Who/whom/who cares

I came across this exchange in Maclean’s Mailbag while I was waiting in the doctor’s office. Marie-Louise DeWitt wrote the following letter in response to the previous week’s cover:

Your cover line, “Who women want,” should read “Whom women want.” Have grammatical errors just become so acceptable that nobody notices them anymore?

It was followed by a letter from Christopher Allen:

My colleagues and I were discussing your cover line this week and I thought that some readers would be quick to criticize your grammar. Of course you were correct to use the word “who.” Assuming that the story is about what heterosexual women want (i.e. men), the implied sentence would read, “The men who women want” or “The men who are wanted by women.” The “who” is a subordinating conjunction, a signifier for the beginning of a relative (or adjective) clause. “Who” is a relative pronoun and because of that, it’s used in the subject, not the object. It wouldn’t be “whom” as there’s no recipient of direct action.

Even if you disagree with Christopher, which I do, there is also a third option that Marie-Louise alluded to: perhaps it doesn’t matter that the nominative case was used because the nominative case has become conventional, and the only people who would complain about it being an error are crusty, stuck-in-their-ways prescriptivists. As the Wikipedia article on who points out, the OED considers the objective case of the pronoun who to be “no longer current in natural colloquial speech”; an article by Lasnik and Sobin entitled “The Who/Whom Puzzle: On The Preservation Of An Archaic Feature” claims that the who/whom distinction is governed by what they call “grammatical viruses,” which are extra-grammatical rules that give language “prestige” status. In other words, English has changed since the prescriptions of grammar were written up 250 years ago under the misguided goal of fixing the English language “once and for all,” just as it had been changing for thousands of years before that.

Lasnik and Sobin’s footnote on their use of the term “prestige” to refer to this kind of language sums up Marie-Louise’s situation quite aptly:

The use of the term ‘prestige’ here is not intended to imply that the person who employs such forms in speech actually gains prestige – ponderous language may easily have the contrary result.

Fighting language change by upholding archaic rules of grammar only belies your ignorance of language, not your knowledge of it.


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