This anecdote raises the question, is “whom” history?
My 4 year old corrected my wife today. My wife used “whom” in a sentence (properly, mind you) and my daughter said “mama, sometimes you say a weird word, ‘whom’, when what you should be saying is ‘who’. ‘Whom’ is not a real word.”
The four-year-old is right, in a way:
What has my friend’s four-year-old learned? There’s a pronoun who. It’s a question word that can start sentences like “Who is that?” Adults also use it all the time in questions like “Who’d you invite over?” and “Who are you talking about?” It also can kick off a relative clause: “She’s the colleague who sits next to me,” and “She’s the colleague who I’ve started to become friends with.” In other words, the girl has heard revered, trusted adults (parents, teachers) using who as a subject, a direct object and an object of a preposition. Rule: who is used in all these roles.
And then comes this occasional weird variant. Every once in a while, mummy or daddy, for no obvious reason, uses whom in the exact same place they usually use who. Grown-ups are silly. They don’t let me cut my own hair, they insist on eating disgusting green plants, and they occasionally misspeak. Mommy, it’s who, not whom.
The thing is, the girl’s rule is right: who is used in all these roles. Geoffrey Pullum makes a distinction between Normal and Formal language, and most English-speakers today, when in Normal mode, steer clear of whom. We leave out the relative pronoun (That’s the friend I’m inviting to dinner) or just use who. Children are rarely exposed to Formal, and have little concept of register. Whom is just weird for them. A search of the Spoken category of the Corpus of Contemporary American English finds that I is about eight times more common than me—but who is 57 times more common than whom. It appears just 53 times out of every million words. That number would be even lower in the language used around a four-year-old. No wonder she might process it as a mere glitch in Mommy’s English.
My friend asked “language change in action?” Yes, probably, but his daughter is reflecting, not driving the change here. (Kids do drive all kinds of other changes, especially when they become teenagers and play with language self-consciously.) Here, she’s just seeing that hardly anyone uses whom. Our societies increasingly prize spontaneity, authenticity and “just talking” over polish and elaborate formality. In other words, Normal.
Since whom is becoming less common, many people can’t use it properly even when they are aiming for Formal. (A common mistake is using it in a subject role, for example: That’s the candidate whom I hope will win the election. Here, the mistake is in thinking that I hope turns who into an object. But the clause is really who will win the election, with I hope just an interpolation.) The unease over whom just makes people avoid it more.
I think whom has a long life left in it, though, for non-grammatical reasons. Educated people prize language, and the mastery of Formal. Their status at the top of the social heap is an incentive to treat the proper use of whom as a sign of intelligence, not just the Formal register. They do most of the edited and published writing we consume. And so whom will live in print for a good long time, even as many of those same people ignore it when they’re chatting at the proverbial water cooler.
Kids will go on reaching secondary school being taught, for the first time, how to use who‘s strange cousin. They will also be learning a meta-linguistic lesson: sometimes you don’t use the language that comes most naturally to you. And finally, when they have kids, they’ll start explaining the whole strange story to them in turn.