The teleology of whom

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Over at Ask Metafilter, someone recently asked for an explanation of David Foster Wallace's characteristically frequent use of which N constructions, as in

Now I'm writing this sort of squatting with my bottom braced up against the hangar's west wall, which wall is white-painted cinder blocks, like a budget motel's wall, and also oddly clammy.

One of the MeFites began a response this way:

You know how "whom" exists to clarify that you aren't asking "who?", but telling?

The charitable thing is to take this absurd question as a joke, parodying the ambiguity-avoidance arguments for stylistic choices that Arnold Zwicky has often dissected. Unfortunately, it's not very funny. But it has the virtue of reminding me of a genuinely funny parody of whom-related usage advice, from James Thurber's Ladies' and Gentlemen's Guide to Modern English Usage. In case some of you haven't seen this small masterpiece, I reproduce it below.

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.

(For more whom humor, see here. And for the requested explanation of DFW's stylistic quirk, see "Are any of these things even things?", 9/18/2008.)


  1. Stan said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 9:21 am

    I was lucky enough to come across Thurber's Ladies' and Gentlemen's Guide to Modern English Usage in "The Owl in The Attic", wherein each short essay is accompanied by his crude, funny and dramatic line drawings. The piece on who and whom is followed by one on which: "Foolhardy persons sometimes get lost in which-clauses and are never heard of again."

    An idea so amusing and absurd it must be true.

  2. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 12:25 pm

    don't forget Ben Zimmer's 2007 Language Log post, It's a Made-Up Word Used to Trick Students, which also lists a number of other posts about whomadness.

  3. Coby Lubliner said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 4:25 pm

    I thought that Thurber might have been making fun of his friend E. B. White (his coauthor of Is Sex Necessary?), but The Owl in the Attic dates from 1931, and White didn't channel Strunk till 1959.

  4. Adam said,

    April 22, 2009 @ 2:55 am

    Apologies in advance, but shouldn't this genre be called whomor?

  5. Sili said,

    April 22, 2009 @ 6:12 am

    Ah, but when was it White studied under Strunk?

    By all accounts White seem to have held his mentor up as a paragon of grammaticity, so who's to say he wasn't equally obnoxious in person before he was offered to expand the vile little pamphlet.

    I know I used to be an arse about correcting people's misuse of the possessive pronouns in spoken Danish. (Yes, I'm a member of Prescriptivists Anonymous; it's been three years since my last prescription.)

  6. Brian said,

    April 23, 2009 @ 2:26 am

    I remember someone once asking if "whom" is a necessary grammatical construction. It's the object while "who" is the subject, right? But that's almost always obvious from the word order and context– using "whom" instead of "who" rarely adds information to the sentence or eliminates ambiguity.

    But if that's the case, then there's no reason "she" and "her" are both necessary either. We could theoretically pick one and stick with it, as many people seem to just use "who" all the time and never bother with "who".

    [(myl) This is not a discussion of what we could in principle do — we could in principle decide that English should become SOV instead of SVO, or that we should bring back the dative case, and both interventions might be entirely logical and consistent (though stupid and hopeless as a practical matter). Instead, this is actually a discussion of what writers and speakers of English actually do in practice; and in the case under discussion, what they have done is to retain her, him and them, while abandoning whom, to the point that even in the 1930s, few people had a clue how it used to be used, and Thurber had the occasion for a joke. Wait a minute, that's what this discussion is about, a joke!]

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