Published: 28th May 2018
Update your vocabulary, know the difference between who and whom
Traditional grammarians (formal) go by traditional grammar rules whereas modern grammarians (normal) go by the evidence of language in use
The language you speak is highly formal and it is unacceptable to us. You must learn to speak a normal language, not a formal language.” Someone might say this to you if you speak English in a very formal way. English, like any other language, evolves. Many expressions have become outdated. When someone asks you, ‘How are you?’ and if your response is ‘I am fine’, you are considered ‘outdated’. You are expected to say, ‘I am good’. Though ‘I am good’ sounds American, it is becoming common in American, British and other versions of English.
What is the difference between ‘I am doing good’ and ‘I am well’? These days, many people use the expression ‘doing good’ which grammarians consider substandard or incorrect, but most people consider it normal and correct. When someone is feeling happy, they could say ‘I am doing good’ and when the person is recovering from an illness they could say, ‘I am well’. ‘Doing good’ is idiomatic and is used in informal situations.
Is ‘whom’ outdated? First, let’s know the difference between ‘who’ and ‘whom’. It is similar to the difference between ‘he’ and ‘him’ or ‘she’ and ‘her’. ‘He’ and ‘she’ are subjects of verbs whereas ‘him’ and ‘her’ are objects of verbs. Here are examples of ‘who’ and ‘whom’ in sentences:
- Who delivered the inaugural address? (‘Who’ is the subject of the verb ‘deliver’)
- Do you know the journalist who wrote the news report? (‘who’ is the subject of the verb ‘write’)
A: I met John yesterday.
B: You met whom? (‘whom’ is the object of the verb ‘meet’)
A: John presented Mary a gift.
B: John presented whom a gift? (‘whom’ is the indirect object of the verb ‘present’)
In spoken English, it is quite common and normal for people to leave out ‘whom’ as in the examples below:
- She is the person whom they have invited to inaugurate the conference.
- That’s the professor whom I am going to request to deliver the keynote address.
‘Whom’ is a weird word for young people whose first language is English because they are exposed to normal and not to formal language. A search of the spoken category of the Corpus of Contemporary American English finds that ‘who’ is 57 times more common than ‘whom’. It means that ‘whom’ is becoming less common in both speaking and writing. Look at the sentences below:
Who did you invite to be the chief guest for our conference?
Whom did you invite to be the chief guest for our conference?
The first sentence comes under the ‘normal’ category and is more popular than the second sentence which comes under the ‘formal’ category though the second one is grammatically correct.
Traditional grammarians (formal) go by traditional grammar rules whereas modern grammarians (normal) go by the evidence of language in use. In the book The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker quotes the humorist Calvin Tripp, who joked that “Whom is a word that was invented to make everyone sound like a butler.”
Will ‘whom’ disappear soon? Probably ‘yes’. Here is an explanation from the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. “On the basis of the language data for the past half-century, it is reasonable to predict that ‘whom’ will continue to decline in all its uses, except where it is used after a preposition; there is nothing to suggest that this specific usage is dying out or will die out. Why do changes like this happen? There are a number of factors, including the gradual loss in English of the old Germanic case endings (of which ‘whom’ is a vestige), a general tendency towards less formality in communication, and our old friend ‘the principle of least effort.’
To communicate effectively and to convey our message clearly, learners should know the difference between ‘who’ and ‘whom’. Still the old rule is applied in writing and so learners need to use the words ‘who’ and ‘whom’ correctly.
( Albert P Rayan is an ELT resource person and a Professor of English )