Author Topic: Revisiting the “who”/“whom” grammar conundrum  (Read 5391 times)

Joe Carillo

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Revisiting the “who”/“whom” grammar conundrum
« on: May 14, 2020, 06:46:29 AM »
At about this time in 2014, a Forum member called my attention to this sentence in a newspaper feature article: “I remember a memorable experience, in the 1970s, with my paternal grandmother, a feisty devout Buddhist living in Davao who I frequently visited.”

He then posed these questions: “Is the use of ‘who’ in the sentence above correct or acceptable? Or should ‘whom’ be used instead?”

                   IMAGE CREDIT: 7ESL.COM


To start with, I told him that prescriptive grammarians condemn the use of the subjective “who” in that sentence construction and would demand adamantly that it be replaced with the objective “whom.” Personally, though, I find this demand ill-advised because it makes the sentence sound too formal, stilted, and stuffy: “I remember a memorable experience, in the 1970s, with my paternal grandmother, a feisty devout Buddhist living in Davao whom I frequently visited.”

So what do we do to avoid the “who”/“whom” impasse? We can attempt a mild rewrite that uses neither “who” nor “whom” but retains the sense and tonality intended of the original, like this: “I remember a memorable experience, in the 1970s, with my paternal grandmother, a feisty devout Buddhist I frequently visited in Davao.” The aspect of the subject’s “living” in Davao is lost in that reconstruction, of course, but I think it’s a small price to pay for skirting the “who” vs. “whom” conundrum while nicely streamlining the sentence.

But then why should we go to such lengths when presented with the choice between “who” and “whom”? It’s because aside from being highly debatable, the use of either “who” or “whom” is often too problematic from both the style and language register standpoints.

The grammatically unassailable “whom,” which is the true objective-case form of “who,” just doesn’t sound right to the modern ear; in many cases, in fact, “whom” imbues an unwanted pedantic, standoffish academic tone to what should be a conversational statement. On the other hand, using “who” instead often gives leaves us with the uncomfortable feeling that something’s not right with the sentence.

On the very day in 2014 that I was writing my reply to the “who”/“whom” question, a Harvard Magazine mailer providentially landed on my mailbox with this very timely advertorial question: “Whom Will You Honor This Mother’s Day?” That interrogative construction is actually one of the few iffy “whom” usages that I can tolerate without getting overpowered by the itch to change to “who,” but frankly, I’d be more comfortable and at peace with that message if it had used “who” instead: “Who Will You Honor This Mother’s Day?”

Other than total reconstruction, there are actually two ways of avoiding “whom” in  sentences like “The salesman whom we hired for the new product is doing a terrific job.” One is to drop the relative pronoun altogether as in this elliptical construction: “The salesman we hired for the new product is doing a terrific job.” The other is to use the relative pronoun “that” instead: “The salesman that we hired for the new product is doing a terrific job.”.

Personally, I wouldn’t hesitate to use “that” in such cases. After all, early English actually used words related to “that” to mark relative clauses, and used “who” and “whom” only as question words and as indefinite pronouns in such constructions as “I wonder who were at the hunt.” Indeed, it was only because of the strong influence of Latin on written English in the 1800s that led to the “highbrow” use of “who” and “whom” as relative pronouns.

These days, however, many native English speakers are rediscovering the grammatical virtue of “that” as an all-purpose relative pronoun. I do think that even nonnative English speakers now can follow suit with very little danger of being marked as uneducated yokels.

(Next week: How litotes and the double negative differ)     May 21, 2020             

This column online in The Manila Times:
Revisiting the “who”/“whom” grammar conundrum
                         
This essay, 1,194th of the series, appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the Campus Press section of the May 14, 2020 Internet edition of The Manila Times,© 2020 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.