Whom lives

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In the latest Tom The Dancing Bug:

All you whomophiles who were outraged by last month’s casual reference to the death of whom, your day joke has come!


  1. Sili said,

    February 2, 2011 @ 2:49 pm

    Wasn’t this on the first episode of Frasier?

    “Little owlet in the glen, how ungrammatical of you!
    You should say ‘To whom? To whom?’, not ‘To who! To who!'”

    I though this was gonna be some sorta mistranlation of «Qui vives ?!»

    [(myl) Maybe it’ll happen — “whom lives” is Out There!]

  2. Neal Goldfarb said,

    February 2, 2011 @ 3:48 pm

    Owls? Old hoot—uh, hat.

  3. Rebecca said,

    February 2, 2011 @ 5:24 pm

    Whom can’t quite be dead if the NY Times is still hypercorrecting in its direction.

  4. Greg said,

    February 2, 2011 @ 5:35 pm

    Is it possible to be a descriptivist and also believe in hypercorrection? Take “hypercorrect” usage of whom in subject position, or of so-and-so and I in object position: can’t we just say that these are alternate variants for who and so-and-so and me?

  5. AJD said,

    February 2, 2011 @ 5:48 pm

    Greg, I’m not sure what you mean. Hypercorrection is perfectly well defined from a descriptive standpoint: in attempting to use a high-prestige linguistic variant, employing the variant in contexts in which high-prestige speakers themselves would not use it.

  6. Tim said,

    February 2, 2011 @ 7:01 pm

    I’m not sure what the point of that NYT column is meant to be. I could understand pointing to, say, the misuse of whom as a way to inform people of the difference between it and who. Granted, people who don’t know probably don’t care, either, but I could still see it as a legitimate thing to write about. But the examples like “mindset” and “Governor”? Those are just against the paper’s own style rules. Why would the public need to know about that? It’s like writing a column that’s a list of things like “reporter John Smith wore tennis shoes to the office on Thursday, which is against Times dress code”.

  7. Rebecca said,

    February 2, 2011 @ 10:08 pm


    Maybe an effort at transparency…or entertainment for grammarphile Times readers.

  8. Mark Mandel said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 12:14 am

    Of course I’m still alive!

    Mark A. Mandel
    aka Dr. Whom, Consulting Linguist, Grammarian, Orthoëpist, and Philological Busybody

    (There’s another Dr. Whom, which is not surprising, who is also from Penn Linguistics, which rather is.)

  9. Joe said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 12:21 am

    That definition of hypercorrection bothers me a bit, because it sounds snobbish (i’m not saying that you meant it that way). I think the question being asked is why we assume that people using “whom” in certain contexts are wrong, when we (meaning linguists) wouldn’t say speakers who say “me and my brother went . . . ” are “wrong” to do so. A lot of the examples the Times offered appeared in the same grammatical context– “whom” appears in a so-called “pre-nuclear” position (i.e., before the subject). I think it would be possible to say that there are speakers who use “whom” in this context, and, if there are enough of those speakers who are otherwise speakers of Standard English, you could say that using whom in this context isa variant ( sort of like saying, “between you and I”). My problem with the concept of hypercorrection is that it assumes you can distinguish when someone misapplies a rule from when they follow a different one.

  10. J. Goard said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 1:08 am


    My problem with the concept of hypercorrection is that it assumes you can distinguish when someone misapplies a rule from when they follow a different one.

    This strikes me as less of a problem with any concept of hypercorrection than with the concept of “rule” in linguistics.

    If we view linguistic constructions in terms of routinized patterns and online analogy-making, then the issue of hypercorrection may be phrased in terms familiar from learning theory and psychology more generally, e.g. degree of automatization, attention, conscious awareness.

    “Hypercorrection” constructions seem to be those which owe their existence to conscious reasoning related to the fear of social stigma. But we shouldn’t expect them to be immune to the general processes of language learning, such as automatization in the people who use them every day.

