Author Topic: Revisiting once more the intractable "who"/"whom" grammar conundrum  (Read 15108 times)

Joe Carillo

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I have decided to publish in full a very interesting letter by a Filipina senior citizen living in Australia who describes herself as "still trying to write and speak grammatically correct English" to a level that will make her Batch 1959 high school English teachers in the Philippines proud.

Here's the letter that she e-mailed to me last October 26, 2023:

Dear Mr. Carillo,

I am one of the followers of your Forum that a friend sends me regularly through e-mail.  I love reading the Forum postings and at one [time even] saved some of them until illness halted that practice.   

Yesterday, a friend forwarded to me your Forum dated Oct. 20, 2023 that had this subject as lead feature: “Using grammar as a tool for persuasion”. After reading it, I came across your retrospective on the book Connecting Flights in which you quoted from Mr. Ruel de Vera’s introduction to the anthology the following passage:

>>>> “I am honored to be able to invite passengers whom I admire and hold genuine affection for. Connecting Flights boasts of a manifest with some of my favorite writer friends, each checking in with poem, fiction or essay carried forward with the greatest velocity. These are the passengers I want to be with when embarking on a trip that is to change everything, regardless of destination and duration.”<<<<

My question: Should Mr. de Vera not have used WHO instead of WHOM before the words “I admire” and WHOM before “hold genuine affection” because he used “for” as ending preposition?

Thank you for your defense of the serial comma. I strongly agree with you on your stand.  However, I noticed that even seasoned writers or journalists are not mindful of this.

And thank you, too, for your kind attention to this e-mail. I am an 81-year-old Pinay living in Australia, still trying to write and speak grammatically correct English to make my high school English teachers proud--Virginia A. R., Fe D., and my other English teachers from the former Philippine College of Commerce High School Department (Batch 1959).

Nona I.


My reply to Nona I.:

Dear Nona,

I'm truly gratified to know that you are a long-time follower of Jose Carillo's English Forum and that you strongly agree with my personal stand on the serial comma and my defense of its usage.

Regarding your doubt about the acceptability of Mr. Ruel de Vera's usage of "whom" instead of "who" in his introduction to the Connecting Flights anthology, I must point out that from both the style and language register standpoints, the correct choice between "whom" and "who" in that construction has remained highly debatable. It's a veritable grammar conundrum, such that to very aggressively take a firm stand on it either way would be like clutching a live uninsulated 220-volt cable with your bare hand. 

For this reason, Nona, I would like to invite you to first read a retrospective of a 2014 Forum essay of mine, "Revisiting the 'who'/'whom' grammar conundrum." It's my position about a debatable usage uncannily similar to the one you presented in your letter. That retrospective appeared in the Forum on May 14, 2020, and it gives essentially the same answer to your doubt about the correctness of Mr. Ruel de Vera's choice of "whom" instead of "who" in the passage you cited from his introduction to Connecting Flights.

When you're done reading and analyzing it, do let me know what you think.

Sincerely yours,
Joe Carillo

Revisiting the “who”/“whom” grammar conundrum

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.
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.

In the hope of reaching a widely acceptable consensus on the "who"/"whom" usage conundrum, the Forum is making an open invitation to its members and followers to share with with us their thoughts on this subject. The Forum will be delighted to post the five most persuasive and best articulated submissions not exceeding 150 words. - Joe Carillo
« Last Edit: November 01, 2023, 12:18:32 PM by Joe Carillo »