Thurber on "Who and Whom"

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In her review of Henry Hitchings' The Language Wars: A History of Proper English, Joan Acocella expressed some annoyance that Hitchings could dare to suggest "that the “who”/“whom” distinction may be on its way out". As evidence that this distinction was already in some difficulty almost 20 years before Ms. Acocella was born, I reprint below James Thurber's thoughts on "Who and Whom", which ran under the title "Our Own Modern English Usage: After Reading a Book on the Subject", in The New Yorker's issue of January 5, 1929.

The number of people who use "whom" and "who" wrongly is appalling. The problem is a difficult one and it is complicated by the importance of tone, or taste. Take the common expression, "Whom are you, anyways?" That is of course, strictly speaking, correct – and yet how formal, how stilted! The usage to be preferred in ordinary speech and writing is "Who are you, anyways?" "Whom" should be used in the nominative case only when a note of dignity or austerity is desired. For example, if a writer is dealing with a meeting of, say, the British Cabinet, it would be better to have the Premier greet a new arrival, such as an under-secretary, with a "Whom are you, anyways?" rather than a "Who are you, anyways?" – always granted that the Premier is sincerely unaware of the man's identity. To address a person one knows by a "Whom are you?" is a mark either of incredible lapse of memory or inexcusable arrogance. "How are you?" is a much kindlier salutation.

The Buried Whom, as it is called, forms a special problem. That is where the word occurs deep in a sentence. For a ready example, take the common expression: "He did not know whether he knew her or not because he had not heard whom the other had said she was until too late to see her." The simplest way out of this is to abandon the "whom" altogether and substitute "where" (a reading of the sentence that way will show how much better it is). Unfortunately, it is only in rare cases that "where" can be used in place of "whom." Nothing could be more flagrantly bad, for instance, than to say "Where are you?" in demanding a person's identity. The only conceivable answer is "Here I am," which would give no hint at all as to whom the person was. Thus the conversation, or piece of writing, would, from being built upon a false foundation, fall of its own weight.

A common rule for determining whether "who" or "whom" is right is to substitute "she" for "who," and "her" for "whom," and see which sounds the better. Take the sentence, "He met a woman who they said was an actress." Now if "who" is correct then "she" can be used in its place. Let us try it. "He met a woman she they said was an actress." That instantly rings false. It can't be right. Hence the proper usage is "whom."

In certain cases grammatical correctness must often be subordinated to a consideration of taste. For instance, suppose that the same person had met a man whom they said was a street cleaner. The word "whom" is too austere to use in connection with a lowly worker, like a street-cleaner, and its use in this form is known as False Administration or Pathetic Fallacy.

You might say: "There is, then, no hard and fast rule?" ("was then" would be better, since "then" refers to what is past). You might better say (or have said): "There was then (or is now) no hard and fast rule?" Only this, that it is better to use "whom" when in doubt, and even better to re-word the statement, and leave out all the relative pronouns, except ad, ante, con, in , inter, ob, post, prae, pro, sub, and super.

According to Thomas Fensch, The Man Who Was Walter Mitty: The Life and Work of James Thurber, 2001 (p. 145), Thurber published nine of these pieces on usage: "Who and Whom"; "Which"; "The Split Infinitive"; "Only and One"; "Whether"; "The Subjunctive Mood"; "Exclamation Points and Colons"; "The Perfect Infinitive"; and "Adverbian Advice".  Unfortunately, The New Yorker's on-line archive apparently only indexes "abstracts", so that the only way to find the other eight is to browse every issue in the 1928-1930 time period. This is interesting but time-consuming — so I invited commenters with subscriptions (and thus archive access) to offer more detailed citations.

Update — the full set of nine is reprinted here, as they appeared in The Owl in the Attic (1931). And in the comments, Dave Lull cites a bibliography that gives the New Yorker issues  in which they were originally published.

(More "Whom Humor" … and fans of grammatical humor shouldn't miss Geoff Pullum's "The coming death of whom: Photo evidence", 9/10/2004.)

