Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Friday, April 13, 2012

And the owl cried, "Whom?"

Some of you may remember this cartoon from awhile back?  I was reminded of it yesterday when the Plain Dealer, on page one, offered this:

I always smile when I see a whom (or whomever) related to a sports story: Somehow whom seems anomalous in that context, doesn't it?  Like finding fine silverware at Mickey D's.  Or wearing a tuxedo while mowing the lawn.  Whom, nowadays, is fading fast, soon to join the possessive apostrophe and its kin in the linguistic junkyard.

Whom--despite the cartoon--is not really some sort of elitist affectation.  The OED shows it's been around for over a thousand years.  The King James Bible loved it.  So did Shakespeare.

I never got the damn difference between who and whom until my mother, an English teacher, explained it to me in ninth grade.  She had a simple formula, one that I passed on to my students, most of whom have surely forgotten.  It's a way that doesn't really require any grammatical knowledge--all that nominative/objective case stuff.

Here's her grammar-free way: When deciding between who and whom (or whoever and whomever), go through a few quick steps.

1. Look only at the clause it's in; ignore the rest of the sentence. (I know: what if you don't know what a clause is?  So sue my mom!)  Consider the sentence (Whoever, Whomever) wins the race gets a cookie.  Ignore everything after race.

2. Substitute he for who(ever), him for whom(ever).

3. And what do you get?  He wins the race.  Or: Him wins the race.  Let's go with He, shall we?  So the correct answer is Whoever.  Simple eh?

Some people get confused when a naughty preposition gets in the mix: Give the pizza to (whoever, whomever) asks for it.  That troublesome little to there makes some want to go with whomever.  That would be a mistake.  Use the Mother Dyer Formula: If you isolate just the clause, you have whoever/whomever asks for it.  Substitute: he asks for it or him asks for it   So ... Give the pizza to whoever asks for it.

Sometimes you need to shift the word order in a sentence to the conventional S + V + Obj or Pred Noun.  Example:
(Who/Whom) did you invite to the dance?  This might confuse.  But if you put the subject first: You did invite he to the dance.  Or: You did invite him to the dance.  So ... Whom did you invite to the dance?

So, simply, do a he/him substitution--but make sure you IGNORE everything outside the clause in which the who/whom appears.  Otherwise, you'll make a boo-boo. 

In this anti-intellectual environment, whom and whomever come off as pretentious and elitist to some ears--mostly because we really don't hear them too often in ordinary speech.  (I'm guessing that the cast members of Jersey Shore do not observe the distinction?)  Politicians can't go around saying whomever if they want to maintain their just-plain-folks image.  I don't expect that Katniss cares for it: At whom should I fire my next arrow?  Or Edward Cullen: Bella, whomever you wish to bite is fine with me; I'm for an open marriage.

So, as I said, I think the distinction will gradually evanesce, and there are not many who/whom will grieve its passing.  Maybe a few fastidious owls?

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