Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Opinion

Column: Who will rescue 'whom'?

At the Atlantic, Megan Garber alerts us to the news that "whom" is falling out of fashion.

It has been a gradual but inevitable process, somewhat like the heat death of the universe. Whom is creeping slowly out of our vocabulary, trying to avoid notice, like someone crawling up the middle aisle during a movie.

"It's not who you know," the Rev. Peter Gomes used to intone, "it's whom." It was the sort of statement one expected from someone dubbed the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister at Harvard.

People recommend that we take an approach to "whom" similar to the approach Mark Twain took to "very": "Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very'; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be."

We can do without "whom." Or can we?

The Whos down in Whoville are perfectly safe. But the Whoms, down in Whomville, having staid, WASPy dinners of roast beast and refusing to pass Little Susie Lou Whom a slice unless she uses the subjunctive correctly in her request: They are in grave danger.

Whom is struggling. After all, whom is, as numerous writers have noted, the literary equivalent of waving an enormous flag that proclaims you a Stuffy Old Twerp, a Bombastic Blowhard Who Thinks He's In England, or In 1800, Or Possibly Both. You might as well invite people to go fox hunting later and murmur sexist things into a tea service for all the goodwill it will earn you.

Whom is no one's favorite object pronoun. All it plays now are the rusty ill-paid gigs of Old-Timey, Vaguely Biblical-Sounding Phrases. For Whom the Bell Tolls. For Of Those to Whom Much Is Given, Much Is Required. To Whom It May Concern. From Whom All Blessings Flow. It pops up now and again on Downton Abbey, but who knows how long that will last, given what Downton does to featured characters.

"To whom am I speaking?" People just don't talk like that any more. (Or is it anymore? I am never sure. There is some law that stipulates that every time you write about your love of grammar, you make some sort of glaring solecism halfway through the piece. Perhaps that was it, just now.)

Usage, on the whole, has declined. Good grammar is like all those days you wear your underwear on the right side of your pants: It goes sadly unremarked upon.

But slip up one time and that's what everyone mentions. Grammar Nazis never stop you on the street to say, "What a beautiful subjunctive that was. Clear as a bell, and I loved the appositive you were rocking earlier. Fierce!" They just chase you down, like Javert, shouting, "Whom! Not who! Whom!" Grammar Nazi is also one of the few Nazi comparisons that we have permitted to stand unchallenged. Few things are so irksome as the person who snaps up at you, shouting, "Don't give it to me and Tanya! Personal pronoun comes last!"

Perhaps it is time we change tactics. The vinegar approach to grammar certainly does not seem to be bearing much fruit. Maybe we should try honey. After all, grammar is the unseen wire undergirding even the most acrobatic sentence. English is not an inflected language where subject and object are always instantly clear, and it's the hard-working Whoms and Whos of this world that help us skirt that issue. The more of these invisible wires we cut, the uglier our sentences will get. Compliment a stranger's grammar today. It may be our only hope.

Remember what John Donne might have said: "Any pronoun's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Language; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." Of course, it tolled for "thee" a long, long time ago. Don't let it toll for whom.

© 2013 Washington Post

Comments
Editorial: Tax cuts arenít worth harm to Tampa Bay

Editorial: Tax cuts arenít worth harm to Tampa Bay

As congressional negotiators hammer out the details on an enormous, unnecessary tax cut, the potential negative impact on Tampa Bay and Florida is becoming clearer. The harmful consequences stretch far beyond adding more than $1.4 trillion to the fed...
Published: 12/12/17

Another voice: Privacy in the internet age

How much information about you is on your cellphone? Likely the most intimate details of your life: photographs, internet searches, text and email conversations with friends and colleagues. And though you might not know it, your phone is constantly c...
Published: 12/10/17
Updated: 12/11/17
Editorial: Grand jury could force reforms of juvenile justice system

Editorial: Grand jury could force reforms of juvenile justice system

Confronted with documentation of sanctioned brutality and sexual abuse in Floridaís juvenile detention centers, the reaction from Gov. Rick Scottís administration was defensive and obtuse. So itís welcome news that Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine...
Published: 12/08/17
Updated: 12/11/17

Editorial: U.S. House sides with NRA over stateís rights on concealed weapons permits

With the horror of the mass shootings at a Las Vegas country music concert and a small Texas church still fresh, the U.S. House finally has taken action on guns. But the bill it passed last week wonít make Americans safer from gun violence. It is an ...
Published: 12/07/17
Editorial: Hillsborough cannot afford pay raises for teachers

Editorial: Hillsborough cannot afford pay raises for teachers

There is no satisfaction for anyone in the standoff over pay raises between the Hillsborough County School District and its teachers. Most teachers across the nation already are underpaid, but this district simply cannot afford the raises teachers ex...
Published: 12/07/17
Editorial: Impact of Water Street project extends beyond buildings

Editorial: Impact of Water Street project extends beyond buildings

With a buildout of $3 billion encompassing entire city blocks, itís obvious that Jeff Vinikís plans will change the look and feel of downtown Tampa. But the Tampa Bay Lightning owner unveiled a broader vision last week that reflects how far the impac...
Published: 12/06/17
Updated: 12/08/17
Editorial: Make texting while driving a primary offense

Editorial: Make texting while driving a primary offense

It is dangerous and illegal to text while driving in Florida, and police should be able to pull over and ticket those lawbreakers without witnessing another violation first. House Speaker Richard Corcoran has lent his powerful voice to legislation th...
Published: 12/06/17
Updated: 12/07/17

Editorial: Outsourcing common sense on St. Petersburg Pier naming rights

St. Petersburg officials predict that selling the naming rights to parts of the new Pier could generate $100,000 in annual revenue. But first the city wants to pay a consultant to tell it how and to whom to sell the rights. Why do city officials need...
Published: 12/06/17
Updated: 12/07/17

Another voice: Trumpís risky move

President Donald Trumpís decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israelís capital has a certain amount of common sense on its side. As a practical matter, West Jerusalem has been the seat of Israeli government since 1949, and no conceivable formula for Pa...
Published: 12/06/17
Updated: 12/07/17
Editorial: Tampaís MOSI reinvents itself

Editorial: Tampaís MOSI reinvents itself

A tactical retreat and regrouping seems to be paying off for Hillsborough Countyís Museum of Science and Industry. After paring back its operations, the museum posted a small profit over the past year, enabling the attraction to keep its doors open a...
Published: 12/05/17
Updated: 12/07/17