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All right, it’s time for the second grammar review section; last week’s looked at contractions and their homophones, and today I’ll look at who and whom.

The simplest advice I can give about using whom is not to. Contemporary English doesn’t require whom in any situation other than exceedingly formal writing. Just use who all the time.

Before you think that I’m just some lazy linguistic anarchist for suggesting this, let me point out that I am only agreeing with John McIntyre, former president of the American Copy Editors Society and an editor at the Baltimore Sun, who writes:

“There is a problem that even educated writers have with figuring out whether a subordinate clause should begin with who or whom. If you have that difficulty, you can, except in the most formal circumstances, just use who.”

But perhaps you have a reason to use whom, whether because you need to write very formally, or because you have a stodgy teacher/superior who insists upon its use, or because you’re just good old-fashioned curious about the niceties of English grammar. In that case, here’s my advice on how it’s used.

In short, who and whom are the same word with different case markings. Who is in the nominative (or subjective) case, and whom is in the accusative (or objective) case. That’s the only difference — not that one is more formal than the other or anything like that.*

So knowing how to use whom is simply a matter of knowing when each case should be marked. Unfortunately, English rarely marks case, so it’s not something that we, as native English speakers, are used to thinking about. In fact, aside from who(m), the only other sort of case marking in English is on personal pronouns, and even then only on a few of them.** I and me, for instance, are nominative and accusative versions of each other, as are he and him, she and her, we and us, and they and them.

The first guideline, then, is to use whom wherever it replaces an accusative pronoun (me, him, her, us, them). So:

(1a) Who saw you? (She saw me.)
(1b) Whom did you see? (I saw her.)
(1c) Whom did you give the gift to? (I gave it to her.)

Your intuitions with personal pronouns’ cases are probably pretty accurate, so when you can rephrase the sentence, you’ll do well. The trouble is that you can’t always easily replace who(m) with a personal pronoun. For instance:

(2a) The fellow who(m) I saw at the bus stop
(2b) I don’t care who(m) did it.
(2c) Who(m)ever the werewolf stalks is in trouble.

Since there’s no question to answer here, you need to get a bit cleverer and look at the syntactic structure of the sentence. In these examples, who(m) is filling for a missing noun phrase somewhere in the sentence; linguists refer to the missing noun phrase as a “gap”, and who(m) as its “filler”. Even though the filler is usually in a different position from the gap, structurally the filler and gap are linked. Whatever case would be assigned to the gap manifests itself on the filler.

When the gap is an object, whom is appropriate. (2a) can use whom, because it’s filling a gap in the object of the verb saw.

When the gap is a subject, whom is inappropriate. (2b) can’t use whom, because the gap is the subject of the verb did.

(2c) gets tricky, because we seem to have two conflicting case assignments. Who(m)ever is the object of stalks, so you’d expect accusative case, but it also looks like the subject of is, so what do we do? In general, only the closest case assignment matters, and case doesn’t trickle down within a phrase. Since the subject of is is actually the whole phrase who(m)ever the werewolf stalks, not just who(m)ever, its case assignment doesn’t manifest. Only the assignment within the smaller phrase who(m)ever the werewolf stalks matters, and that’s accusative case from stalks. Thus whomever is appropriate here.

This is a bit subtle, and I don’t think I’ve done a great job of explaining it. (A newspaper columnist and I got into a fight about such a case assignment three years ago, and we still haven’t settled it.) This is the sort of situation where you’re probably best to just go with who; even if you have spent the time to prove to yourself that whom is correct, there’s a pretty good chance that someone else will insist that you’re hypercorrecting.

Summary: In contemporary American English, whom is necessary only in certain situations within very formal writing, so you can get by just fine without using it. If you choose to use it, remember that it is not the formal variant of who but rather the accusative-case variant of who. If who is replacing a subject of a sentence, it should never be whom. Whom is reserved for objects of verbs and objects of prepositions.

The Back-to-School Reviews so far:
I: Confusing contractions (your, you’re and the lot) [09/04/12]
II: Who and whom [09/10/12]


*: Whom seems more formal because it’s mostly used in formal writing. In informal writing, who is the form for both nominative and accusative cases.

**: Technically speaking, the apostrophe-s on possessives is a way of marking genitive case, but that’s a topic for another time.