[For those who didn't learn Latin in an old-fashioned way, I'll note that "ad, ante, con, in, inter, ob, post, prae, pro, sub, and super" is a list that schoolchildren used to be required to memorize, because verbs compounded with these prepositions generally govern the dative case. Thurber has left off "... and sometimes circum", but he seems to have managed to make his way in the world nevertheless.]



51 Comments

  1. MattF said,

    May 13, 2012 @ 11:50 am

    Dave Barry, a living legend, will sub for the missing Thurber essays:

    http://www.miamiherald.com/2010/01/17/1409087/this-deserves-a-life-sentence.html

  2. dennis baron said,

    May 13, 2012 @ 12:00 pm

    Johnny Carson's first TV show was called "Who do you trust?" Not even PBS would air a show called "Whom do you trust?".

  3. Nick said,

    May 13, 2012 @ 12:08 pm

    It's not as if "He met a woman her they said was an actress" works, either.

    [(myl) Shhh... ]

  4. diogenes said,

    May 13, 2012 @ 12:14 pm

    it is a pity that Thurber did not cover the passive. I am sure he would have come up with a few jokes to make Prof Pullum's hair curl.

  5. Dave Lull said,

    May 13, 2012 @ 12:20 pm

    From JAMES THURBER: A BIBLIOGRAPHY

    by Edwin T. Bowden
    Ohio State University Press, 1968

    In a .pdf file here:

    http://preview.tinyurl.com/6oq8f2l

    B112. OUR OWN MODERN ENGLISH USAGE, AFTER READING A BOOK ON THE SUBJECT. "Who and Whom." NY, 4 (January 5,1929), 22-23. A2. Reprinted: Scholastic, 25 (October 20,1934), 8. Illustrated.

    B114. OUR OWN MODERN ENGLISH USAGE, AFTER CONTINUING IN A BOOK ON THE SUBJECT. "Only and One." NY, 5 (February 23, 1929), 19-20. A2. Reprinted, condensed: Readers Digest, 37 (August, 1940), 91-93.
    B117. OUR OWN MODERN ENGLISH USAGE. "Whether." NY, 5 (April 13,1929), 28. A2.

    B122. OUR OWN MODERN ENGLISH USAGE. "Which." NY, 5 (May 4, 1929), 28. A2. Reprinted: Scholastic, 25 (September 22, 1934), 8. Illustrated. Readers Digest, 37 (August, 1940), 91-93, condensed.

    B128. OUR OWN MODERN ENGLISH USAGE. "The Perfect Infinitive." NY, 5 (June 22, 1929), 27. A2. Reprinted, condensed: Readers Digest, 37 (August, 1940), 91-93.

    B130. OUR OWN MODERN ENGLISH USAGE. "Exclamation Points and Colons." NY, 5 (July 20, 1929), 20-21. A2. Reprinted: Scholastic, 29 (January 23, 1937), 5. Illustrated. Readers Digest, 37 (August, 1940), 91-93, condensed.
    B131. OUR OWN MODERN ENGLISH USAGE. "The Subjunctive Mood." NY, 5 (August 17,1929), 25. A2.

    B137. OUR OWN MODERN ENGLISH USAGE. "Adverbial Advice." NY, 5 (November 2, 1929), 27. A2. Reprinted: Scholastic, 30 (March 13,1937), 7. Illustrated.

    B140. OUR OWN MODERN ENGLISH USAGE. "The Split Infinitive." NY, 5 (December 21, 1929), 31. A2. Reprinted, condensed: Readers Digest, 37 (August, 1940), 91-93.

    [(myl) Thanks! ]

  6. The Ridger said,

    May 13, 2012 @ 12:22 pm

    All nine parts of Thurber's "The Ladies' and Gentlemen's Guide to Modern English Usage" (from The Owl in the Attic and Other Perplexities [1931]) can be found here – http://downwithtyranny.blogspot.com/2010/12/thurber-tonight-series-to-date.html

  7. The Ridger said,

    May 13, 2012 @ 12:23 pm

    Dang, I see someone beat me to it.

    [(myl) It was Google -- but thanks anyway!]

