Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

So, I’ve discussed language change before, and I think it’s a really fascinating area of Linguistics, as it’s a good reminder that Linguistics isn’t just studying the past, but also the future. I made a few predictions about language change in English a while back in this post, and one of those predictions has just come to life again for me. In that post, I said…

However, it will happen. In the same way that “whom” is gradually fading from use, \usage of ‘their’ as a gender neutral pronoun will fade in.

For as long as I’ve been looking, I’ve maintained (along with others) that “whom” is rapidly fading from use in the English language.

What is ‘whom’?

‘Whom’, for those of you who never had this pushed on you by your High School English teacher (or have replaced it with usable information), is/was both a relative and interrogative pronoun in English. It can be used in sentences such as “For whom were you looking?” and “The police are searching for the man whom Mike Tyson attacked”.

Where most people falter is differentiating it from “who”. Let’s talk about some terminology real quick so I can give it a nice, thorough, linguistic description:

In grammatical descriptions, there are several different ‘semantic roles’, played by the different actors in a given sentence. The ‘agent’ is the person or thing that initiates the action (the dog in “the dog bit the man”). The ‘patient’ is the person or thing that is affected by the action done by the agent (the man in “the dog bit the man”). In all ‘transitive’ sentences, involving some sort of action done to somebody by somebody else, there is both an ‘agent’ and a ‘patient’.

Let’s make a sentence: “Janet Reno saw the penguin”. In that sentence, ‘Janet Reno’ is the agent, and ‘the penguin’ is the patient. Let’s ask some questions using that statement. In order to ask a question about it, we need to insert a question word (who or whom) in place of the part we want to ask about. So, if we want to ask about the agent in English, we use “who”, but, to ask about the patient, we use “whom”. We’d end up with either “Who saw the Penguin?” or “Whom did Janet Reno see?”. We could also go all out and say “Who saw whom?” So, in summary, in the glory days of Whom, we used “who” to replace the agent in a sentence, and “whom” to replace the patient.

Whom am I calling obsolete? Whom.

However, that’s rapidly going out of style. It’s not unusual to see “Who did you see?” or “Wait, who shot who?”, and really, “whom” shows up rarely in everyday usage. How rarely? Well, in the EnronSent Corpus of Enron’s corporate email, it shows up 991 times out of 13,810,266 total words. Compare that to 11,789 times for “who”. Of those 991 times, there are many “incorrect” uses (“This template is for participants, whom will be kept confidential at all times.”)

Many people don’t know when it’s actually supposed to be used, and even those who do are very seldom able to use it without seeming pretentious (or worse). Personally, I can’t imagine walking up to a girl in a bar and saying “You’re the girl for whom I’ve been waiting all my life”. So, whom is on the way out.

However, today, I saw something completely new. This was a headline submitted to today:

Submitter confuses golf story for NBA story, left confused as to who shot whome

The usage is actually classically correct, but the spelling isn’t. The submitter seems to have the idea of when to use it, but it’s gotten so rare that he or she (they!) haven’t gotten used to the usual spelling.

So, when everyday people stop using a term or grammar point, stop seeing it, and stop understanding how it works, it’s only a matter of time before it’s on its way out.

Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for ‘whom’.

PS: For those not familiar with the headline’s reference, it’s a play on Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s on first?” sketch which is definitely worth a read.

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