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If English words were Norse gods, perhaps than would be the best candidate to play the role of Loki, the trickster god.* It causes confusion not only due to its similarity with then, but also by raising the question of what case the noun phrase it governs should have. Of course, there’s no confusion if you are a brilliant grammaticaster, as in this example from a list of peeves:

12. I/Me: We had several different takes on this, with one correspondent nailing it thus: “The correct choice can be seen when you finish the truncated sentence: He’s bigger than I am. ‘He’s bigger than me am’ actually sounds ridiculous and obviates the mistake.”**

Now, there’re two questions one should be asking of this explanation. First, can you just fill in the blank? By which I mean, does a sentence with ellipsis (the omission of words that are normally syntactically necessary but understood by context) necessarily have the same structure as a non-elided sentence? There are many different types of ellipsis, so this is a more complex question than I want to get into right now, but the short answer is no, and here’s a question-and-answer example:

Who drank my secret stash of ginger-grapefruit soda?
(1a) He/*Him drank it.
(1b) Him/*He.

(The asterisks indicate ungrammatical forms.) The second question to ask here is whether there even is an elision. We know that “He eats faster than I do” is a valid sentence, but does than necessarily trigger a clause after it? Could it be that “He eats faster than me” is not an incomplete version of the above structure but rather a different and complete structure?

This boils down to the question of whether than is strictly a conjunction (in which cases the conjoined things should be equivalent, i.e., both clauses) or can function as a preposition as well (in which case the following element is just a noun phrase, with accusative case from the preposition). It’s pretty easy to see that than behaves prepositionally in some circumstances, pointed out in the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, via Language Log:

(2a) He’s inviting more people than just us.
(2b) I saw no one other than Bob.

But this prepositional usage has become frowned upon, save for instances like (2a) & (2b) where it’s unavoidable. Why? Well, it’s an interesting tale involving the love of Latin and the discoverer of dephlogisticated air. It all starts (according to the MWDEU) with Robert Lowth, who in 1762 claimed, under the influence of Latin, that than is a conjunction and noun phrases following it carry an understood verb. The case marking (e.g., I vs. me) would then be assigned based on the noun phrase’s role in the implied clause. So Lowth’s grammar allows (3a) and (3b) but blocks (3c):

(3a) He laughed much louder than I (did).
(3b) He hit you harder than (he hit) me.

(3c) *He laughed much louder than me.

Lowth’s explanation was not without its wrinkles; he accepted than whom as standard (possibly due to Milton’s use of it in Paradise Lost), and worked out a post hoc explanation for why this prepositional usage was acceptable and others like (3c) weren’t.

Lowth’s explanation was also not without its dissenters. Joseph Priestley, a discoverer of oxygen, argued against it in his Rudiments of English Grammar (1772 edition). Priestley noted that the combination of a comparative adjective and than behaved prepositionally, and that good writers used it as such. Regarding the Lowthian argument against it, he wrote:

“It appears to me, that the chief objection our grammarians have to both these forms, is that they are not agreeable to the idiom of the Latin tongue, which is certainly an argument of little weight, as that language is fundamentally different from ours”

Another pro-prepositionist was William Ward, whose 1765 Essay on Grammar argues that than in phrases like to stand higher than or to stand lower than is akin to prepositions like above or below, and thus that the prepositional usage of than should be allowed. That’s not much of an argument, because semantically equivalent words and phrases don’t have to have the same syntax — consider I gave him it vs. *I donated him it. But then again, Lowth is basing his argument on a completely separate language, so this is a slight improvement.

The real key, of course, is usage, and the MWDEU notes that Priestey and Ward are backed by standard usage at the time. Visser’s Historical English Syntax strengths the case with examples of prepositional than from a variety of estimable sources, including the Geneva Bible (1560), Shakespeare (1601), Samuel Johnson (1751, 1759), and Byron (1804). And of course prepositional than continues in modern usage — why else would we be having this argument?

Despite the irrelevance of his argument, Lowth’s opinion has stuck through to the present day, reinvigorated by new voices repeating the same old line, unwilling to concede something’s right just because it’s never been wrong. It’s the MWDEU, not the commenter mentioned at the top, who nails it:

“Ward’s explanation [that both conjunctive and prepositional uses are correct] covered actual usage perfectly, but it was probably too common-sensical—not sufficiently absolutist—to prevail.”

So in the end, we’re left with this. Than I and than me are both correct, in most cases. Than I is often regarded as more formal, but interestingly it’s the only one that can be clearly inappropriate.*** Using the nominative case blocks the noun phrase from being the object of the verb. I can’t write The wind chilled him more than I to mean that the wind chilled me less than it chilled him.

Sometimes this can be used to disambiguate; I love you more than him is ambiguous while I love you more than he isn’t. This only matters for clauses with objects, and in general, these tend not to be ambiguous given context, so the benefit of disambiguation must be weighed against the potentially over-formal tone of the nominative case. (I, for instance, think the second sentence above sounds less convincing, even though it’s clearer, because who talks about love so stiltedly?)