  8. Adam said,

    May 13, 2012 @ 12:43 pm

    You can't read too much Thurber.
    ;-)

  9. Pflaumbaum said,

    May 13, 2012 @ 12:54 pm

    What's he talking about, 'whom used in the nominative case'? All that stuff about Whom are you?

    I think thee sometimes appeared in the nominative (or maybe vocative is closer to it), but I've never heard anything about whom doing so.

  10. Michael Newman said,

    May 13, 2012 @ 1:01 pm

    Uh oh, I think someone forgot to take their irony supplements.

  11. Pflaumbaum said,

    May 13, 2012 @ 1:14 pm

    Whoops.

  12. Aaron Toivo said,

    May 13, 2012 @ 1:29 pm

    @Nick:
    (whispering, here)

    if you take the relative clause out of the sentence, and move the pronoun back into it, you get "they said she was an actress", not "they said her was an actress", thus making "who" the correct relative pronoun form.

  13. Christopher Greenway said,

    May 13, 2012 @ 1:35 pm

    I am glad someone has written about this. I was struck by the fact that Joan Acocella uses Hitchings' awareness of this disappearing distinction – about which she appears to be in denial – as evidence that Hitchings is a snob. She expands on this by suggesting that it's funny he notices this while manifesting no uncertainty of his own about "who" and "whom". This leads to the signoff at the end of the piece about how he'd rather take the Rolls – but you can walk. I thought this kind of cheap ad hominem criticism was hardly befitting of the New Yorker. It's an example of the very poor logic of this review – my annoyance at it being what brought me to this blog (for the first but definitely not the last time).

  14. GeorgeW said,

    May 13, 2012 @ 2:24 pm

    I wonder if the "False Administration or Pathetic Fallacy" still governs.

    I would love to have asked, so how should a lowly street cleaner address an even lower worker?

  15. Meanings: “Whom Is On First” | The Observatory said,

    May 13, 2012 @ 2:29 pm

    [...]  Mark Liberman at Language Log Share this:EmailPrintFacebookTwitterLinkedInLike this:LikeBe the first to like this [...]

  16. Rubrick said,

    May 13, 2012 @ 4:03 pm

    I'm impressed that the New Yorker editors felt they could get away with publishing something so deadpan. Under the assumption that humanity hasn't really changed that much in 90 years, I'll bet their editorial mailbox was flooded with protests from outraged readers complaining that Thurber's advice was wrong.

  17. IgnatiusJ said,

    May 13, 2012 @ 5:40 pm

    where is the "like" button on this thing?

  18. Sili said,

    May 13, 2012 @ 5:43 pm

    because verbs compounded with these prepositions generally govern the dative case

    Oh, verbs!

    I was thinking "Doesn't 'in, sub, super' take the accusative or ablative depending on stasis or movement?".

    I need to learn more lists by heart.

  19. Sili said,

    May 13, 2012 @ 5:44 pm

    it is a pity that Thurber did not cover the passive. I am sure he would have come up with a few jokes to make Prof Pullum's hair curl.

    Odds are he did, but White nixed them.

  20. Ruben Polo-Sherk said,

    May 13, 2012 @ 6:28 pm

    It took me much longer to realize he was joking than it should have, because it's not much more ridiculous than the sincerely-written made-up stuff.

  21. GeorgeW said,

    May 13, 2012 @ 7:35 pm

    Ruben Polo-Sherk: Thanks, I missed this and now feel foolish. But, when the serious is absurd, how do we identify satire?

  22. Anthony Brice said,

    May 13, 2012 @ 7:49 pm

    This /is/ satire, right? I bet Thurber got fanmail from Strunk and White.

    [(myl) In 1929, Strunk was still teaching at Cornell; his little book was something given to his students; and White was Thurber's colleague and friend at the New Yorker. "Strunk & White" -- White's revision of Strunk's pamphlet for re-publication -- didn't come out until 1959.]

  23. Dan Lufkin said,

    May 13, 2012 @ 8:18 pm

    Poe's Law grows more broadly applicable every day. Poe is a man the law of whom should not be remained passive to.

