mar, 2012 23:34 (UTC)
Second question: I do know (or think I know) when to use whomever and I can't call to mind a single instance of it ever coming up either in speech or writing. If it did, my answer would be the same as for Q1.
undyingking
21st Mar, 2012 08:43 (UTC)
I had to think quite hard for an example. But I do remember having to use it at least once in writing instructions this year. I suppose I write more often than most people do about doing stuff to unspecified individuals.
onebyone
21st Mar, 2012 09:26 (UTC)
Regarding "whomever": it's possible that I use it occasionally, but I don't specifically remember doing so, and if I was going to then I might well be in a mode where I'd use "whomsoever" instead.

It's not that I refuse to use it (hence not "no way"), but I'm not sure I actually do often enough to say "every now and then". Maybe some tiny proportion of now and then, but by no means all of them.

Edited at 2012-03-21 09:27 (UTC)
undyingking
21st Mar, 2012 10:01 (UTC)
Interestingly, the Ngram viewer suggests that whomever has only outstripped whomsoever quite recently in BrE. Do I remember there being a move thenish to clarify legal language by stripping out whomsoevers and the like?
(And it would be good to see what the picture was like prior to 1800… in my mind whomever started just as a contraction of whomsoever, and likewise whoever/whosoever, but I don't know if that's actually true.)
onebyone
21st Mar, 2012 10:13 (UTC)
Compare "anyone who", which I'm guessing might be a reasonable way to avoid "whomsoever" if you're clarifying legal language. Frax would know what the best practice is, she writes contracts.
undyingking
21st Mar, 2012 10:19 (UTC)
Mm, yes.

(Interesting that 'anyone who' (and, it turns out, 'anyone') only took off around 1860. What used people to say before that? I thought maybe 'anybody', but that too only picks up around 1820.)

(What a great time-waster that tool is…)

Edited at 2012-03-21 10:19 (UTC)
onebyone
21st Mar, 2012 10:23 (UTC)
They said any one.
undyingking
21st Mar, 2012 10:36 (UTC)
Aha, yes, of course. (D'oh!)
onebyone
21st Mar, 2012 10:19 (UTC)
Also, I wonder whether Google's British English corpus includes a big heap of official documentation from the First World War, that causes the "whomsoever" spike?

There's no such spike in the US English corpus. Maybe there's no equivalent US documentation for 1917-18 in the corpus, or US soldiers didn't use the word whereas British ones did, or it was part of the printed text on some British form of which there are a lot of copies in the corpus.
undyingking
21st Mar, 2012 10:39 (UTC)
Sounds plausible. I don't know what sort of documents their corpus of 'books' takes in.
( 28 comments — Leave a comment )

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