“Whom” is a foreign word

Yet again I’ve been discussing with colleagues the question of where to use whom (and, more particularly, whomever – see I must disagree with whoever wrote that). One thing the issue shows us (in case we hadn’t noticed) is that whom and whomever are no longer parts of current English. By which I mean they are not part of the language that most English speakers speak – they are, effectively, foreign words, or at best part of a second language that the user may not be altogether comfortable with. Second language? Well, second dialect, and for the purposes of intuitive grasp of usage, that’s tantamount. Whom and whomever belong only to a more formal dialect that most English speakers are not comfortable with and do no use intuitively.

Although we have an intuitive grasp of the syntax of our native language that extends to intricacies far beyond most of our conscious analyses, that native language uses who in both subject and object positions. Whenever we go to use whom we are having to override a who, and we may grasp at straws to know exactly what we’re doing when we’re putting together our sentences.

Speakers of normal English, faced with details of a formal dialect they’re not comfortable with, get snagged up in the analysis. Our language flows out neatly, and parsing it can be like trying to analyze a dream we’ve already forgotten. I’m put in mind of a person I read about who was analyzing the different muscular movements we make when walking, and when it came time to stand up, he (or was it she) for a moment couldn’t remember how. For that matter, there was the time when I first rode a chairlift and I wasn’t sure how to get off, and the instructor gave me a detailed explanation: you stand up and at the same time turn a bit to the side, push with your arm and slide forward, etc. Well, there was so much to think about, I froze, and then ended up jumping from a couple of feet after the ramp. “Stand up” would have been enough, really.

But “stand up” uses intuition. The problem with formal written English is that most of us don’t use it intuitively; it’s not natural to us like walking. And so we see that newspapers, for instance, are littered with errors made by journalists trying to write in a dialect that they’re not actually comfortable with, following misunderstood rules and looking in the wrong parts of sentences for connections. The same happens practically anywhere people are producing prose for an audience. All of a sudden they have to get off the chairlift, and they freeze up. Verbs get conjugated to the wrong subject, nouns get mistaken for adjectives and vice versa (here’s another ceterum censeo from me: numbers are not adjectives), and whom gets misused – as do, on occasion, other pronouns when the sentence is more complex than anything they would normally say to a friend.

Most linguists don’t bother using whom even in formal writing, I’ve noticed. We can actually get away without it. But it would benefit all users of English to learn more about how sentences are actually put together – and I don’t mean the inane packets of proscriptions they managed to pick up in grade school. I mean an introduction to actual English syntax. The sort of thing Geoffrey Pullum gives a bit of in his recent posting on passive clauses. That way, even if we are still using formal written English only as a second – or foreign – language, we can at least come to the right analyses rather than making a leap of faith and landing in a heap of snowsuit, skis and poles.

5 responses to ““Whom” is a foreign word

  1. Some might object and say that formal written English is a register, not a dialect. This is a reasonable assertion, but the differences between registers and dialects are at times no more clear cut than those between dialects and languages, and I felt that it would make the point clearer if I referred to it as a dialect. Moreover, a register is generally seen as a situational variety of a person’s dialect, and the point is that whom just isn’t a true part of the dialect most English speakers speak.

  2. Pingback: hark | Sesquiotica

  3. Pingback: Whom are you trying to impress? | Sesquiotica

  4. Pingback: Whom do you believe? | Sesquiotica

  5. Pingback: Whoever is the subject? | Sesquiotica

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