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Who, Whom, Whoever, Whomever

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Most people are confused at least some of the time about using who or whom. Most grammar books tell you how to use who, whom, whoever, and whomever correctly. But the following discourse is the best we’ve ever seen. Yes, it is long, and it takes some effort to read and grasp. But the author’s examples and reasoning are stellar. Take some time to read it – come back later if you can’t read it in one sitting – and get it down pat so you’ll be the best writer you can be. This is one of the major installments in our drive to reverse the dumbing down of English the world over. Please join us!

1. The objective form of the pronoun who is having a hard time asserting its hereditary rights. On one side it suffers the mistreatment of those who will put in the m where it does not belong, out of fear of being thought uneducated; on the other, it is belabored by emancipated grammarians who find it bookish and affected in most uses and favor almost any construction that avoids it. Between those who are afraid of sounding ignorant and those who are afraid of sounding superior, whom falls into comparative disuse and causes increasing discomfort in its users.

The first kind of fear takes shape in such locutions as I know perfectly well whom you are, in which the speaker takes whom as the object of know (it is actually the subject of are–the construction that Franklin P. Adams of “The Conning Tower” was wont to deride in the tag line “Whom are you?” said Cyril). The lapse is far from unknown in the writing put forth under the best auspices: [He] asked them, saying, Whom say the people that I am? (Luke 9:18, KJV) / He resists a reconciliation with his sweet wife, whom he insists is a social butterfly / Ahead of them on the Nonesuch Road they descried Lord Grey de Hilton, whom Essex declared was his enemy. The victims of this trap would save themselves if they would think of the interpolated two-word clause as parenthetic and within commas: who, he insists, is a social butterfly, etc. (This is not a recommendation that such commas be retained.) One of the paradoxes of the time is that some liberal grammarians who are implacable toward whom in its orthodox uses will tie themselves into knots in the effort to condone whom in this particular construction. Apparently they have a feeling that it ought to command the blessing of the learned because it tramples on prescriptive grammar. But the New International Dictionary, no shrine of purism, takes pains to enter a special note under whom: “Often used ungrammatically for who in a dependent, esp. relative, clause when erroneously regarded as object of a verb; as, those whom we thought would come.”

It is important, however, to remember that in a construction superficially similar, that in which the pronoun is the subject of a complementary infinitive, the objective whom is required: The woman whom I took to be his wife was in fact his daughter / The character whom he professes to admire most is Mr. Micawber. Note that the first of these sentences is equivalent in meaning but not in form to The woman who I thought was his wife …, where the verb I thought is an interpolation which could be set off by commas and even removed altogether. Try the same surgery on the woman whom (I took to be) his wife and you will see that what remains yields no sense. This is not because took turns who into a direct object whom, for in the parallel sentence about Mr. Micawber the verb professes is not capable of taking a direct object. In both sentences the required whom is the subject of the infinitive construction. This requirement can sometimes leads to what seems an inconsistency: our concern was to find out who we were and whom (not who) we wished to be. In such a case, change the whom to what and spare the reader a puzzle.

2. The other kind of fear, that of the savant fending off the imputation of letting too much grammar show, prompts a historian to write: M. departed eight days later in humiliation as the man who, more than anyone else, the President had repudiated. The radical grammarian grants this usage his full approval, undeterred by the fact that who makes you anticipate a clause of which it is the subject and leaves you jolted when you find that this clause is never coming. Here again the New International Dictionary (under who) hangs up a red lantern: “Use of who for whom as object either of a verb or of a preposition which follows intervening words, though ungrammatical, is common colloquially and is still found in good writers, esp. in interrogations and indirect questions; as, who are you thinking of?; I do not know who you can ask”–locutions that similarly gratify the libertarian. The implication of still would seem to be that a looser past usage is giving way to a more strictly grammatical present usage–a prospect bound to make the anti-whom faction indignant or incredulous. We read in a popular novel: The matter of who asks who to do what and recognize a very common pattern; and in everyday speech Who’s kidding who? is virtually expected.

3. Yet even now, those who consider it admissible or preferable to say Who do you think you’re talking to? will concede the necessity of saying To whom do you think you’re talking? That is, they draw a clear distinction between the pronoun immediately following preposition or verb and the pronoun preceding or separated from it. But it is no great step from the one construction to the other, and if the m of whom is to succumb in the first, it is not likely to hold out forever in the second by reason of the difference in position. The echoing sound may protect it for a while, but the time may come when it will take a historian of the language to explain what is being ungrammatical in Bierce’s jingle about the decline of love-making among humans and owls:

Sitting singly in the gloaming and no longer two and two;
As unwilling to be wedded as unpracticed how to woo;
With regard to being mated
Asking still with aggravated
Ungrammatical acerbity: “To who? To who?”

Meanwhile there is no good reason to distinguish two forms of the objective case of who. We should continue to use whom as the object of verb or preposition without any hairsplitting about its place in the sentence. This precept has the merit of simplicity and the reason for it is definable.

4. A further paradox in the doctrine of the liberal grammarians is that like everybody else they find whom obligatory in the construction than whom there is no man wiser; than whom none ever wrote a purer style, etc. The logic of grammar calls for who; nothing about than requires the objective case; and it would be a solecism to say no man is wiser than him. Yet the whom construction is universally taken as natural and right. It has long lived in the domain in which idiom exults over grammar. Those who like syntactical conundrums can puzzle their wits by substituting the uninflected which for whom (than which there is no wiser counsel) and asking themselves whether which is objective. Is, in fact, whom itself objective after such a than? Since the answer has no possible effect on how we shall handle either whom or which, and since latter-day grammar prefers to deny the existence of case outside inflected forms, wisdom suggests letting well enough alone. The modern writer will not be depriving himself of anything important if he lets the bookish than whom, than which construction alone too. He can relinquish it with the less regret because only extreme care can keep it invariably clear and correct. Derailment of sense occurs easily, as in a truly ecstatic telegram from Bob Benchley, than whom there was nobody whose praise a cartoonist or humorist would rather have had, which has only to be transposed into the normal order to reveal its confusion: there was nobody whose praise a cartoonist would rather have had than whom. Grammar and meaning can be reconciled thus: than whose praise there was nobody’s that a cartoonist would rather have had. But such a correction is verbal juggling and close to comic. The direct statement is always best: whose praise a cartoonist or humorist would rather have had than anybody else’s.

5. Who(m)ever, meaning any person who(m), is regulated by the same principles that govern whom. It is, of course, subject to the same confusions: answered that not only did Henry mean to maintain [the peace] but that he would wage war with all his might on whomever should be the first to violate it. Here the object of wage war on is not who(m)ever, but the whole following clause, of which the subject is necessarily whoever.

Source: Modern American Usage, edited by Jacques Barzun, Hill & Wang, 1966.

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