  24. Michael Briggs said,

    May 13, 2012 @ 8:49 pm

    Hitchings'? What's wrong with Hitchings's? [Briggs's comment.]

  25. HP said,

    May 13, 2012 @ 9:08 pm

    "…and see which sounds the better. "

    You know, I've probably read this essay a dozen times in the last forty years, and this is the first time I noticed his little dig at the "when comparing only two items, use the comparative form, not the superlative" rule.

    I'm pretty sure that bit of prescriptivism is gone and forgotten, but I recently heard Vincent Price correct Jack Benny on this point on a 1940 radio show.

  26. marie-lucie said,

    May 13, 2012 @ 9:40 pm

    A common rule for determining whether "who" or "whom" is right is to substitute "she" for "who," and "her" for "whom," and see which sounds the better.

    How is this a dig at the "comparative for two/superlative for more" rule? there are only two items, ["she" for "who"], and ["her" for "whom"], so the better follows the rule. The pronouns she, who, her, whom are not considered individually, but as parts of phrases, and the two phrases are the things compared.

  27. Gabriel Burns said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 12:20 am

    @marie-lucie: I think what HP is pointing out is that, in a case like this, "sounds the best" sounds the best (mini-Quine… what do I win?). One can also omit "the"; to my ear, "sounds better" is fine, but "sounds the better" is awkward.

  28. Bob Violence said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 12:35 am

    This Peanuts comic (from 1971) seems appropriate:

    http://www.gocomics.com/peanuts/2003/06/27

  29. LDavidH said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 2:29 am

    How far back would we have to go to find a (fictional) equivalent complaint along the lines of "Nobody uses 'hath' as one should anymore"? I mean, there must have been similar feelings about losing the -(e)th ending, or substituting the Viking 'they/them' for the indigenous Anglo-Saxon words…

    [(myl) As I understand it, during the period in question, the vulgar tongues of Europe were not generally associated with socio-cultural status in a way that would lead to judgments of using them "as one should" or not. However, in other traditions, we can find judgments of this general kind going back about 4,000 years.]

    And how long will it take for "we was" to become acceptable outside of the Estuary area?

  30. Vinaigrette Girl said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 8:03 am

    "I recently heard Vincent Price correct Jack Benny on this point on a 1940 radio show." It's reassuring to know I'm not the only person living a good 70 years in the past.

  31. Bloix said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 8:49 am

    There is no obvious need in English for pronoun cases. We generally use word order to distinguish between subject and object, and where the word order is inverted for some reason, the meaning supplies the necessary cues. Our nouns don't have cases, and we get along fine without them. And although most pronouns have them, "you" doesn't. As far as I can tell, the use of "whom" never removes ambiguity – the information it conveys is redundant. Perhaps someone can create an example of "whom" performing a function other than demonstrating the social class of the speaker.

  32. Mr Punch said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 9:42 am

    A good slogan for a usage hotline might be "Whom you gonna call?"

  33. marie-lucie said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 10:49 am

    LDavidH: How far back would we have to go to find a (fictional) equivalent complaint along the lines of "Nobody uses 'hath' as one should anymore"? I mean, there must have been similar feelings about losing the -(e)th ending, or substituting the Viking 'they/them' for the indigenous Anglo-Saxon words…

    Such changes do not occur abruptly. People generally keep speaking as they did as teen-agers, by which time they had attained full command of their native tongue, although they may add or lose vocabulary items throughout their life. Most people are in contact with others of various ages and while they may notice that only their grandparents – or their children or grandchildren – use certain words or turns of phrase, such things do not prevent communication (and typically, only a few of them are ever noticed). A century or so ago in France, a linguist analyzed the speech patterns of a single rural family comprising four generations living under one roof. The members thought that they all spoke exactly the same way, and were amazed when the linguist demonstrated he had identified typical speech features of very old, elderly, middle-aged and young members. I would guess that the gradual disappearance of -(e)th, appearance of they, etc, would have been viewed as generational or local features, more common in some families, communities or individuals than others. The alternate morphemes may have coexisted with the old ones within the speech of individuals, with one type considered more formal or casual than the other. No doubt some older people deplored new developments which they had not adopted, just as they deplored other aspects of current youthful behaviour, but it is doubtful that strong efforts were advocated to counteract them.

