To Whom It May Concern — Mary Norris, the Comma Queen, in The New Yorker on how to know when “who” and “whom” is the word to use.
I stepped down from the copy department of The New Yorker almost two years ago, hanging up my parentheses and turning over the comma shaker to my successor, who I know will use it judiciously, but I still love the magazine and lose sleep when an oversight (as we prefer to call it) sneaks into its pages. Copy editors never get credit for the sentences we get right, but confuse “who” and “whom” and you are sure to be the center of attention, at least briefly. If you thought the “who” in the previous sentence should have been a “whom,” you are not alone. Let’s review.
My test for the correct use of “who” or “whom” in a relative clause—“who I know will use it judiciously”—is to recast the clause as a complete sentence, assigning a temporary personal pronoun to the relative pronoun “who/whom.” “I know she will use it”? Or “I know her will use it”? No native speaker of English who has outgrown baby talk would say “her will use it.” The correct choice is clearly “she”: “I know she will use it judiciously.” If the pronoun that fits is in the nominative case, acting as the subject (“I,” “you,” “he,” “she,” “it,” “we,” “you,” “they”), then the relative pronoun should also be in the nominative case: “who I know will use it judiciously.” Yay! I got it right
Suppose I had written that I turned over the comma shaker to a colleague who I have known for years. Recast the relative clause as a complete sentence with a personal pronoun: “I have known she for years”? Or “I have known her for years”? This time the correct choice is “her,” which is in the objective case (“me,” “you,” “him,” “her,” “us,” “you,” “them”); therefore the relative pronoun should be in the objective case (“whom”). I should have written, “I turned over the comma shaker to a colleague whom I have known for years.” Boo! I got it wrong.
But here’s the rub: if I wrote “who” instead of “whom” here, nobody would care. A “who” for a “whom” is much more grammatically acceptable than a “whom” for a “who,” which sticks to your shoe like something you stepped in that was not just mud under slippery leaves in the dog run. I could finesse the whole issue by writing that I turned over the comma shaker to a colleague I have known for years, doing without the relative pronoun, and nobody would miss it.
So why do we need this aggravation? Does civilization depend on the proper use of “who” and “whom”? Let’s steel ourselves for a closer look.
From the issue of October 15, 2018: “Mark Judge, whom Ford says watched Kavanaugh pin her down . . .” One sees the problem immediately: the context is so sordid that it is impossible to look past it to the syntax! The same is true of an example from the issue of June 4 & 11, 2018: “A woman in California called the police on three black women whom she thought were behaving suspiciously.” The content of the sentences—misogyny, racism, racism and misogyny—is so disheartening that one loses the will to examine the form. And yet it must be done: “Ford says he watched”; “who Ford says watched.” “She thought they were behaving suspiciously”; “who she thought were behaving suspiciously.” Happy Thanksgiving.
A few copy editors have proposed a radical solution to the “who/whom” problem: kill off the “whom.” Emmy J. Favilla, who formerly headed up the copy department for BuzzFeed, titled her 2017 style guide “A World Without ‘Whom,’ ” and David Marsh, the former production editor of the Guardian, called his 2013 book on language “For Who the Bell Tolls.” Both are clever titles, making jokes at the expense of “whom” while exploiting its negative capability. But the writers have a point: if we just used “who,” we would never misuse “whom.” In this way we would hasten the departure of “whom,” which linguists predict will go the way of “thou” and “thine” any century now.
And yet there are those who believe in “whom” and wish to see it used correctly. June Casagrande, a prolific writer on grammar and usage, devotes a special section of her new book, “The Joy of Syntax,” to “Common Mistakes with Whom and Whomever,” and Bryan Garner, the closest thing we have in our time to a reincarnation of H. W. Fowler, devotes a column in the third edition of his Modern American Usage to instances of what he calls “the nominative whom.” (I know there is a fourth edition, but I find the third more manageable to read in bed.) Most of the specimen sentences are from newspapers—the Rocky Mountain News, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Washington Post, the L.A. Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune—though one is from a novel by the famously erudite William F. Buckley, Jr. The “who/whom” error is especially common in journalism because reporting, getting behind the news, often involves paraphrasing speech and attributing thoughts and feelings: “she thought,” “he said,” “they suspected” are locutions that occur frequently in news stories and to which readers and writers must be alert, because they introduce an object—whatever it is that a source thought, said, or suspected—in the form of a clause with its own syntax.
