The Wartburg Project

March 18th, 2015

2. In the passion history Jesus twice says, “Who are you looking for?” Isn’t that bad grammar?

These are our principles that govern who and whom:

These principles were based on our feelings about the language not on any specific research. We knew this was a no-win situation. Purists would say the “who are you looking for?” is bad grammar.  Most people would say “for whom are you looking?” sounds stuffy. Other terms used to describe “for whom are you looking?” are “formal,” “super-formal,” “pretentious,” “moribund,” “socially divisive,” and “a school teacher superstition.” Since we have started receiving claims that “who are you looking for?” is bad grammar, it seems like a good time to post some of comments of grammarians and editors. It seems to have the ingredients for an interesting discussion. (We hope our FAQs can show that grammatical discussion can be entertaining and maybe even amusing.)

The editor of a major American newspaper, who describes himself as a “moderate prescriptivisit,” summarizes the current situation thus:

In conversation, who appears to have supplanted whom, almost universally. There is no going back.

In formal writing, such as an academic paper or book, whom remains on its precarious perch.

In middle-level discourse, such as journalism, which aims at a conversational tone while adhering to the conventions of standard written English, whom is slowly slipping away, and probably should. …

It may be time to discuss letting go of the distinction in journalism. No doubt my fellow prescriptivists will see this as a counsel of despair, even though I am holding the ground on imply and infer, comprise and compose, even though I continue to use whom in my own writing when the pronoun as object is called for. I am two-thirds of the way toward being a dead white male, and I think that whom will see me out.

But language is tricky, and it defies predictions. Schoolteacher superstitions, such as the supposed prohibition against the split infinitive or the preposition at the end of a sentence, persist despite having been repeatedly exploded.

For now, whom, though it may have seen its best days, is going, going, but not quite gone.

Fowler already foreshadowed this in the 1908 edition:

The interrogative who is often used for whom, as, “Who did you see?” A distinction should here be made between conversation, written or spoken, and formal writing. Many educated people feel that in saying. “It is I or Whom do you mean?” instead of “It’s me, Who do you mean?” they will be talking like a book, and they justifiably prefer geniality to grammar. But in print, unless it is dialogue, the correct forms are advisable.

Fowler’s 1908 rule is pretty much the rule we follow: “In print the correct forms are advisable unless it is dialogue.”  Actually, this was “old news” already in 1908 since substitution of who for whom occurs already in Shakespeare.

There are a number of other problems with rigid attempts to enforce the law of who and whom:

  1. It is a futile attempt at an Amish-style freeze in time which is impossible in a living language. The “correct” form of Jesus’ words to Peter (who do you say I am?) is not “whom do you say I am?” but “whom say ye I am?” If we want to preserve the purity of the English language, we need to preserve not only the cases of who/whom but also the cases of the 2nd person pronouns: thou=singular subject, thee=singular object, ye=plural subject, you=plural object. If the English language can survive the loss of thou, thee, and ye, it can survive the loss of whom. Actually the loss of thou, thee, and ye is much more serious than the loss of whom since it is not the loss only of the subject/object distinction but also the loss of the useful singular/plural distinction.

  2. It is an ill-advised attempt to impose the grammar of a dead Romance language on a living Germanic language. A partisan of the lost causes of “who/whom” and “no preposition last” explained it this way: “When in doubt about correct English grammar, I always relied on the rules of Latin.”

  3. When people try to apply dead rules to living language, they over-correct and make awkward mistakes like “a woman whom I think is a genius.” Whom is not the object of I think, as rearranging the words demonstrates: “a woman who is a genius, I think.”

In our project we will try to use language that is both correct and alive and to observe the distinction between written communication and conversation (even conversation recorded in writing).