Whom on the way out?

 

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In Chad Harbach’s novel The Art of Fielding (2011), one brief interaction between two characters is the scene of a linguistic inside joke. Pella Affenlight is arguing with her father, the President of Westish College as well as a professor of Literature. The passage is as follows:

“Don’t look so glum,” she said. “Now you can have guests over.”
Affenlight chuckled, or tried to. “Yeah, right,” he said. “Like whom?”
It was the classic criminal error, that like whom—the longing to get caught, to take credit for the crime. Pella steeled herself. (429)

Related to the above is a discovery I made the other day. I was leafing through my little sister’s workbook for English class; she is currently in her fourth year of high school and learning English as a second language. My eye fell on an assignment which required two simple sentences to be combined into one, “keeping the preposition after the verb in the relative clause”. One of the sentences was My mother died last week. I looked after her for many years. My sister had rewritten these as My mother who I looked after for many years died last week. Almost thoughtlessly, I scribbled down My mother whom… and asked my sister to discuss this with her teacher. Later that week, she reported back to me: “Mr. Stevens says that what you wrote in my book is right, but we don’t necessarily have to do it that way. What I did is also okay.”

This teacher, then, takes a – perhaps unusually – tolerant approach to what is actually considered to be a usage problem: who ‘incorrectly’ used as whom. He evidently chooses not to correct students when they write My mother who I looked after. And indeed, why should he? It’s obvious that who and I don’t share a referent in this clause. Besides, is there anyone who even uses whom in informal writing or actual speech (excepting fictional professors of Literature) anymore? Was I being old-fashioned by suggesting whom?

It made me wonder if the linguistic situation might be changing. If teachers of Second Language English are loosening the prescriptivist rules to better fit real-life language use, ‘whom’ might already be on the way out. Several decades from now, readers of The Art of Fielding might furrow their brows at that once-classical error, ‘like whom’. They’ll wonder, what’s a whom?

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