  11. John Wallace said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 1:44 am

    My daughter is in the University of California system, and is taking a class in linguistics. The professor and the TA both say the only people that care about language proprieties and rules are teachers. IOW, anything goes as long as the communication is clear. I think this is a sorry way to educated the top1% of the US population

  12. Joe said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 5:45 am

    @J. Goard,

    Oh I agree with much of what you say, and I used “rule” in a rather loose sense. The question for me concerns what is meant by “owe their existence to conscious reasoning related to the fear of social stigma.” Are we talking about a historical stage of the language? Or something that occurs “on-line” for a contemporary speaker? If a construction has been around long enough and said by enough speakers, isn’t it possible that it becomes a variant construction? If so, how do we tell the difference (outside of experimental conditions) between Speaker A, who uses the construction consciously out of fear of social stigma, and Speaker B, who speaks a dialect/variety of English in which “whom” is used in formal speech for 1) the subject of a finite clause 2) appearing in pre-nuclear position before the subject of a relative clause? I think people often assume that all speakers are like Speaker A, but I don’t know what evidence they offer to support this position, other than what sometimes sounds to me like class prejudice (against the aspiring middle class).

  13. GeorgeW said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 6:20 am

    @John Wallace: “anything goes as long as the communication is clear. I think this is a sorry way to educated the top1% of the US population”

    This is a sorry way if the objective of linguistics is to assist students in socially distinguishing themselves from bottom 99% of society through speech.

  14. GeorgeW said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 6:32 am

    @Joe: “how do we tell the difference (outside of experimental conditions) between Speaker A, who uses the construction consciously out of fear of social stigma, and Speaker B, who speaks a dialect/variety of English in which “whom” is used in formal speech.”

    If there were predictable variation such as register, your point would be valid. But, hypercorrection is the incorrect usage of a form which is regular in a more prestigious, prescriptive context. Speaker B would not use ‘whom’ in a subject position.

  15. Joe said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 7:20 am

    @George W,

    Again, I would use the case of “between you and I” as an example. People ragged on Obama for using it that construction, but he is certainly a high-prestige speaker (or do you disagree with that?). The construction itself has been in the language for a while. Here’s different alternatives: 1) Obama incorrectly uses “I” here due to conscious reasoning out of fear of social stigma. Hypercorrection is thus during on-line production of speech; 2) through process of automatization (as described by J.Goard above) the hypercorrection is no longer “on-line” — he doesn’t consciously make the mistake — but occurred at an earlier stage of his learning the language; 3) he directly learns to use the nominative form in coordinated constructions due to the input he receives. This input itself is due to hypercorrection (that is, at one point in the history of English, the nominative form arose through hypercorrection, but for contemporary speakers, it is not just a variant); 4) there has always been dialects/varieties of English where nominative form has been acceptable. Hypercorrection doesn’t enter into the equation. I think the same thing occurs with “whom” in the context described above. At some point, I think it becomes difficult distinguishes cases (3) and (4) from (1) and (2).

  16. GeorgeW said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 7:40 am

    @Joe: I would agree that there are situations in which it would be hard to determine speaker motivation. But, being unable to distinguish the motivation for each occurrence does not invalidate hypercorrection. The fact that ‘whom’ occurs more frequently in formal contexts suggests that when incorrectly used it is likely hypercorrection.

    It is interesting that in the first person singular (I/me), the accusative is the default where in the ‘who/whom’ pronoun, the nominative is the default. I suspect there is a good explanation for this.

  17. John Boyd said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 8:52 am

    When it comes to using ‘whom,’ I don’t give a hoot.

  18. Greg said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 9:16 am

    @Joe: Thank you for continuing to articulate my initial quandary.

    I suppose my primary beef with “hypercorrection” has less to do with any inconsistency with descriptiveness, and more to do with, like Joe says, assumptions about motivation.

    @AJD, GeorgeW: I also have a concern about “high-prestige” or “prestigious” being in the definition of hypercorrection. Maybe a more accurate (and less classist) wording for the phenomena described in Joe’s (1) and (2) scenarios (of Obama using “between you and I”) would be something like “cross-dialect rule misapplication”. This sort of phenomenon can also occur, mind you, with some Standard English speaker attempting to use a construction that exists in a non-standard variety, but missing the mark (either due to online processing errors or misunderstanding of the rule). The “error” arises, at least in part, because the speaker is attempting a construction in a dialect different from their own (regardless of prestige).

  19. GeorgeW said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 9:35 am

    @Gregg: Good point. Yes, this would not be limited to prestige contexts. I personally (white, AmE speaker), would likely hypercorrect when targeting British English or AAVE.

    However, the ‘whom’ hypercorrection, I think, is primarily prestige (i.e. targeting standard language).

