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To ‘Whom’ it may concern
Posted: 15 June 2017 09:41 PM   [ Ignore ]
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https://www.wsj.com/

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

The Bell Tolls for ‘Whom’

As the word is increasingly neglected and scorned in popular culture, die-hard grammarians fight to save it; the ‘Whom Appreciation Society’
By


Spencer Jakab
June 15, 2017 10:23 a.m. ET
When Twitter users open their home pages, they are greeted by an inset box at the top of the screen in which three words appear in gray type: “Who to follow.”
Correct grammar? Certainly not.

Plenty of Twitter users, including members of the blue-checkmarked elite, have complained about that oversight. “The ‘whoms’ put up a good fight, but we ultimately opted for a more natural cadence and the ‘whos’ won out,” says Twitter spokeswoman Brielle Villablanca.

This sort of grammatical nonchalance doesn’t sit well with many people, among them Thomas Steiner, a systems engineer at Google. Mr. Steiner, a German who lives and works in Hamburg, says Twitter’s language annoys him. “As a non-native speaker, I make a lot of effort to learn the language, and the people who should know better don’t,” he says.

In his spare time, he wrote a free browser plugin that automatically corrects the “who” to “whom.” He “fixed the internet,” gushed one user of the program.
Mr. Steiner has a kindred spirit in British scriptwriter James T. Harding, who recalls that, as a teenager, he used to go through music videos and correct the soundtracks. That was around the time he established an imaginary group called the Grand Order of the Whomic Empire. Today, the case-sensitive Mr. Harding runs a lightly visited Facebook group, the Whom Appreciation Society.

As for when “whom” is appropriate: It is the correct choice if the word is the object of a preposition or a verb, such as in Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” The choice should be “who” if the word serves as the subject of a sentence or clause.

Ben Yagoda cares about such matters, as the author of several books on language and a professor of English and journalism at the University of Delaware. Still, he doesn’t insist on 100% whom-compliance either. For Twitter, he says, “It would be worse to say ‘whom to follow.’ It’s so stilted. I mean, here you are on social media with all these exclamation points and whatever.”

The writer Calvin Trillin has gone further: “As far as I’m concerned, ‘whom’ is a word that was invented to make everyone sound like a butler,” he once wrote.
Think about it: Would anyone listen to a band called “The Whom”? And for that matter, would the signature phrases of “Ghostbusters” and a certain Bo Diddley song have worked if they read “Whom ya gonna call?” and “Whom Do You Love?” Even Mr. Harding, the scriptwriter, makes concessions for how people actually talk. One exception is a recurring character in a script he wrote, a 1,224-year-old vampire. “She uses ‘whom’ when it’s appropriate because she’s old-fashioned,” Mr. Harding says.

Arrayed in galactic war against these accommodating types is Doctor Whom, a “grammatically correct TimeLord” created by Adam Roberts, who, besides being a professor of 19th-century literature at Royal Holloway, University of London, is a prolific writer of science fiction.
In a nod to the subtitle of Lynne Truss’s grammar best seller “Eats, Shoots & Leaves”—which is “The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation”—Doctor Whom has adopted a “zero tolerance approach to parodication,” according to the cover of a book about him, as he travels through time righting grammatical and other wrongs.

“I’m a grammar pedant in a lighthearted way,” says Mr. Roberts. “There’s a difference between being a grammar Nazi and a Nazi.” Mr. Roberts continues to use “whom” when it is proper and encourages others to do so too, because “there’s just something elegant about it.”‘
There could be other advantages, if a 2014 Wired article is to be believed. The magazine sifted through thousands of profiles at dating sites Match.com and OkCupid trying to figure out what sorts of things made someone a more desirable date. Among other tips for success—be into yoga, don’t mention religion, learn to surf—Wired found that men who used “whom” had 31% greater success at getting dates.

“This changes everything!” wrote the University of Pennsylvania’s normally buttoned-down Language Log. “It’s not just about the inflectional marking of relative and interrogative pronouns any more, people; it’s about getting more sex!”