  34. marie-lucie said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 10:51 am

    Gabriel Burns: thanks for the explanation. I guess that the text was deliberately so full of inaccuracies that this one looked quite standard in comparison.

  35. Tim said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 11:39 am

    Well, there goes my recency illusion kicking in again. I wouldn't have expected to find anyways in 1929. According to the OED, though, it goes back at least to 1865. Dickens, no less.

  36. Steve F said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 12:04 pm

    @LDavidH
    'And how long will it take for "we was" to become acceptable outside of the Estuary area?'

    So far as I know 'plural was' – as in 'we was', 'you was' and 'they was' is extremely common – and therefore presumably acceptable – in all parts of the British Isles, not only in Essex (if that's the estuary you mean.) It is standard for many British speakers, and I have always assumed that for those who use it, 'you were' etc sounds as ridiculously over-formal as 'Whom you gonna call?' sounds to me.

    [(myl) From MWDEU:

    ]

  37. Chandra said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 1:10 pm

    @Dan Lufkin: "Poe is a man the law of whom should not be remained passive to."

    *applause*

  38. RSA said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 2:15 pm

    @Bloix: Perhaps someone can create an example of "whom" performing a function other than demonstrating the social class of the speaker.

    "I feel contempt for buffalo who/whom buffalo buffalo."

    :-)

  39. LDavidH said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 2:37 pm

    @Steve F and myl's comment: Fascinating! I didn't know "we was" was that common (yes, I was thinking of Estuary English as spoken in Essex and surroundings). I thought it was a recent development, likely to be acceptable on the BBC in about a century (not a day too soon, seeing as my native tongue, Swedish, abolished the person/number distinctions in verbs long before I was born).

  40. Nelida said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 5:02 pm

    Nick said,

    May 13, 2012 @ 12:08 pm

    It's not as if "He met a woman her they said was an actress" works, either.

    It sure doesn't.

    Aaron Toivo said,

    May 13, 2012 @ 1:29 pm

    @Nick:
    (whispering, here)

    if you take the relative clause out of the sentence, and move the pronoun back into it, you get "they said she was an actress", not "they said her was an actress", thus making "who" the correct relative pronoun form.

    You are so right.

  41. Bloix said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 5:33 pm

    Yes, children (eg me) used to be taught to "analyze" these sorts of sentences by making them two sentences:

    He met a woman who they said was an actress.
    He met a woman. They said she was an actress.
    Who is correct.

    He met the woman whom he had read about in the newspaper.
    He met the woman. He had read about her in the newspaper.
    Whom is correct.

    I remember doing a worksheet with these types of sentences. I think the people who insist on preserving the distinction must have gotten a gold star on their worksheets and are pissed that kids these days don't have to do a worksheet too.

  42. Faldone said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 5:42 pm

    Anybody knows it should be whom do ye trust..

  43. Alexpri said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 5:45 pm

    I've always liked Calvin Trillin's line, from his book Uncivil Liberties (1982), "As far as I'm concerned, 'whom' is a word that was invented to make everyone sound like a butler." And of course Trillin is a longtime contributor to The New Yorker.

  44. Ruben Polo-Sherk said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 8:46 pm

    GeorgeW: I guess you have to take the serious as satire as well!

  45. Tom V said,

    May 15, 2012 @ 5:09 pm

    This reminds me of a cartoon I saw years ago (Saturday Evening Post?).
    A woman is writing a check in a store and asks the cashier, "Who shall I make it toom?" Unfortunately I haven't been able to track down a copy of it in print or on line.

  46. » Who versus Whom The Blue Candle Society said,

    May 15, 2012 @ 6:16 pm

    [...] Like many finer points of grammar, it can be difficult for neophytes to know when to use "who" and when to use "whom", so I present a link to the great James Thurber making it all clear. [...]

  47. John said,

    May 15, 2012 @ 8:35 pm

    Pedantically: con isn't a Latin preposition, but the prefix (prefissile?) form of cum. A large number of prefixed verbs govern the dative in some way, regardless of the prefix.

