30 April 2016

To Whom It May Concern



by John M. Floyd



Having been a writer for several years now (and a reader for many more), I have accumulated what I suppose is an adequate vocabulary. The funny thing is, I sometimes find myself avoiding the use of perfectly good words when I write my stories, for the simple reason that they aren't often used in real life. Examples? Well, there are the many less-than-well-known-and-rarely-used suspects, words like myriad and plethora and beatific, etc.--but I'm talking mostly about words that are widely known but still not used much, in either fiction or in normal conversation. Here are three that come to mind: periodically, frankly, and whom.

What's wrong with "periodically"? Nothing--except that you seldom hear it or read it. Probably because it's just as easy to say "often" or "occasionally" or "regularly" or "now and then," which mean almost the same thing, minus the raised-eyebrow reactions. And what about "frankly"? Nothing wrong with it either, my dear, except that "honestly" seems to work better and sounds a little less pretentious. (I was once told that if you hear someone say "frankly," watch out, because whatever comes next is probably a lie.) But the one I most avoid--notice that I didn't say eschew--is "whom."

Yes, I know, there are many times when "whom" is correct, or at least grammatically correct, and it even sounds right, from time to time, as in For Whom the Bell Tolls. The problem is, it usually sounds--especially in dialogue--uppity and constipated. Anytime somebody says to me, on the phone, "To whom am I speaking?" I picture the late John Gielgud, or maybe Carson on Downton Abbey.

I don't need no steenking rules

Apparently there are others who (not whom) agree with me. Here are a few quotes and observations on that subject that I've found in my "how to write" books:

"Whom has long been perceived as formal verging on pompous . . . The rules for its proper use are obscure to many speakers, tempting them to drop whom into their speech whenever they want to sound posh."--Steven Pinker, A Sense of Style

"'Whom do you trust?' and 'Whom will it be?' are technically correct but painfully stilted. Go ahead and use Who do you trust? and Who will it be? except in the most formal of writing."--Bill Walsh, The Elephants of Style

"As far as I'm concerned, 'whom' is a word that was invented to make everyone sound like a butler."--author Calvin Trillin

"About half the people you hear spewing the word whom in everyday conversation don't really know how. They're bluffing. They know just enough to get it right sometimes--that's all they need to make themselves feel like big shots."--June Cassagrande, Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies

"In almost all cases, you can use who instead of whom in conversation or in informal writing . . ."--Patricia T. O'Conner, Woe Is I

Going by the book

If you do choose to salute to the Grammar Police and perform your duty, when should "whom" be used?

The rule I like best, although I've forgotten where I first heard it, is simple. (Since any discussion of objects, participles, noun antecedents, subjective cases, etc., makes my head hurt, I prefer simple rules.) Here it is:

If you can substitute he, she, or they in the sentence, use "who," and if you can substitute him, her, or them, use "whom." (For him the bell tolls.)


Sometimes it gets tricky. "I'll date whomever I want to date" is correct, but so is "I'll date whoever wants to go out with me." The second sentence requires the "who" form because it's the subject of another action within the sentence. But my dumb rule always works.

More examples:

Judy invited to the party only those who she thought would behave. (She thought they would behave.)

Judy wouldn't tell me whom she invited to the party. (She invited them to the party.)

I don't know who is going to take me to work. (She is going to take me to work.)

I don't know whom Dad told to take me to work. (Dad told her to take me to work.)

For whom the spell trolls

I still believe, though, that you should minimize using whom if your fiction is, like mine, more informal than formal. Can you imagine one of your characters--unless he or she is an English professor--saying the following?

"Guess with whom I had a date last night."
"It's not what you know, it's whom you know."
"Whom are you going to believe, him or me?"

Maybe you can. I can't.

I listed a quote earlier from A Sense of Style. That book also mentioned the comic strip Mother Goose and Grimm, which showed an owl in a tree calling "Whom!" and a raccoon on the ground replying "Show-off!"

And this excerpt from an old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon:

NATASHA FATALE: Ve need a safecracker!
BORIS BADENOV: Ve already got a safecracker!
NATASHA: Ve do? Whom?
BORIS: Meem, dat's whom!

William Safire, author of the New York Times's "On Language" column, once said, "Let tomorrow's people decide who they want to be president." According to Steven Pinker, if Safire can misuse who/whom in this way, so can he.

Questions? Anyone? Anyone?

What's your opinion, on all this? Do you, like Natasha, use whom at every opportunity? Do you avoid it like Kryptonite? Do you often find, or have you ever found, the need to use whom in a piece of fictional dialogue? Fictional narrative? Have you ever substituted who even though you knew it wasn't grammatically correct? Is your head beginning to hurt too?

Whatever your views, I wish good luck to all of you who write stories, and to all of those for whom they are written.






9 comments:

Paul D. Marks said...

Great piece, John. But re: any type of grammar, I think it depends on what one's writing. If you're doing a dissertation you might want to be more formal. But I know that in my case I turned off Word's grammar checker and never use any of them because I want a more informal, conversational style. So it's okay, of course, to use whom or periodically, etc., it just depends on what you're writing, me thinks :) .

janice law said...

I agree with you that most of the time, at least in fiction, whom is superfluous. I have a different peeve with editors who want to remove the useful 'which' from the language and who insist on 'that' in every case.

John Floyd said...

Well said, Paul. You are of course correct--all this depends on what you're writing and who (whom?) you're writing it for. The fact is, almost all my writing these days IS fairly informal. (Thank goodness.)

I too turned off my grammar checker. Frankly, I enjoy splicing commas, fragmenting sentences, and splitting infinitives. At least periodically.

John Floyd said...

Hi Janice! Ah yes, the which/that issue. Your comment has reminded me that I want to do a separate column about the many times I've disagreed with my editors on matters of grammar and style. (Alas, they're usually right, but still . . .)

Herschel Cozine said...

John, you mention split infinitives. I recently learned that it is not grammatically incorrect to split infinitives. I think it is frowned upon by many editors. But if my source is correct there is no rule.

Eve Fisher said...

I like using "whom"; sometimes inappropriately. It can tell you a lot about a character. And Janice, I am as one with you on the use of which/that.

John Floyd said...

Just got back from a signing about 100 miles south of here, and boy am I glad to be home. Thanks, Herschel and Eve, for the comments.

Herschel, I'm not too surprised to learn that infinitives can now be acceptably split. Our evolving language continues to boldly go where no man has gone before . . .

Eve, I agree that the use of "whom," especially when inappropriate, can help with characterization. I probably use "who" inappropriately way too often!


Leigh Lundin said...

Hey, it worked for Lily Tomlin's Ernestine:

"Is this the party to whom I am speaking?"

John Floyd said...

Good ole Ernestine. (Sniff snort sniff.)