Carelessly throwing around “whom,” though, can raise the risk of the embarrassing misstep known as a hypercorrection: using what the speaker thinks is correct grammar, but isn’t. Mr. Yagoda sees this with his students. They might write, “I will talk to whomever knows the answer.”
The correct word there, of course, is “whoever.”’ Reason: The object of the preposition “to” isn’t the word that comes right after it but the whole clause that follows, and “whoever” is that clause’s subject.

N.B., I could not send a link to the WSJ, because I am not a subscriber. The article was sent to me by someone who copied and pasted it to my e-mail address, which is what I’ve done;therefore, I’m sending it in two separate posts, I apologize for the inconvenience.

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Posted: 15 June 2017 09:44 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Conclusion to the WSJ article.

“Whom” has hung on somewhat better with the written than the spoken word, but it is losing ground there, too. A scan of thousands of titles through Google Books shows one use of “whom” for every five of “who” in the year 1800. By the start of the 20th century it was one to every six, and by the beginning of the 21st century it was one to 11.
So, is “whom” headed the way of “thou,” a word people now encounter mostly when reading religious texts or Shakespeare?

Edward Sapir, an anthropologist and linguist of the last century, predicted in a 1921 book on language that “within a couple of hundred years from to-day not even the most learned jurist will be saying ‘Whom did you see?’… No logical or historical argument will avail to save this hapless ‘whom.’ ”

While internet language is hardly helping rescue the word, Mr. Yagoda thinks it will hang on as an object of prepositions, if not of verbs. He never expects to see a letter starting with “To who it may concern.”

Mr. Harding sees reason to lament the way his generation has largely stopped using “whom.”
“It’s a shame in a way, because they’re missing out on a way to correct people and be annoying.”

Write to Spencer Jakab at

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Posted: 16 June 2017 01:27 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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I observe the passing of ‘whom’ not with any great emotion, just a vague annoyance that that tiny part of my life spent learning how to use it properly was basically wasted effort.

But the title of the articel, what a candidate for headline of the year: witty, appropriate and even kinda edifying!

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Posted: 16 June 2017 02:17 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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All this by people who don’t think twice about using you in the nominative, and even singular at that.

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Posted: 16 June 2017 04:29 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Mr. Steiner, a German who lives and works in Hamburg, says Twitter’s language annoys him. “As a non-native speaker, I make a lot of effort to learn the language, and the people who should know better don’t,” he says.

What is “the language”? And what is “better”? Mr. Steiner has learned a language that native English speakers don’t actually speak. (Or more accurately, he was taught a formal register and told that it applied to all situations.) A “better” thing would be for him to have learned English as it is actually spoken. It’s not his fault, but he was not served especially well in his education.

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Posted: 16 June 2017 06:01 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Edward Sapir, an anthropologist and linguist of the last century, predicted in a 1921 book on language that “within a couple of hundred years from to-day not even the most learned jurist will be saying ‘Whom did you see?’… No logical or historical argument will avail to save this hapless ‘whom.’ ”

Sapir was a wonderful writer as well as a fine linguist; he’s one of the people who knocked the prescriptivist nonsense out of my head half a century or so ago.

Excellent comments by Faldage and Dave!

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Posted: 16 June 2017 06:02 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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I might add that a German once tried to tell me I was using English wrong.  Probably just a coincidence.

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Posted: 16 June 2017 06:33 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Only once? When I taught English in Germany, I had that regularly. One informed me that I’d violated the English order of adverbs of place before time, of which I’d never heard. Now Germans do have a rule that requires adverbs of time before place – in German, obviously – so it makes sense for them to learn that the English do it the other way round, most of the time. But only most of the time, because it’s a tendency, not an absolute rule. Which is what I told him, after thinking about it. He didn’t believe me, and later reported me to the Stasi, although not for that.

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Posted: 16 June 2017 08:04 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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What is “the language”? And what is “better”? Mr. Steiner has learned a language that native English speakers don’t actually speak. (Or more accurately, he was taught a formal register and told that it applied to all situations.) A “better” thing would be for him to have learned English as it is actually spoken. It’s not his fault, but he was not served especially well in his education.