I’m branching a little off topic here, but I’d like to conclude with a general point from Priestley, a few paragraphs after the quote above:

“In several cases, as in those above-mentioned, the principles of our language are vague, and unsettled. The custom of speaking draws one way, and an attention to arbitrary and artificial rules another. Which will prevail at last, it is impossible to say. It is not the authority of any one person, or of a few, be they ever so eminent, that can establish one form of speech in preference to another. Nothing but the general practice of good writers, and good speakers can do it.”

Summary: Than can work as a conjunction or a preposition, meaning that than I/he/she/they and than me/him/her/them are both correct in most situations. The latter version is attested from the 16th century to the present day, by good writers in formal and informal settings. The belief that it is unacceptable appears to be a holdover from Latin-based grammars of English.

*: Interestingly, and counter to the mythology I learned from the Jim Carrey movie The Mask, Wikipedia suggests that Loki may not be so easily summarized as the god of mischief.

**: I’m pretty sure the use of obviate is a mistake here. I can just barely get a reading where it isn’t, if thinking of the full version of the sentence causes you to avoid the supposed mistake. But I suspect instead that our correspondent believes obviate means “make obvious”, in which case, ha ha, Muprhy’s Law

***: Is there a case where than me is undeniably incorrect? I can’t think of one.

The S-Series, looking at words that may or may not have an s at the end, has been on something of a hiatus since February’s look at anyway(s). Today, let’s move the series forward by looking at backward and backwards. As with anyways, the OED reports that backwards is the adverbial genitive form of its “base” form backward, which is sort of a useless fact for me to point out without going into a bit of detail on what an adverbial genitive is.

The genitive is a grammatical case in English better known as the possessive case. If you were to write, for instance, “the child’s toy”, child is in the genitive/possessive case, and this is marked by the presence of the apostrophe-s at the end. Both in English and in other languages, the genitive case is bit broader than mere possession, which is why I call it by this more obscure name.* One of the additional purposes of the genitive in English — well, moreso in Old/Middle English — is to convert nouns and adjectives to adverbs.

In Old and Middle English, this was a productive system, and that created a variety of common Modern English adverbs, such as once (from one), whence (from when), or sideways (from side and way). As English has become less of a case-marking language, the productivity of this system has mostly been lost. The only remaining productive form of it that I’m aware of (and honestly, I wouldn’t have thought of this if it hadn’t been discussed in the Wikipedia article) is for habitual events recurring at specified times:

(1a) I work evenings. My husband works days.
(1b) Fridays I go painting in the Louvre. [Warning: the link plays a Queen song]
(1c) Alternating Thursday evenings, Zachariah watches “Community”.

Backwards is similarly an adverbial form of backward, but the slightly surprising thing about that is that backward didn’t really seem to need it. The OED first attests backward as an adverb in 1330, almost two hundred years before the first attestation of backwards in 1513. Why, then, did backwards appear?**

Well, the key thing to remember here is that a language isn’t some top-down system that only creates words that there is a “logical” need for. My guess is that backwards may have appeared due to an increase in the use of non-adjectival backward that led some users to create a more clearly adverbial form based on the productive adverbial genitive rule, but looking that far back, it’s very hard to say.

Anyway, taking what we have for the back story for backward(s), what’s their current status? Mark Liberman had a well-researched profile of these words on Language Log a few months ago, and his two main conclusions were that:

  • American English uses a higher proportion of backward than British English
  • Both AmEng and BrEng use higher proportions of backwards in conversation than in formal writing

There’s one remaining point on usage, which Liberman doesn’t go into, and which I fear I can’t go much into at the moment either. Backward is both an adverb and an adjective, but backwards is arose as an adverbial genitive. So can backwards be used as an adjective too? Is (2), for instance, acceptable with the s?

(2) Jackson trained himself to say words in reverse order. His backward(s) mumbling disturbed his friends.

The OED says that this adjectival usage is obsolete, but I’m not so sure. I’ve found a couple of examples of adjectival backwards in the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA), such as (3). I don’t have the resources to get numbers on this, but they seem relatively rare compared to both adverbial backwards and adjectival backward.***

(3) […] your prose is a tad flat, somewhat backwards, too working class.

I don’t know how I feel about (3). I think I would accept it in speech but change it in writing, which makes some sense, since (3) comes from a play. So it seems to me that there is a preference for backward in adjectival usages, but I don’t have good data to support this. This post is running long anyway, so let me leave it there and defer to you readers. Any thoughts on backward(s) are welcome, especially on adjectival backwards.

Summary: Backwards arose as the adverbial genitive of backward 500 years ago. In contemporary English, backward appears to be more formal than backwards, and backward is used more in American English than British English.

"Stressed is desserts spelled backwards!"

