Grammar Bite #27 – Update on the use of ‘who’ and ‘whom’

18 July 2013


Last year I wrote a post on the use of who and whom.


I’d like to give you a ‘good news’ update on this subject.


The rule followers

If you want to strictly follow the grammatical rules for when to use who or whom, go back to this post for some tips.


Unfortunately, those tips involve taking time to restructure sentences to figure out whether you’re talking about a subject or an object. This undoubtedly takes more time than most of us have when we’re writing.


The statistics

This is where the good news comes.


According to a post at the MacMillan Dictionary Blog, use of the word ‘whom’ has fallen over the past 50 years that linguists have been looking at statistics on the number of times words are used in speech and writing.


The blog writer, Michael Rundell, says that in the 1960s, there were 146 instances of the word ‘whom’ per million words of text. By the early 1990s, that number had fallen to 112. In the period 2001-2004, use of ‘whom’ had fallen to 91 per million. And the latest numbers in 2012 shows ‘whom’ to occur only 79 times per million words of text.


One reason for this decline is that the word ‘whom’ often sounds very formal.


Let’s look at some examples:

·      To whom did you speak?

·      Whom did you speak to?

·      Who did you speak to?


The first two sentences above are grammatically correct. But how often do you hear people talk like that? Most of the time, I would use the third one (the ungrammatical one) – and I’d also shorten it to Who’d you speak to?


I know the rules. But I prefer more natural-sounding speech.


The rule benders

So if you prefer to bend the grammatical rules on the use of ‘who’ and ‘whom’, there’s easier advice to follow.


Instead of worrying about whether you need a subject (who) or an object (whom), here’s what Michael Rundell suggests: Use ‘whom’ only when it follows a preposition – but NOT when the preposition is at the beginning of a sentence.


For example, ‘More than 100 people attended the conference, 30% of whom were from overseas.’


But instead of saying ‘At whom is this article aimed?’ Rundell would say this: ‘Who is this article aimed at?’


What do you think?

Do you find the decline in the use of ‘whom’ good news? Or do you prefer to consistently follow the grammatically correct use? (And if you do, how do you remember the correct grammar?)






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