The simple answer is that if you can use “him,” you can use “whom”’ if “he” fits, use “who.” That was my proposed subject for this week’s column.
We were in the Optic newsroom as I spouted this bit of faux erudition, when fellow writer Lupita Gonzales said that when it comes to “whom,” we need to think of objects, not subjects. As a now-retired long-time teacher of languages, she’s right.
Is there a construction in English that causes more confusion? Even Hollywood aggravates the issue when it popularizes expressions like “Who you gonna call? Ghostbusters!” (Or is it whom?)
Well yes there are a couple of grammar and usage questions that can rival the who-whom syndrome: Try the there-they’re-their conundrum. Actually, in a mere five words, my friend Chad Boliek, submitted this in response to my having broached the there-their-they’re issue in a recent column. Chad wrote: “They’re there awaiting their bus.”
I’ve seen Facebook posts poking fun at us language purists. A cartoon shows a sympathetic older person, his arm around the grammarian, consoling him with, “There, their, they’re. It’s not so bad.”
But back to the who-whom issue: My homeroom teacher at Immaculate Conception School, Sister Mary Precisa Grammatica, must have given us the rules on when to use who and whom. When you put a preposition in front of “whom,” it’s easy and usually correct: to whom it may concern; from whom did you get that hickey?
If the word functions as the subject of the sentence, use who; if the object, use whom. It gets tricky in constructions like who/m do you trust?
Having slept through junior high school, I was late in picking up these rules. So I used to fudge: I’d camouflage the expression and say something like, “He is the one whomight be calling,” or “Whomay I ask is calling?” The word following the who/m disguised my statement and left me free to say, if a wide-awake fellow student challenged me, “Well, that’s what I said.”
Is there a future for whom? Will enough people simply relegate whom to that giant lexical scrap heap in the sky to where the word becomes as obsolete as “amongst” or “amidst”
Will whom join “farther,” which used to refer to distance (its sister, “further” used to mean more or additional)? Is it time for us (or is it we?) comma-chasers to yield? It doesn’t look promising when even the late William Safire, the New York Times’ oracle of language, said, “The best rule for dealing with who vs. whom is this: Whenever whom is required, recast the sentence.”
Of course, that means dodging the matter altogether or using the bland “that,” which can refer to anything, not just people.
Megan Garber, writing in this month’s “Atlantic,” said she expects “whom” to disappear in 50 to 100 years. Why? “One explanation,” Gerber writes, “is that the word has outlived its ability to fulfill the most important function of language: to clarify and specify. More importantly, the writer asserts, “Correctness is significantly less appealing when its price is the appearance of being . . . a pompous twerp.” I’d do anything to avoid that twerpy distinction, even if it means skirting “whom” entirely.
In my experience as someone who’s recited who-whom rules ever since the Punic Wars, we misuse who and whom mainly when speaking; while writing, we have time to think about the choices, or to recast the sentence.
Gerber mentions what language scholars call “secondary orality,” the dreadful habit of having writing, which as a rule is slightly more formal than speech, adopt characteristics of the spoken word. We see evidence of this in our texting. LOL.
• • •
How does one explain the complete and total pasting Harvard gave the Lobos? The Crimson, who had never won an NCAA tournament game, truncated the Lobos’ stay after many New Mexico bright-eyed optimists predicted a Final Four appearance for our team.
That game was the biggest shock of the tournament (until Georgetown and Gonzaga, two highly ranked teams, also lost).
The irony of the New Mexico-Harvard outcome is that the depth Harvard players possess is in the classroom, not the basketball court. And, according to Jay Leno of The Tonight Show, Harvard players need to improve their trash talk.
You see, the Crimson take a different tack, far removed from the “I’m gonna rip your lips off and stomp on your face” threats of many teams.
Leno said, “At one point Harvard’s center said to the Lobo guard, ‘Excuse me. You are trying to restrain me from adding additional points. You are woefully unsuccessful.’”