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For whom the grammar bell tolls

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At the Atlantic, Megan Garber alerts us to the news that "whom" is falling out of fashion.

It has been a gradual but inevitable process, somewhat like the heat death of the universe. Whom is creeping slowly out of our vocabulary, trying to avoid notice, like someone crawling up the middle aisle during a movie.

"It’s not who you know," the Rev. Peter Gomes used to intone, "it’s whom." It was the sort of statement one expected from someone dubbed the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister at Harvard.

People recommend that we take an approach to "whom" similar to the approach Mark Twain took to "very": "Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be."

We can do without "whom." Or can we?

The Whos down in Whoville are perfectly safe. But the Whoms, down in Whomville, having staid, WASPy dinners of roast beast and refusing to pass Little Susie Lou Whom a slice unless she uses the subjunctive correctly in her request: They are in grave danger.

Whom is struggling. After all, whom is, as numerous writers have noted, the literary equivalent of waving an enormous flag that proclaims you a Stuffy Old Twerp, a Bombastic Blowhard Who Thinks He’s In England, or In 1800, Or Possibly Both. You might as well invite people to go fox hunting later and murmur sexist things into a tea service for all the goodwill it will earn you.

Whom is no one’s favourite object pronoun. All it plays now are the rusty ill-paid gigs of Old-Timey, Vaguely Biblical-Sounding Phrases. For Whom the Bell Tolls. For Of Those to Whom Much Is Given, Much Is Required. To Whom It May Concern. From Whom All Blessings Flow. It pops up now and again on Downton Abbey, but who knows how long that will last, given what Downton does to featured characters.

Yes, whom is withering. Whither? Who can say. No one says "whither." Or "whence," for that matter. (Or "codswallop!," but that is unrelated and probably for the best.)

The subjunctive, over in the neighbouring ward of the hospital, wants to know what is going on, as it were. "If ‘whom’ were to go extinct," it murmurs, "surely I would be next. But I do not think it likely." The subjunctive never thinks it likely, which just shows what it knows.

"To whom am I speaking?" People just don’t talk like that any more. (Or is it anymore? I am never sure. There is some law that stipulates that every time you write about your love of grammar, you make some sort of glaring solecism halfway through the piece. Perhaps that was it, just now.)

Usage, on the whole, has declined. Last week, Michele Bachmann was tossing around "literally" on the House floor, announcing that Obamacare needs to be stopped before it "literally kills." Literally is the adverb that cried wolf. Literally has awakened us at 3 a.m. too many times, shouting that the British are coming. "Literally?" we ask, grabbing our muskets. "No, figuratively," it says. "But we needed it to sound urgent!" It is Bachmann’s kind of careless usage that has diluted literally to its present state, when you almost always assume "figuratively" is meant when you hear "literally" in conversation.

Good grammar is like all those days you wear your underwear on the right side of your pants: It goes sadly unremarked upon. But slip up one time and that’s what everyone mentions. Grammar Nazis never stop you on the street to say, "What a beautiful subjunctive that was. Clear as a bell, and I loved the appositive you were rocking earlier. Fierce!" They just chase you down, like Javert, shouting, "Whom! Not who! Whom!"

Grammar Nazi is also one of the few Nazi comparisons that we have permitted to stand unchallenged. Few things are so irksome as the person who snaps up at you, shouting, "Don’t give it to me and Tanya! Personal pronoun comes last!"

Perhaps it is time we change tactics. The vinegar approach to grammar certainly does not seem to be bearing much fruit. Maybe we should try honey. After all, grammar is the unseen wire undergirding even the most acrobatic sentence. English is not an inflected language where subject and object are always instantly clear, and it’s the hard-working Whoms and Whos of this world that help us skirt that issue. The more of these invisible wires we cut, the uglier our sentences will get. Compliment a stranger’s grammar today. It may be our only hope.

Remember what John Donne might have said: "Any pronoun’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Language; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." Of course, it tolled for "thee" a long, long time ago. Don’t let it toll for whom.

Anne Petri is a Washington Post columnist.

—The Washington Post

 

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