  20. Mark F. said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 11:37 am

    I think the notion of social class is a little bit separable from the prestige of the language variant you’re trying to use. There’s a language variant that used “whom” in a certain standardized way, and it’s seen as the right variant to use in some formal contexts, but it may not be really the native speech for any social class. So when someone hypercorrects in using “whom”, the social anxieties can be real without being immediately framed in terms of class.

  21. Greg said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 1:05 pm

    @Mark F: I’ll have to respectfully disagree. Whether or not the variant is in anyone’s native dialect(s), the fact that there’s “social anxiety” around using “what’s seen as” “the right variant” “in some formal contexts”, pretty clearly indicates to me that at least some notion of social class and prestige are necessarily at play.

  22. Philip said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 1:15 pm

    John Wallace: Either your daughter is misunderstanding what her linguistics profs are saying, or you are misunderstanding what she’s reported to you.

    Writing a sentence like “I ain’t got no money” in a formal academic paper certainly communicates clearly, but it is inappropriate–not wrong.

    Look at the posts in Language Log. The writers, all professional linguists, pay careful attention to the conventions of Standard Written
    Academic English. They certainly don’t think that “anything goes.”

  23. Marc said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 3:50 pm

    I’ve had a question about “whom” usage that no one has ever been able to answer, and I wonder if the collected wisdom here might not be able to help me.

    for who[m]ever might be interested

    To satisfy the preposition, whom is required. To act as the subject of the following noun, who is required.

    So which one takes precedence here?

  24. Thom said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 3:51 pm

    I concur with Phillip’s assessment of the situation.

    Within the contexts of specific registers, namely Academic English, we place higher expectations on the writers/speakers to properly apply the prescriptivist rules.

    However, on the other hand, while Standard English has opted to acknowledge this rule, there is less demand to sustain it. Other variations may not even acknowledge this rule at all.

    Each of us has had a time when they said “who” and thought, “opps, I meant to say whom.” This usually happens in the Standard Register where there is less threat to accomodate prescriptivism and rather concern one’s self with communication. It is a reflection of the loss of case markers in English–a process that has been going on for centuries.

  25. GeorgeW said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 4:35 pm

    @Marc: My handy prescriptive guide (“The Gregg Reference Manual”) gives a rule based on the pronoun that can be substituted. They give a couple of examples:

    1. I will speak to whomever I can find. (I can find ‘her’)

    2. I will give the job to whoever you think can be safely recommended. (You think ‘he’ can be safely recommended).

    However, it isn’t so clear in many of our internal grammars because many of us don’t use ‘whom’ on a regular basis.

  26. Greg said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 4:36 pm

    @John Wallace: While I agree with what both Phillip and Thom say, what’s more disturbing to me than any sort of miscommunication between you and your daughter or her and her professors is thinking of UC students as “the top 1% of the US population.” I was educated in the UC system, but in no way do I consider those who weren’t to be somehow “beneath” me.

  27. Marc said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 5:12 pm

    2. I will give the job to whoever you think can be safely recommended. (You think ‘he’ can be safely recommended).

    But (like my example) doesn’t that break rule 1? Using the replace-with-pronoun method, it should be both him (…job to him) and he (he can be…).

  28. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 5:16 pm

    Re “top 1%,” according to what seems to be a 2009 official statement, “The 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education calls on UC to select first-time freshmen from among the top 12.5% of California public high school graduates and has been amended to specify that UC guarantee all students in the top 12.5% a place somewhere in the UC system if they apply.” I have known some wonderful people who graduated from California public high schools (some of whom went to UC schools for college and some of whom didn’t – um, that’s a reasonably natural use of “whom” in my idiolect), but I can’t say my overall impression of California’s public schools would justify a conclusion that their 87.5th percentile is anywhere close to the country’s 99th percentile, regardless of what criteria of excellence are being used for the ranking.

  29. GeorgeW said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 8:23 pm

    @Marc: 2. I think the analysis is as follows:

    1. whoever you think can be recommended (is derived from 2.)

    2. you think whoever can be safely recommended (which can be replaced by 3)

    3. ”you think she (not her) can be recommended.’

  30. Marc said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 10:17 pm

    @George, I see that, but what about the preposition? It has to be to whom.

