Whom is fading away

whomAlthough I was once a pretty decent tennis player, I have always thought that the game suffers from being too simple. I have similar feelings about golf.  Whack, whack, whack, from the tee to the hole, and then on to next tee and do it all over again.  No, if I’m going to spend a serious chunk of time taking part in or watching a contest, I prefer a sport with a bit more complexity.

Rugby Union is a pretty good candidate.  At its highest level it has become so complex that even the ‘expert’ commentators are frequently at a loss to explain what is happening and why.

And then there is cricket.  For a lover of complexity, test cricket, a game which, weather permitting, is usually played for 30 hours over five days and offers no fewer that twelve different ways for a batsman to be adjudged ‘out’, is pure delight.

But my love of complexity and (some would say) arcane rules does not extend to grammar.  When it comes to grammar – English grammar anyway – I believe that simple is best.

Recently, a friend and I clashed over the use – and misuse – of ‘whom’.  My friend considered the proper use of whom to be one of the hallmarks of a careful writer.  ‘It’s really quite simple,’ he said.  ‘Who is subjective and whom is objective.  Or who is nominative and whom is accusative.’

Technically, he is right.  But the ‘correct’ use is not at all simple.  Even Fowler’s Modern English Usage, which normally takes a few lines to explain each entry, finds it necessary to devote two whole pages to the use of who and whom.

These days, most of the better writers I know seem to use whom only after a preposition (of whom, with whom, by whom) and sometimes not even then.  Otherwise they tend to use who.  Indeed, the technically correct use of whom can often make writing seem stilted and pompous.  ‘Whom do you wish to speak to, my good man?’

My bet is that the trend towards simplicity will continue and, within 50 or 60 years, whom – like hath and ye – will have become a quaint historical footnote.

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