Word Stories: whom

Steve Taylore-Knowles looks at the stories behind the English language.

'[T]he who/whom distinction is going the way of the phonograph record.'

Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct

Of course, it is not only the lexis of a language that changes over time. Grammar and lexico-grammar also change. Charles Dickens happily used structures such as despite of, and forms such as thee and thou survive, if at all, only in the dialects of elderly inhabitants of the north of England or in the King James Bible. If we want to identify the points at  which English is changing, a good place to start might be those aspects of the language where even native speakers have to stop and think when they want to use them 'correctly'. As Steven Pinker says, one of those points is the relative pronoun, whom.

Traditionally, the explanation of the distinction between who and whom has been as follows: who is used to refer to the subject of a relative clause, while whom refers to the object of a relative clause. Problems arise because some speakers use who in object position in natural, colloquial speech and then get confused when they feel they have to do something different in a formal or written context. This fear of making mistakes in other people's eyes sometimes leads to ridiculous over-correction where whom is used in subject position. So what do people normally do when confronted with this choice, when a 'mistake' might mark them as uneducated or careless?Corpus research shows that they solve the problem in quite an ingenious way: they avoid using a relative pronoun at all.

According to the corpus-based Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (Pearson, 1999), people use whom or that in object position around 5–10% of the time each. The rest of the time, 80–90%, and across different registers, people use the 'zero relativizer', i.e. nothing:

He's one of the most intelligent people I've ever met.

Does that mean, then, that whom will be obsolete in a few decades’ time? Well, probably not. There are still places where it's practically the only alternative: after prepositions, and in certain non-defining relative clauses. Most of these kinds of sentence can be recast to avoid the very formal sound of whom, but for a long time there will probably be people for whom the ability to use whom correctly is an important signal of social and educational status and that will tend to keep it alive.


Steve Taylore-Knowles

Steve Taylore-Knowles

ELT Author | Consultant | Teacher Trainer | Partner in Signature Manuscripts