An example where I find "backwards" superior, conveniently located just outside my office.


*: Wikipedia has a nice article discussing the span of the genitive in English and other languages if you’re interested in the full details.

**: Let me state the caveat right now that it could just be that backwards does indeed predate adverbial backward but that data sparsity makes them seem to have been temporally swapped. But that would be unexciting.

***: I know what you’re thinking: but Gabe, everyone knows that COHA and COCA have part-of-speech tags on their words, so you could just search for backwards.[j*] to get all the adjectival backwards, and compare that count to backwards.[r*] for adverbial backwards and settle the matter immediately. The trouble is that COHA/COCA were (I think) machine-tagged, and so there is not a single case of tagged-adjectival backwards even though there are clearly adjectival backwards like in (3).

The S-Series so far:
S-Series I: Anyway(s) [02/03/11]
S-Series II: Backward(s) [06/14/11]
S-Series III: Toward(s) [08/29/11]
S-Series IV: Beside(s) [12/07/11]

You know that I think too many people try to catch other people on grammar mistakes and typos. It’s alright (but often rudely done) when the correcter is right. It’s irritating when the correcter is neither right nor wrong (as with omitting or including Oxford commas). And then there’s the hypercorrection, where the correcter really wants to prove their superiority, and just starts making corrections willy-nilly, often miscorrecting perfectly acceptable writing. Here’s a fun example, posted as either a “job LOL” or a “work fail” on Failblog:

garbage

OH BOOM! Hey, person who just wanted to keep a common area clean! You and your reasonable request just got served! Scorched Earth LOL!

Except: I count five corrections, of which two are invalid, one is a question of tone, and only two are actually valid complaints. Oh, and there’s a missed correction.

Correction 1: whoever to whomever. See, this is why whom is leaving English. Very few people, even those who want to see it stay in the language, know how to use it correctly (i.e., as the accusative case form of who, not as the formal version of who). Briefly, whom(ever) is used when the noun phrase it’s replacing would be an object of a verb. The wh-word in whoever ate this pizza is replacing a subject NP, which means that it should get nominative case (whoever), not accusative case (whomever). If the clause were “whoever this pizza ate”, then one could add the m. But it is not, and the correction is wrong.

Correction 2: Removing the comma before and. Because this and is joining two verb phrases into a single verb phrase with a single subject, there’s no syntactic reason to have this comma. The comma is also inappropriate from a rhetorical standpoint; a speaker wouldn’t pause before this and. Score 1 for the correcter.

Correction 3: Replacing the comma with a semicolon before you are gross. No, semicolons generally join two complete sentences into a single sentence, and whoever … here isn’t complete.* A comma is indeed correct here; this is an example of left-dislocation, rare in written English but common in spoken English and many other languages**. In left-dislocation, a noun phrase describing the subject or object of the sentence is placed at the beginning of the sentence as the topic of the sentence, and then is referred to later by a pronoun.

Because the specific pronoun here is you, this could also be a case of the whoever phrase being a vocative phrase appended at the beginning of the sentence. Again, this is common in spoken English and shows up often in online comments: e.g., “John, you need to grow up.” If it’s viewed as a vocative, then a comma is again correct. A colon could also be appropriate, as a greeting for the entire message, like the opening to a business letter. Either way, a semicolon is incorrect, and so is the corrector.

Correction 4: Parenthesizing profanity. The corrector claims that there’s no need for profanity. This is an issue of style, and isn’t really right or wrong. In a business setting, like the one this pizza box was apparently found in, written profanity may be inappropriate. However, having been in college recently enough to remember roommates who left empty pizza boxes scattered like lamps around a living room, I would argue that profanity is merited in these cases.

Correction 5: it’s replacing its. That’s a good change. The added rationale, though, should have a colon in place of its comma: need an apostrophe: ITS = possessive.

Missed Correction: the space in who ever. Whoever ought to be a single word here, because it’s the indefinite/generalized form of who, which is standardly written as a single word any more. Who ever would be appropriate if ever were an adverb modifying the verb (e.g., Who ever heard of a snozzberry?). When the correcter added the M, they retained the space, and that’s a missed opportunity to correct.

All in all, this is a microcosm of why I hate people correcting people’s grammar. The correctors are often wrong themselves, and in the course of trying to show up someone else, they completely miss the point — in this case, the undeniable fact that abandoned pizza boxes belong in the trash. Correctors: You’re not helping. And if you’re not helping, you could at least have the decency to be right.

*: It could be complete as a question, but here it’s obviously supposed to be a declarative sentence.

**: I first became aware of left-dislocation in French sentences like Mon ami, il est comme un sandwich, and there’s a whole class of languages that regularly do this.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.



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