  48. Dan Lufkin said,

    May 15, 2012 @ 8:49 pm

    @Chandra — Why, thank you! Actually, I was hoping that someone would step up and diagram it.

  49. Steve F said,

    May 16, 2012 @ 9:31 am

    I will take myl's helpful link to the MWDEU on 'you was' as an acknowledgement that my comment was not considered too off-topic to pursue further.

    The MWDEU article is about 'singular you' rather than 'plural was', and the original comment I was responding to referred to 'we was', which is definitely a plural. 'You was', of course, can be singular or plural, depending on context, and the contexts the MWDEU discusses are all singular. This interested me, because I have often speculated that at least some people who use the (admittedly non-standard) form 'you was' are – on some level, conscious or unconscious – selecting the singular verb to agree with a singular pronoun, and are therefore actually using the language with a greater degree of precision and discrimination than those of us who use the standard form 'you were' for both singular and plural you. Of course, if this is so, one would expect such speakers to differentiate between 'you was' singular, and 'you were' plural, and not use the plural forms 'we was' or 'they was', and I'm not sure I've ever heard anyone who actually did that, though I have certainly heard people who can shift their register to use 'we/you/they were' in more formal contexts and 'was' the rest of the time. (I'm not sure how you'd check this – a Google search turns up enough queries about 'you was' on English usage sites, as well as examples from song lyrics and elsewhere, to back up my claim that it is common – in US as well as British English – but it is obviously far more common in speech than writing, even writing online. I suppose you could look at dialogue in novels, and there must be corpus evidence, but I don't have access to it.)

    However, the historical survey provided by the MWDEU certainly implies that in the 18th century writers such as Addison and Pope, who definitely used 'were' with plural pronouns, used 'you was' as a singular. It seems possible at least that this usage – even though quickly stigmatised as 'uneducated' – encouraged the slippage by which 'you plural' along with 'we' and 'they' came to be used with a singular verb too. But I still don't know if anyone today makes the distinction that Addison and Pope seem to have made between singular and plural 'you'.

    A couple of other thoughts – first, this usage seems to me to be much more common with the past simple tense: I guess because in other tenses, the contraction 'you're' comes off the tongue so naturally that people are unlikely to try to say 'you is'. Secondly, there is, I would think, little chance of either 'singular you' or 'plural was' becoming 'acceptable on the BBC in about a century' – in Britain at least it is not only stigmatised as 'uneducated' but also as 'working class', and in Britain that probably counts for far more.

    And finally, in an attempt to draw this long comment back on topic, I will mention again my belief that people who say 'you was' are not necessarily ignorant or particularly uneducated. It's just that they speak a dialect in which 'you were' sounds 'posh' and affected: in other words, like 'whom' for many of us, it makes you 'sound like a butler'.

  50. Stuart said,

    June 7, 2012 @ 11:01 pm

    I've had an interesting taste of the way some "whom" defenders think today. Less than hour ago, an actor I follow on Twitter made a series of replies to tweets in which he corrected minor spelling mistakes and misplaced apostrophes in the original tweet. Then when someone asked him "who did you play?" he replied "Whom did you play?". I decided to jump in and posted links to this article and two of Professor Pullum's from the links you supplied above.
    The response was interesting. My tweet was retweeted and then he replied to me with this: "You need to get out of your chair, shake off those gloomies, and go interact with some young people at a social function. Live!" I found it somewhat amusing that someone who takes time out of a busy life to correct typos would assume that anyone who presented an alternate viewpoint must be a "gloomy" recluse. If he's right, I shall blame LanguageLog, and will sue for a 200% refund of my subscription fee.

  51. 'Do you see whom I see?' – Telegraph Blogs said,

    April 15, 2013 @ 5:35 am

    [...] usage, and the “who/whom” distinction has been dying for at least three quarters of a century: James Thurber satirically asked whether anyone would say “Whom are you, anyways?” back in 1929. Now, as Language Log pointed out a while ago, even the last redoubt of “whom”, after a [...]

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