April 18, 2004

Hwa oððe hwam

There is a post by Geoffrey K. Pullum over at Language Log by that I find somewhat curious. He very rightly points out that the use of whom is disappearing from modern English, being leveled into who.

In reference to the sentence Whom were you talking to?, he writes:
In normal conversation, the frequency of whom at the beginning of a clause (as opposed to preceded by a preposition) is now virtually zero.
I am by no means a perscriptivist, but I do think he is somewhat overstating the case here. While I’m sure who is by far more common here, I doubt the use of whom is “virtually zero”, but perhaps I’m wrong. Having worked with Old English (and Old Norse, and Latin, etc.) for many years, I guess I’m very keyed to the use of case in language, but I don’t think I’m prone to using impossibly archaic language in everyday contexts. I’d be interested to know what others who don’t work in the field of linguistics think about this. Pullum goes on to write:
If you are teaching English to foreign learners, you should unquestionably teach them to [use] who in such contexts, not whom.
Again, I wonder about this advice. Surely the most sensible thing is to teach this as an optional rule, but then again perhaps those who have more experience teaching ESL students would wish to correct me on this.

Pullum seems to be understandibly frustrated with the arguments of perscriptivists, but his own argument seems too go to far (hypercorrection of hypercorrection?). Nevertheless, it’s an interesting post with other interesting example sentences, and well worth the read.

Posted by Mark at April 18, 2004 11:58 PM

I often wonder how far we can stretch a language without deforming it. The direction taken by language is determined by use, in this case who and especially how many users say who instead of whom. “Whom were you talking to” doesn’t sound bizarre to me, southern African who has lived in America. I teach my students “Whom,” although I don’t mind them saying “Who.”

But is this really widespread, or is it North American?

Posted by: Rethabile Masilo at April 21, 2004 07:00 PM

Hmm, that’s a good question. What we need is regional data. (I wonder if anyone has already done a study on this.) My own feeling is that in Canada both are tolerated.

Posted by: Mark at April 22, 2004 04:05 PM

I love the English language and I would love to preserve it in its more correct and specific form. I use “whom” in spoken English all the time. Perhaps I’m a stickler for grammar because I majored in Latin and Greek. I can just see Cicero shaking his head…

Posted by: Carol at April 22, 2004 10:36 PM