Sunday, December 8, 2013

Whom watch #3 - Silly infographic

Continuing an occasional series where I look at silly or downright bad articles etc about whom on the Internet.
The other day I was looking through a teacher’s blog which had kindly linked to mine, when I came across an ‘infographic’ with the title “Who vs whom”. I rather feared the worst.

ExerciseLook at these sentences and decide which in each pair you think is the more natural in spoken English - A or B, then click on "Show my comments".
1. A With whom did you go to the cinema?
B Who did you go to the cinema with?
2. A For whom is the party being held?
B Who is the party being held for?
3. A With whom are you getting a lift home?
B Who are you getting a lift home with?
4. A For whom are all these party hats?
B Who are all these party hats for?

Show my comments

The he = who, him = whom theory

Quite a few traditional grammar websites teach a simple 'rule' - that if the answer to a who question is he, the interrogative pronoun must be who, and if the answer is him, then it must be whom. This image is part of an infographic, which people are invited to put onto their websites, and which puts forward just such a rule:
To put it another way:
  • Who or whom went to the pizza shop?
    - he went to the pizza shop, so according to this theory the question must be:
    Who went to the pizza shop?
  • Who or whom did Bob go with?
    He went with him, so according to this theory the question must be:
    Whom did Bob go with? - or as they'd probably prefer - With whom did Bob go?
But there are a couple of problems with this explanation.

The basic problem with the him = whom idea.

The main problem with this 'rule' is that hardly anybody speaks speaks like that. As I said in my comment to the opening exercise, most of us consider the use of whom to be very formal. And although we teach in EFL/ESL that prepositions must be followed by whom rather than who, in practice most people avoid this problem by putting the preposition to the end.
The person who wrote this infographic seems to vaguely realise this, saying:
people seem to avoid “whom” in spoken English completely
But instead of drawing the logical conclusion, they say:
The word “who” is often incorrectly used where “whom” is appropriate
Interesting word that, appropriate, because that's exactly what their examples aren't. Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary defines appropriate as:
suitable, acceptable or correct for the particular circumstances
It seems to me that to use highly formal language to talk with your friends about a pizza party (whatever that may be) is singularly inappropriate.
In a different (very classy) infographic, at the The Oatmeal (linked to below), they suggest that using whom makes your language "classy and distinguished", but do you really want to sound "classy and distinguished" when you're chatting about pizza parties? Or will it just make you sound like a "pompous twit" (see next section)?

It's all a matter of register

When we talk about register, we're referring to the different levels of formality we use in different situations. The English you use with your friends in the pub is likely to be different from that you use in an academic essay, for example. And when you're talking to somebody in a position of authority, you might use something in between.
The linguist Jonathan Owen recently posted a piece on his blog Arrant Pedantry entitled '12 Mistakes Nearly Everyone Who Writes About Grammar Mistakes Makes' (well worth reading). No 3 is called Ignoring register, and he puts it so well, I'd rather leave it to him:
There’s a time and a place for following the rules, but the writers of these lists typically treat English as though it had only one register: formal writing. They ignore the fact that following the rules in the wrong setting often sounds stuffy and stilted. Formal written English is not the only legitimate form of the language, and the rules of formal written English don’t apply in all situations. Sure, it’s useful to know when to use who and whom, but it’s probably more useful to know that saying To whom did you give the book? in casual conversation will make you sound like a pompous twit.
Admittedly, on their own website the producers of this infographic do start off by saying 'Even experienced writers can get confused by these two words'. But nowhere on this infographic (which they invite people to display on their blogs) do they tell us that this is a rule for written English! Quite the contrary: all the examples they give are for the very obviously informal context of a pizza party:
Formal language for an informal occasion. Is this what they mean by appropriate? And the problem is that at least three teacher-run websites that I know of are displaying this infographic, without any comment, and so giving their students a false idea of how whom is used (or rather, not used) in modern conversational English.

