In the April 2013 Atlantic magazine, writer Megan Garber gleefully wrote: “Whom, I am thrilled to inform you, is dying.” And though I agree that whom seems to be going the way of the floppy disk, I don’t share Garber’s glee. Perhaps it’s because I think that grammatical inflection (when words change form to reflect their function in a sentence) allows for a greater range of elegance and expression. Or perhaps it’s a generational thing. After all, Garber ascribes part of the reason for the demise of whom to the preponderance of casual communication spurred on by the digital revolution—I don’t use happy-face icons, either.
Unlike that and which, who changes according to its grammatical function in a sentence. The subjective form is who; the possessive whose; the objective whom. As the Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage tells us, in spoken English, who has largely displaced whom in informal use, and who usually begins a question, regardless of whether it is subjective or objective. Now let us turn to the inimitable Mr T for examples of who in action: “Who called me a sissy?” (who as subject); “Who you callin’ dumb fool, fool?” (who as object).
The Oxford Guide also says, though, that whom is still required in formal usage (e.g., “Whom are you addressing as a dumb fool, fool?”) and after a preposition (“To whom shall I leave my collection of Mr T memorabilia?”). Things start to get a little dodgy, though, when a form of who governs a dependent clause or phrase. Consider this sentence: “Mr T demanded restitution from the woman whom he claimed had stolen his gold crucifix.” What this sentence actually wants to say is that Mr T wanted restitution from a woman who stole his crucifix, or so he claimed. Within the dependent clause, who is the subject of stole. Therefore, the sentence should read, “Mr T demanded restitution from the woman who he claimed had stolen his gold crucifix.”
So, with apologies to a devilishly clever Jacobean poet priest named John Donne, I adjure you—ask not for whom Mr T trolls; he trolls for thee.
Gettable Grammar is a monthly series of conjectures, opinions and postulates by Karen Virag.
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