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In casual conversation, even in written discourse, has English evolved to where using “whom” can slow down readers and confuse listeners ?

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  • Wouldn't that depend on where the whom was in a sentence? Directly after a preposition, I think whom is still used more often than not. Oct 13, 2018 at 14:55
  • The general impression I have is: using whom, in any context, will cause people to notice you used the word whom. If that's the effect you want for some purpose, then whom is the tool for the job. But if you're not trying to draw attention to the words you're using, as opposed to the message you're conveying, then who can always be substituted in the modern vernacular.
    – Dan Bron
    Oct 13, 2018 at 14:58
  • It's safe to say that using "whom" has become difficult for many native speakers. But whether they have any difficulties understanding it, is a different question altogether. I don't think it slows down or confuses anyone when they see or hear it. Yes, it can have a color, as Dan Bron explains, but so can many words. Doesn't mean that every single one of them is a roadblock people can't parse past. If you know the word "amaranthine", you know the word "amaranthine". It's colorful but it will only slow you down if you've never seen it before. And everyone has seen the word "whom" before.
    – RegDwigнt
    Oct 13, 2018 at 16:54
  • Consider all the native speakers who can't tell the difference between it's and its. Or there, their and they're. Or have and of. They still have no trouble seeing these words being used — including seeing them being used incorrectly. They just breeze straight past them, if anything even faster now than they would if they did care about the difference. You will only really confuse a reader who a) does know the difference, b) does care about it, and most importanly c) you will only succeed by using the word incorrectly in the first place. In all other cases, you are fine.
    – RegDwigнt
    Oct 13, 2018 at 17:03
  • Some say that the virtual demise of "whom" is yet another example of the 'dumbing-down' of the language, and that it's no wonder the French think we're nits (or is it nuts?).
    – BillJ
    Oct 13, 2018 at 17:27

1 Answer 1

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I think it has come to that point, at least for a lot of people. As I've been pointing out for decades, there is never any case in English where one must use whom, but there are an infinite number of cases where one must not. Anyone who uses whom takes on the responsibility of using it correctly, which means they are implying that they understand enough of English syntax to use it correctly. This is a very difficult claim to justify.

There is one situation, as @PeterShor mentions in a comment, where it is required, but that situation is both rare and optional, so one need never go there.

Specifically,

  • If one forms a relative clause where the relative pronoun refers to a human being, and
  • If that relative pronoun is the object of a preposition, and
  • If one optionally decides to use a relative pronoun, instead of omitting it, and
  • If one optionally decides to use who as the relative pronoun, instead of that, and
  • If one optionally applies the rule of Pied-Piping, which moves the preposition with its object,

Then, and only then, is whom required. Exemplorum gratia:

  • I threw the ball to Bill.
  • Bill is the man I threw the ball to. (relative pronoun deleted)
  • Bill is the man that I threw the ball to. (that instead of who, with stranded preposition)
  • Bill is the man who I threw the ball to. (who with stranded preposition)
  • Bill is the man whom I threw the ball to. (whom with stranded preposition)
  • Bill is the man to whom I threw the ball. (whom with Pied-Piped preposition)

In the last sentence above, only whom can be used. In the ones previous, it's optional, and one can also use who, or that, or nothing. So avoid pied-piping and strand those prepositions like a native speaker, and you'll never have to worry about whom again.

The main problem is that so few people know the actual rule, but most people think there must be some grammatical rule, and they're in the usual Anglophone state of "anxious cluelessness" about syntax, as Geoff Pullum calls it, so they make up some rule that makes sense to them, and follow it. These rules often have nothing to do with grammar per se, but rather about "formality", "correct English", and other vague generalities, and the result can be pretty silly at times. Like this, for instance.

And the upshot is that about half the time whom is used incorrectly by the actual rule, so anybody who does know it (or anybody who doesn't know it, but has some other rule instead) is likely to pause and check to see whether the speaker or writer knows what they're doing. Often enough, the conclusion is that they don't. Whether they're right or not, they will be perceived as wrong by some.

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    Agree. And would add that 'whom' should be used in set phrases, for instance (in fact the only example I can think of right now, though I imagine there are others) if you ever find yourself writing a formal letter to an unknown person and choose the set phrase: to whom it concerns. That would actually look wrong with 'who', but you could also just write 'Dear sir or madam'.
    – S Conroy
    Oct 13, 2018 at 17:31
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    Fixed phrases are the places where old words go to die. Whom has been on life support for at least a century. Oct 13, 2018 at 17:34
  • Who the heck downvoted this? It’s compelling, I can’t find anything to object to.
    – Dan Bron
    Oct 13, 2018 at 18:28
  • @Dan: Yes, but it's politically incorrect, for certain strains of peever politics. Some people pride themselves on knowing The Rule, and take any discussion as a threat to their faith or self-esteem or something. Linguists are used to it. Dec 7, 2018 at 22:37

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