Only part of the story

There's another strange thing about this infographic; apart from ignoring (or glossing over) the question of register, it only tells a quarter of the grammatical story. Presumably to keep it nice and simple, the only examples this infographic gives are related to prepositions in direct questions.
Who and (usually optionally) whom are used to refer either to the direct object (DO) or the object of a preposition (prep) in the following structures:


  • direct questions
    DO - Who(m) did you invite to the party?
    prep - Who did he come with?
    (or in very formal language - With whom did she come?)
  • indirect questions
    DO - She asked him who(m) he had invited.
    prep - She asked him who he had come with.
    (or in very formal language - She asked him with whom had he come?)
The use of whom when referring to the direct object in questions is very formal and not much used. In more formal writing, where prepositions are involved, it might sometimes be more appropriate to to lead with the preposition and follow it with whom - see section on when to use whom.

Relative clauses

  • defining relative clauses
    DO - The candidate who(m) we select must be able to start immediately.
    prep - The man who she's talking to is our new neighbour
    (more formal - The man to whom she's talking is our new neighbour.)
  • In defining relative clauses, we can leave out the object pronoun altogether in spoken language, and usually do:
  • DO - The candidate we select must be able to start immediately.
    prep - The man she's talking to is our new neighbour.
  • non-defining relative clauses
    DO - This is Martin, who(m) I’ve asked to to take over Peter’s old job.
    prep - This is Peter, who you'll be working with.
    (more formalThis is Peter, with whom you'll be working.)
  • Non-defining clauses are usually used in written English, and sometimes whom might be more appropriate here.

When to use whom

In formal writing

If you're writing a formal letter or academic essay, then it's probably better to use whom, especially in preposition constructions. In defining relative clauses you can omit the realtive pronoun altogether, but you might want to use wom in non-defining relative clauses.
But it's not necessary in most informal writing, with the following exception.

The one time when you really have to use whom.

In certain non-defining relative clauses, with expressions such as many of, half of, a large number of, it is necessary to use whom. But in fact it sounds quite natural here:
  • The class had twenty students, many of whom had travelled quite far.
  • There were twenty students, for half of whom this was their first visit to Britain.
There are also times when using whom may be less awkward than the alternative. Again it sounds quite natural in these contexts:
  • We'll be serving only meat dishes. Anyone for whom this is a problem should contact me as soon a spossible.
  • this arguably sounds better than:
  • We'll be serving only meat dishes. Anyone who this is a problem for should contact me as soon a spossible.

What EFL grammar books say

Just in case you think all this is just my personal opinion, here's what a selection of leading EFL grammar books have to say on the matter:
In formal English it is possible to use whom instead of who where who is the object of the sentence. But in modern English most speakers only use who.
Business Grammar Builder - Paul Emmerson (Macmillan)
Many native speakers don’t use whom and whomever.
Focus on Grammar (Advanced) - Jay Maurer (Longman)
We use who or whom as the object of the clause, although whom is more formal and rarely used in spoken English.
Advanced Grammar in Use - Martin Hewings (Cambridge)
Whom is not often used in informal English. We prefer to use who as an object, especially in questions.
Practical English Usage - Michael Swan (Oxford)
Whom is the object form of who and is used formally in object clauses. However this is now felt to be excessively formal by most speakers and who is commonly used instead. Whom has to be used if it follows a preposition. However in everyday use, it is usual to avoid this kind of construction. To whom am I speaking? - Who am I speaking to?
Advanced Language Practice - Michael Vince (Macmillan)
Whom is an object pronoun, who is a subject pronoun. However, whom is now considered very formal and we often use who instead.
Grammar and Vocabulary for Cambridge Advanced and Proficiency - Richard Side and Guy Wellman (Longman)
Whom is formal and we rarely use it in speech.
My Grammar Lab - Mark Foley, Diane Hall (Pearson)
The grammar taught in EFL books and on EFL and most ESL websites is thankfully much more strongly rooted in real English than that taught on more traditional grammar websites.

Related posts


  • Arrant Pedantry - 12 Mistakes Nearly Everyone Who Writes About Grammar Mistakes Makes
  • - home of the infographic
  • The Oatmeal - another (really attractive) infographic illustrating the him = whom 'rule', suggesting it makes your language 'classy and distinguished'
  • - another version of the him = whom 'rule' without any discussion of register


oceanbluevn said...

It's such a useful post to me. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

'Whom was invented to make us all sound like butlers.'

The Geeks said...

hi..Im college student, thanks for sharing :)

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