Yesterday we presented the first part in our usage showdown on "whom," from Baltimore Sun copy editor John E. McIntyre, a self-professed "moderate prescriptivist." Today we present the descriptivist side of the debate, from Arnold M. Zwicky, Professor of Linguistics at Stanford University, who frequently writes about matters of English usage on the group weblog Language Log. Let us know in the comments section which perspective you find more convincing, or sound off with your own opinion!

The usage has been around since the 14th century, as an alternative to an older usage. Shakespeare used them both, in a way very similar to the way many people use them now. In the 18th century, when prescriptive grammars appeared, grammarians (reasoning from first principles) disputed the usage, with Lowth (and others) deprecating it and Priestley (and others) defending it. During his lifetime, Noah Webster shifted from Lowth's position to Priestley's. Meanwhile, the usage was increasingly appearing in "good writing" as well as speech, so that by the middle of the 20th century (and probably earlier) it was unquestionably standard. (Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage has a concise account of these developments.) Yet some people deprecate it, even rage against it.

The usage in question is who, rather than whom, in contexts like those in my title above — where the pronoun functions as an object (in this case, the object of a preposition) but is not actually in a constituent with its governing element (in this case, the preposition is "stranded"; compare the "fronted" version To whom are you going to listen?). Instead, the sticklers insist that you must write (and say) Whom are you going to listen to?

Linguists looking at the actual practice of educated writers and speakers see that, for quite some time, there have been two alternative systems for choosing between who and whom. The older system, A, uses whom(ever) when the relative or interrogative pronoun is serving in an object function (direct object, indirect object, object of a preposition), who(ever) otherwise. The somewhat newer system, B, uses whom(ever) when the pronoun is an object in a constituent with its governing element, who(ever) otherwise. There are people who use system A almost entirely (though there are situations where even these speakers might balk at whom: A says "I met someone fascinating yesterday", B replies "Who?", and probably not "Whom?"). Many people use system B almost exclusively; though they understand system A, it may strike them as over-formal, old-fashioned, or even "archaic", and they don't really understand how to produce A. Many people use both systems, distinguishing them according to context, with system A reserved for formal contexts, especially in writing. (Some Language Log discussion here.)

Aside from filling in details, that's pretty much what linguists have to say about the matter. Nobody's telling system A people they should switch to system B (or, of course, the reverse).

Some linguists (like me), however, are interested not only in noting which people say which things on which occasions for which purposes (though this is challenging enough), but go beyond this to inquire into people's beliefs and attitudes about language, and into the springs of these beliefs and attitudes. How do we get to reactions like the following, from a commenter on a VT column that began with a system B who?

How much faith can a writer or a reader place in an article about copyediting that starts with "Who are you going to call?" rather than with "Whom are you going to call?"? If Simon Glickman and Julia Rubiner okayed the article, then someone needs to donate a copy of Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" to them ASAP. I didn't read the rest of the article. This hurdle is simply too high. As long as it's there, I can't have any faith in what follows.

(Yes, I caught the echo of the Ghostbusters song, but apparently the commenter did not.)

I'm working on an extended discussion of what might lie behind such rage. There are many possible factors, among them:

  1. the historical priority of system A;
  2. the weight of usage authorities (some of whom insist on system A);
  3. the belief that using system B is just a kind of error (people are simply being sloppy, lazy, or inattentive);
  4. the belief that since system B "has who for whom", as well as who in other contexts, it represents the "collapsing of a useful distinction"; and
  5. the belief that since whom is called the "objective" or "accusative" case of these pronouns, it must be used whenever the pronouns serve in an object function.

There's something seriously wrong with every one of the proposed justifications for whom, but that's a topic for another time and place.

Arnold M. Zwicky is Professor of Linguistics at Stanford University and Ohio State University. He has published in all the major linguistics journals, with contributions to the fields of phonology, morphology, syntax and, perhaps most notably, the interrelations between these domains. He is a regular contributor to Language Log, a group weblog on language and linguistics.