Whom loves ya?

« previous post | next post »

What a fool I've been, thinking all the time that the important stuff was about evidence and structure and the search for genuine syntactic principles — trying to find out through study of competent speakers' usage what are the actual principles that define (say) marking of accusative case on pronouns in Standard English. God, I've been wasting my life.

Wired magazine has published (just in time for Valentine's Day) a large-scale statistical study of what correlates with numbers of responses to online dating ads (and let me say here that I am deeply grateful to Charles Hallinan for pointing it out to me). Much of the survey relates to the words used in the ad. For example, mentioning yoga or surfing in your ad has a positive influence on the number of contacts that will result. Some of the discoveries are curious: for men, it is much better to refer to a woman using the word "woman", but a woman's ad will do better if she refers to herself as a "girl". And (the point that has turned my life around, made on the infographic here), it turns out that men who use "whom" get 31% more contacts from opposite-sex respondents.

This changes everything! It's not just about the inflectional marking of relative and interrogative pronouns any more, people; it's about getting more sex!

I'm talking just to the men from this point on. Here's the scoop, guys. In case you should want to get everything right, here is a synopsis of the relevant linguistic principles:

  • The accusative form whom should never be used as the subject of a finite clause; that is the role reserved for the nominative who.
  • Whom should always be used when a preposition immediately precedes it (as in the person to whom it was sent), and except in very informal style the same is true when a verb immediately precedes it (You saw whom?).
  • Where a relative clause modifying a noun of human gender is formed with the gap in a non-subject position, formal style requires whom as the relative pronoun: thus the person whom they hired ___, or the person whom I told you about ___.
  • Formal style calls for whom as the human-gender interrogative word where it has non-subject function (thus Whom did they hire ___?), though this is rare in conversation and could sound a bit pompous.
  • In cases where a relative or interrogative human-class pronoun is associated with subject function in a subordinate clause that is not the main clause in which it is preposed, usage is divided, but many prescriptive authorities (ignoring quite a significant body of educated usage) regard whom as incorrect; they would recommend the person who the police thought ___ was responsible rather than the person whom the police thought ___ was responsible, as the relative pronoun is understood as the subject of was responsible (even though it is not the subject of the whole relative clause, the police thought ___ was responsible). The preference is stronger for interrogatives: Whom did the police think ___ was responsible? would be disrecommended by most usage authorities.

But listen, guys, here's the point: none of this complicated crap makes the slightest bit of difference! Wired didn't check the syntactic contexts, they just counted word-form tokens!

It simply doesn't matter whether you use whom correctly! In general, women won't know any more about syntactic contexts for rare and marginal inflectional forms than men do. Sure, they are interested in seeking out intelligent men to have sex with: the idea of breeding with brainy guys who will think of good ways to protect the offspring and bring home food (yadda yadda yadda) is built into them by natural selection. And the obvious inference from the fact Wired has uncovered is that, influenced by the educational stress on the importance of that pesky final accusative-marking -m, women use occurrence of whom as a surrogate for evidence of intelligence.

But they won't be checking for subject function in relative clauses! They will just assume that wherever they see whom they are looking at text composed by someone intelligent!

Take the last bullet point in the set of principles above: that most of the stuffy old grammar pedants will treat Whom did the police think ___ was responsible? as a mistake (an error of the type known to linguists as a hypercorrection). The fact is that such uses of whom occur frequently. To take a random example (found by doing a Google search on the randomly chosen sequence "whom did they think was"), note Whom did they think was underwriting the signage? in a political piece by Ari L. Noonan in a Culver City online newspaper. You can find hundreds of thousands of other cases the same way. The rules given above are so little known that nobody checks this stuff, even in local newspaper offices.

To laugh at Ari Noonan for making a grammatical error would be to miss the point: what's important is that if you and he are both using online dating services, he will get more sex than you will, unless you up the frequency of whom in your writing.

So listen, what I'm saying is screw the rules: evolution cares only about whether you get laid. And (admit it) so do you. I certainly do. I've been throwing my life away trying to catalog the entire set of grammatical principles that characterize Standard English; but those days are gone. My eyes have been opened to what's really important: attracting women through writing woman-pleasing prose with plenty of whoms in it.

I recommend using the word wherever it looks as if it might make sense to somebody. Write an ad saying you are looking for "someone whom will love you". Only the few eggheads who actually slog through the boring shit in the above bullet points, or similar material, actually know what the rules say; and only dozy old twits who wear bow ties actually care. But every red-blooded straight guy knows what it means to get 31% more chicks answering a romance ad.

In the past, back when I was an idiot, I suggested that whom was dying out (see this Language Log post, for example). I was wrong. It is not going to die out now we know it is a babe magnet, and you can get more sex simply by using more whoms.

Postscript: Of course, if you are the kind of stats nerd who actually wants to know about how or why 31% of what is better than what and by how much, you will like Mark Liberman's "31% more meaningless: Because algorithms," which delves into the mess of just whether the Wired study means anything at all (not much, it looks like), and just how gullible you'd have to be to believe any of it (my guess is that 31% gullible would do it). But most normal red-blooded males are going to be asking about self-confidence, not confidence intervals. Go for it, guys. You'll have more confidence if you seem more intelligent, and you'll seem more intelligent if your language is more whomish. Get your confidence up. And once it's up, don't let Liberman's statistically-informed common sense pour cold water on it (if you know what I mean).

Comments are closed.