Here is a sentence (edited for length) from the Op-Ed page of the Times: “The true test of our compassion and grit will be in the coming months and years when the fate of the most vulnerable—who we’ve always known would be most affected by climate change—will be largely in our hands.” Here, too, the context of the sentence is alarming—the wildfire that destroyed Paradise, California—but “who” is correct. Some might be tempted to use “whom” because the antecedent (“the most vulnerable”) is the object of a preposition (“of”), but the relative clause has its own syntax. “We’ve always known they would be most affected”; “who we’ve always known would be most affected.”
I have been avoiding this subject for months, because of an overwhelming feeling that in the current climate, actual and political, no one cares. But we have come to a sorry state when the news itself discourages us from caring about the way it’s conveyed. A while back, I read a piece in the Oregonian about the state librarian, a woman who was getting fired—or, if you prefer, a woman whom the governor of Oregon was letting go—apparently for taking too long to finish some project. She had the support of her fellow-librarians, but government officials had grown impatient with her. After a debate in the state legislature, one state senator voted against the library’s budget, but not because he had anything against the librarian. The article concluded, chillingly, “He voted on ideological grounds that he doesn’t see a need for the State Library to exist, he said.” This is exactly the attitude we’re up against. Why do we need to keep “whom” on the job if it is not performing effectively? Rather than inquire into its virtues or lack of them, let’s get rid of grammar completely! A fable for our times.
So does civilization depend on the vulnerable “whom”? Yes. No matter how bad the news, we must not stop caring. To paraphrase Carson, the butler on “Downton Abbey,” “Keeping up standards is the only way to show the bastards that they will not beat us in the end.”
Leonard Pitts, Jr. — What part of “love thy neighbor” do we not get?”
“All life is interrelated.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Imagine all the people, sharing all the world.”
– John Lennon
A few words about “us” and “them.”
It is, of course, the baseline division of human existence, probably dating from when the first person sparked the first fire. It’s a division that has been painful, bloody — and useful. Particularly in American politics.
“Vote for me,” goes the ageless, implicit appeal, “and I will protect us from them” — whoever “them” may be at any given time. Right now, “them” is, among others, anyone from south of the border who shows up on America’s doorstep seeking sanctuary.
And it might be good to spare a thought for “them” as the nation — or at least, the three quarters of it that identifies as Christian — makes the turn into that faith’s season of light, compassion and hope. As the halls are decked and the joy bells chime, as songs of fellowship ring in the air, it seems an apt time to ponder a tweet from a few days back by one Larry L. Sandigo.
He’s an immigration lawyer in Arizona who works pro bono for a nonprofit legal services organization, the Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project. And his tweet, retweeted over 47,000 times as of this writing, went as follows: “In court this morning, I asked the judge if my client could wait outside. She was being fussy. He said yes, and she was carried out. Even then, I could hear her whimpers and cries. She’s 2 years old. She had on a pink coat. Today was her deportation hearing.”
There’s a lot we don’t know from that tweet. We don’t know his client’s name. We don’t know where she’s from. We don’t know how she came to be here. We don’t know where — or who — her parents are.
But some things we do know. We know that she is in court alone because she is not one of “us.” We know she might be irretrievably scarred because she is one of “them.” And we know that this has become a common thing. We know that this is America now.
And here, someone is piping up in protest with harsh platitudes about limited resources and all the evil that immigrants bring. By these rhetorical means, that someone will try — and fail — to shout down those things we know.
It’s an old dance. We’ve done it many times before. But it feels especially poignant to do it now, as Thanksgiving recedes and people begin to string their houses with light. We prepare ourselves for Christmas, a season celebrated as the birth of a divine baby who grew up to warn that, “Whatever you do unto the least of these, you have done it also unto me.”
Meantime, babies go to court. And is that irony one smells? Or just the faint reek of hypocrisy?
Here’s what we’ve never quite understood about “us” and “them:” Race does not define it. Neither does religion, sexuality, geography, gender, education or money.
No, the only “us” worth talking about is the “us” of people striving for the courage to see community in difference, their own humanity staring out from the eyes of the Other. And the only “them” worth striving against is the “them” of people who lack that courage, who find it easier and safer to live within division.
This is the sermon Martin preached. It is the song John sang. And it is the life that divine baby lived. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” He said. Yet, it remains a lesson learned imperfectly at best, as evidenced by the very fact of a court hearing to turn a baby away from America’s gates.
As the halls are decked.
And the joy bells chime.
And fellowship songs ring in the air.
Doonesbury — Career moves.