    In other words, what I’m pointing out is that in this pivot-like situation, it has to be both who and whom, and I’m guessing that this type of use (“to who[m]ever is best” etc., instead of “to him, whoever is best”) arose after whom dropped out of the language, only later to be brought back by … well, whoever brought it back.

  31. Jesse Tseng said,

    February 4, 2011 @ 12:24 am

    @Marc: In these “pivot” situations, the prescriptive rule is that you choose whoever or whomever based on its function within the subordinate clause, and ignore its function within the wider clause. This means that your example should be for [whoever might be interested]. It also means that you’re supposed to say things like [Whomever I help] succeeds. This discussion board might interest you (be sure to follow all of the links in message #3).

  32. GeorgeW said,

    February 4, 2011 @ 6:39 am

    @Marc: FWIW, I think the verb in 2. (give to) is a phrasal verb. I haven’t done much analysis, but this may be the distinction. A couple of other examples come to mind using Gregg’s test:

    Phrasal verb: turn on.
    I turned the TV on for whoever wants to watch. (She, not her, wants to watch).

    Phrasal verb: pick up.
    I picked dinner up on the way home for whoever is hungry. (She, not her, is hungry).

    Maybe this is just coincidence, plus the notion of phrasal verbs is controversial.

    [(myl) Do you really mean that to in “I gave the job to Kim” is the “intransitive preposition” in what is traditionally called a phrasal verb construction? And that “I gave the job to Kim” is structurally analogous to “I turned the TV on for Leslie”? ]

  33. Marc said,

    February 4, 2011 @ 7:59 am

    Got it. Thanks to both of you.

    There has to be an arbitrary rule for this, because it’s ungrammatical (agrammatical, almost) according to prescriptivist rules.

    Strange thing about this kind of construction, however, is that no matter how you write it, some editor is going to switch it, either putting in or taking out the m. Now I at least have some rule to throw back at them.

  34. GeorgeW said,

    February 4, 2011 @ 8:24 am

    @myl: As you point out, ‘give to’ is not a phrasal verb. I posted before thinking it through sufficiently. Sorry.

  35. Fred said,

    February 6, 2011 @ 5:26 am

    @John Wallace: “anything goes as long as the communication is clear. I think this is a sorry way to educated the top1% of the US population”

    John, linguists study what people actually say (don’t shoot the messenger). They don’t (usually) tell you what people *should* say. That’s probably why those instructors said that grammar is only important to English teachers. They don’t feel it’s their job. Linguists talk about this topic all the time: “descriptivism” vs. “prescriptivism”. Linguists (mostly) consider themselves the former. And English teachers the latter.

  36. Philip said,

    February 6, 2011 @ 2:40 pm

    As a community college English teacher (prescriptivist?) with a background in linguistics (descriptivist?), I ought to be schizophrenic. Here’s my prescription/description (take your pick) for sanity:

    While it’s certainly possible to write a scholarly article in a non-standard dialect or an informal register, it wouldn’t get published, just like wearing shorts, sandals, and a Hawaiian shirt would exclude you from a formal event.

    It works the other way around, too. Remember the picture of the post-Watergate Richard Nixon walking on the beach in San Clemente dressed in a coat (with the Presidential seal on the pocket) and tie wearing wingtip shoes? He looked laughably pompous, and fish-out-of-water sad. The photo was the equivalent of using a formal register in a conversation with intimate friends.

    “Anything goes” is certainly NOT what I tell students, but I also tell them that they need to have control of the conventions of Standard Written Academic English, not because SWAE is somehow intrinsically “better,” but because it’s what’s been agreed on (with some waffling around the edges) as acceptable and required.

    Decades ago, one of my teachers in grad school (who actually did publish an article in “College English” that was written entirely in a non-standard dialect) put it this way: If you’re at a formal dinner with four forks placed to the left of the dinner plate, any of them will work to get the food in your mouth. But if you use the wrong one, people will make some seriously negative judgements about you and your background.

    Looking at prescriptivist style manuals as etiquette books is how I keep my head straight.


  37. m.m. said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 7:51 pm

    Philip said
    …Standard Written Academic English, not because SWAE…

    Is that pronounced [sweɪ] or [swæʃ]? haha.

  38. Philip said,

    February 9, 2011 @ 2:04 pm

    Another name for the same thing is Standard Written Inland Northern English–SWINE.

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