But that’s not being realistic.  How can it be better, or possible, for non-native speakers to learn a foreign language by how it’s spoken? What dialect do they choose? Also, to learn a
language on how it’s spoken one must go to the country where it’s spoken.

If an American wants to learn Italian it would not be wise—if he wants to be understood by all Italians throughout the country and the world— to go to Naples and learn the Neapolitan dialect, which is the main dialect spoken throughout the Campania region.

Language learners usually learn a foreign language through books; therefore, they learn the standard dialect of a particular country. I’ve met many foreigners who’ve learned English in school and speak better English than many native speakers.

Non sequitur: I’m quite fond of ‘whom’ I like its mellifluous sound opposed to the owlish ‘who’.  However, I use it discreetly to avoid sounding pedantic, which seems to be an offensive trait these days.

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Posted: 17 June 2017 12:24 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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....the owlish ‘who’

Logophile, that single phrase of yours brought this little poem back into my mind complete for the first time in decades. It’s a riposte to Thomas Gray’s line ‘The moping owl does to the moon complain’:

Who, who has dared to use us owls so ill?
(With us, of course, it’s U to use two whos.)
To whomsoe’er it was, I take my quill
To twit him for his quite erroneous views.

No, I do not complain, I’m not a grouse
(I do not give two hoots, when I am blue);
You heard me call my love to share a mouse,
For that’s our owlish way - to wit, to woo.

I’ve no idea who wrote it: it was one of the winners of the weekly Literary Competition set by the left-wing New Statesman magazine, many years ago. The challenge was often highly technical - to produce a continuation or rebuttal of an author in a pastiche of their own style, or a complex verse form such as a villanelle on a given subject. This happened week after week for decades and the standard of entries was astonishingly high. Many of the contestants submitted their entries pseudonymously, though, so maybe nobody knows who wrote this one.

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Posted: 17 June 2017 12:52 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Thank you, Syntinen Laulu, for recalling that utterly delightful bit of verse. One person who can use the English language so skilfully, and so wittily, more than compensates for many millions who don’t give a hoot for “who vs. whom”.

I well remember the “New Statesman” weekly competitions. I believe that some of the anonymous participants were actually well-known literary figures. The standard of entries was incredibly high.

(corrected typo)

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Posted: 17 June 2017 10:47 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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lionello - 17 June 2017 12:52 AM


I well remember the “New Statesman” weekly competitions. I believe that some of the anonymous participants were actually well-known literary figures. The standard of entries was incredibly high.

Yes, indeed. The Spectator too. I submitted entries a few times for both, alas unsuccessfully. My friend Graham, who had started to read my Spectators, did actually get an honorable mention one week, much to my annoyance (owing to the fact that he took the piss the whole week after. “Where’s your name then? I must have missed it”, said with a broad grin. OK, Graham, I can wait. I’ll get you yet!)

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Posted: 17 June 2017 09:39 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Thank you, Syntinen Laulu, for recalling that utterly delightful bit of verse.

I concur, very nice indeed.

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Posted: 18 June 2017 04:35 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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I might add that a German once tried to tell me I was using English wrong.  Probably just a coincidence.

And then there was Senning, who was more than willing to tell us we were all using it wrong.  He’s based in Denmark, but I always had the impression his first language was German.

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Posted: 19 June 2017 06:21 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Dr. Techie - 18 June 2017 04:35 PM

I might add that a German once tried to tell me I was using English wrong.  Probably just a coincidence.

And then there was Senning, who was more than willing to tell us we were all using it wrong.  He’s based in Denmark, but I always had the impression his first language was German.

I wonder whether Senning ever finished his chemical dictionary.

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Posted: 19 June 2017 11:35 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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As for when “whom” is appropriate: It is the correct choice if the word is the object of a preposition or a verb, such as in Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” The choice should be “who” if the word serves as the subject of a sentence or clause.

Hemingway was quoting John Donne from 1624 when grammatical practice was different. Spencer seems to be suggesting Ernest should have corrected John’s grammar (and appalling spelling if he’d recognised the allusion).

John Donne
Meditation 17
Devotions upon Emergent Occasions

“No man is an iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee....”

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