Commonplace opening essay

Bernice Randall, writing on American usage, agrees that “whom” is disappearing, especially as the opening word of a sentence, and notes that even the commonplace opening for letters, “To whom it may concern” is no longer the universal form that it was in the past (348). On the other hand, there are still the old believers. The Cassell Dictionary of English Usage notes that “who” is widely used for “whom” is colloquial spoken English, but insists that in written English, the use of “whom” is mandatory where it is the subject of a verb or of a preposition (658).

The American Heritage English as a Second Language Dictionary takes the same position, announcing the rule summarily, and giving no warning to its novitiates of the perils that follow (954). As if a subjective case-objective case rule were not enough, Eric Partridge adds this variant: “The rule to remember is that whom is not to be used with the verb to be (whatever parenthetic material may intervene) except where that verb is in the infinitive, ‘a man whom we understood to be a policeman’ is correct” (379).

The American Heritage Dictionary begins with a statement of the basic subjective-objective rule, noting that it becomes more difficult to apply this rule as the subject verb or preposition is separated from the “who/whom” which is the object of that word. Despite any difficulty in applying this rule, American Heritage still that adherence to the rule “is still a hallmark of formal style. ” Regarding speech and informal writing. American Heritage allows a mild relaxation of the rules, regarding sentences such as “Who did you give it to?

” as acceptable (1564-65). Burchfield, in his revision of Fowler’s Modern English Usage devotes two full pages to the issue. Reduced to its basic components, Burchfield’s basic idea is that overuse of “who” is the growing trend. Indeed, his various examples of improper use suggest that he finds the overuse of “whom” more offensive that the overuse of “who” (846-47). In his Dictionary of Modern American Usage, Garner notes that some language experts have long predicted the demise of “whom” but still urges its retention (693-95).

The state of the controversy is ammunition for the iconoclasts who attack the rule of grammar and the diehards who stand on the ramparts. Among the former, Jim Quinn has fun. He points out that even the dons of the Oxford English Dictionary have given ground. They initially rankled at Thomas Hardy’s use of “who” in Far from the Madding Crowd (70), but by the time they brought out the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, they let Hardy pass without comment, stating, “Whom is no longer current in national colloquial speech” (quoted in Quinn 70).

He also chides Otto Jesperson, noting that he announces a relaxation of the rule almost to giving it up, but then writes with style that casts the traditional role in stone (Quinn 136). But he also pokes fun at Wilson Follett, who manages to damn Jesperson as an anarchist, a leveler, and a panderer to the illiterate mob (148). To resolve the dispute, Quinn suggests a simple rule: if the word needs to go into the “subject area” of a phrase or sentence, use “who.

” If it needs to go in the “object area, ” use “whom. ” He summarizes he support for this rule with a highly pragmatic statement: “the subject area-object area has one important virtue: it works” (148). On balance, this seems the best rule. As to a return to the widespread use of “whom,” it seems a vain hope. Consider one example in which the correct use that would sound bad. In 1984, the title theme to the movie Ghostbusters featured the repeated line, “Who ya gonna call?

” While “Whom ya gonna call? ” might be correct to some grammarians, a better response might be, “ouch. ”


American Heritage College Dictionary. 4th ed. Boston: Houghton Miflin, 2002. American Heritage English as a Second Language Dictionary. Boston: Houghton Miflin, 1998. “Blickling Homilies. ” Wikipedia. 29 October 2006. 16 July 2006 <http//en. wikipedia. org/ wiki/Blickling_homilies. Burchfield, R. W. New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1996.