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Whom revisited

September 29, 2014

Some readers will remember that a while back I posted about the strange re-birth of the word whom (see posts entitled whom and whom abuse) – just as we thought it was dying out, it acquires a new lease of life and people are using it all the time: but in the wrong places. An egregious example occurred in yesterday’s Independent on Sunday: in a piece by Jane Merrick and Mark Leftly I came across the phrase ‘[who] would see themselves as wise owls, but whom are seen by others as “chicken-hawks”’.

What? Whom are seen by others? Oh, no no no no no. Maybe it’s neither Jane Merrick’s nor Mark Leftly’s fault; maybe it was hyper-correctively put in by a sub. Whoever was responsible, I am guessing they had a vague idea that whom should be used before a vowel, analogous to an. But that’s not the rule, of course. Whom is used (if we are to use it at all) to refer to the object of a clause, standing in for them, him or her (as opposed to they, he or she). The Merrick-Leftly formulation translates as ‘them are seen by others’, which is obviously wrong.

I hope I’m not too much of a knee-jerk traditionalist in these matters. I don’t mind if people don’t use whom at all, and just stick with who – it’s a purely formal distinction, and ignoring it would almost never lead to ambiguity. But if you are going to use whom you are making a kind of statement – “I know about English grammar, I do’ – and getting it wrong is embarrassing.

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