On the Muskegon Opinion page at m live in Michigan, Paula Holmes-Greeley posed a Question of the Day: After this election, what will pull our country together. Among the clowns who answered the call for comments (people saying that we should start an impeachment movement, or that all the Republicans should jump into the sea), Harry Masters posted this comment:
What will pull the country together?
The question should be "What/Whom has so divided our country?"
My question is different: What or who is responsible for teaching Americans grammar so badly that when commenting online, i.e. communicating publicly rather than conversing, they will change who to whom just as a shot in the dark, to cover themselves against the vague fear that who might be incorrect? What or who is the source of the nervous cluelessness that leads to this sort of panic-attack accusative?
My Brown University colleague Polly Jacobson asked me whether I thought it might just be that Harry Masters might be a speaker of one of the (non-standard) dialects that likes accusatives in noun phrase coordinations even as subjects, so they say My brother and me are gonna fix it, or Sharon and him don't get along no more. I don't think so. In those dialects you don't get whom at all. Harry Masters writes standard English; in fact he is using formal style. Even within a sentence of only 11 words, I can show you evidence of that: so as a modifier before a verb is unusually formal. In conversation you wouldn't say He has so divided our country, you'd say He's divided our country so much, or He's divided our country such a lot, or (with so modifying a predicative adjective rather than a verb) He's been so divisive for our country.
No, Harry is writing formal standard English; but, unsure of the rule for inflecting the human interrogative pronoun but sure that there was one, he resorted to the accusative of panic.
Added later: Language Log reader Orin K. Hargraves tells me that he saw a similar case in the Boulder Weekly just yesterday. Someone wrote in to complain about an article that confused gambit with gamut, and began thus:
"Just noticing that whomever wrote the admittedly significant piece in your Oct. 18 [issue] ("Killer's 'awareness space' may lead to clues," cover story) about this heinous crime needs to better understand the meanings of certain words and to use them appropriately…
In that instance coordination is not involved: the grammatically indefensible whomever is the subject of the main clause and is immediately followed by a tensed verb. It's the accusative of panic again.