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Humans love their language.
FOR WHOM, THE BELL TOLLS

“Whom” is disappearing and everyone needs to chill about it

By Oscar Tay

This post was originally published on Quora as an answer to the question “Should we let the word ‘whom’ die?”

That’s the wrong way to think about it.

A common problem in the way people think about language is that it’s like religion or morality: something that needs to be upheld and artificially maintained or else it will rot and civilization will fall with it. Of course, it isn’t anything like that. Languages change and they have always changed and they will continue to change until the day they die; and society continues independently of it.

But I don’t blame them for thinking that. Linguistics is a social science, and the social sciences study things that people have deep attachments to. No one cares about how a random flower in the jungle has blossomed this season or how the interior of Mars is composed besides those people who study those things, but everyone cares about their religion changing fundamentally or their society shifting or people’s wishes and wills moving in a new direction.

All those things are studied by scientists. Linguistics is a science—a social science, yes, but a perfectly legitimate science nonetheless. It is no more about learning languages than biology is about keeping pets, as I’ve covered here: it is about studying language and how it works. What makes linguistics, along with the other social sciences, different from, say, physics or geology or botany is that is studies things that deal with people. Things that matter to people. Things that people get their undies in a knot defending.

“The fact that it sounds somewhat antiquated is really just because a lot of people out there have bad grammar.”

“Even if it isn’t always necessary or even expected to use, it’s neither decidedly antiquated nor stilted, so, to me at least, it should remain. Moreover, it’s a window into the past that tells us how English used to behave. […] In short, and less formally, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

“No, although I do agree that it is very sad that so few people actually know how to use it properly.”

“I won’t particularly mourn the loss of whom. The ones that distress me are lie and lay, […] and a variety of other solecisms that sound like a singer suddenly going flat when I hear them. I don’t mind solely because I’m a stickler for the rules; I mind because of the aesthetics of the thing.”

“I would keep it, but it wouldn’t kill me to see it go. BUT LEAVE THE COUNTERFACTUAL SUBJUNCTIVE THE FUCK ALONE.”

(Where the counterfactual subjunctive is saying “If I were there, I would have…” instead of the more common “If I was there, I would have…”.)

And here we have people upset at language change. These are all quoted from answers to this question alone, complaining about the loss of “whom”—or, if not, moving on to complain about something equally grammatically perturbing to them. They’ve all got seemingly logical reasons for their hatred: people have bad grammar, it’s useful, you need to understand these sort of things, people are using it improperly, the aesthetics are an issue, and the poor counterfactual subjunctive! And so on.

Languages, as I have covered ad nauseam et infinitum on Quora, change all the time. This isn’t the sort of thing you can stop. It’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s fascinating if you happen to be the sort of person who, like me, could never find a better hobby than etymology to get into. You’ve got sound change, analogy, grammaticalization, all that fun stuff.

What we have here is run-of-the-mill language change. I can even tell you exactly what’s happening here. Lots of languages have cases: things used to tell you what a word is doing in a sentence by changing the word in some way. For example, “I” and “me” are really the same word, just in different cases: you use “I” when it’s the one doing the action and “me” when it’s the one receiving the action.

I see him” (“I” doing the action)

“He sees me (“me” receiving the action)

Imagine a language where every word has cases. In English, you’d just say “the dog” in both “The dog sees me” and “I see the dog”, but imagine there being several slightly different words for “the dog” depending on what the dog is doing in the sentence and you have an idea of what cases are like.

English, along with its fellow Germanic languages, has been slowly losing its cases over the course of the past few thousand years. Way back when, English had eight—count ’em, eight cases.

A few thousand years later, we were down to five cases.

A thousand years after that, we were down to four.

Another few centuries on, we had three.

Now, we only have these:

– the default case: the basic form of a word
– the possessive case, made by putting an ’s on the end of a word, as in “John’s car”
– the three cases on the pronouns: “I,” “me,” “my;” “who,” “whom,” “whose”

Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Dutch, and some forms of German are in the same predicament. It’s a general Germanic thing that’s been going on forever. (In the Romance languages, they’re out even the possessive case: you have to say say “the car of John.”)

At the moment, we’re getting rid of the accusative case: the case you use for the thing that is receiving the action, like “me” in “He sees me.” We’ve already gotten rid of it in every word except the pronouns: “I,” “me;” “who,” “whom.” So we’re losing another case. Par for the course.

And no one likes this. People complain about it. There was a word, and that word was “whom,” and now people aren’t using the word, or they’re not using it the way they should, and now it’s vanishing from the language and something bad will happen and most people never really think about what this bad thing is but there sure as hell will be something bad. You’ve even got it in the question there: the word “whom” is dying. It’s dying, the poor word, and nothing we can do will save it.

Humans love their language. It’s comparable to their religion or culture in importance to them, in how close they keep it to their hearts. They don’t want it to change. Language inevitably does change, though, for reasons outside of anyone’s control. What you have, then, is an inherently changing being, language, whose speakers are inherently opposed to its change. From this mess, you get Labov’s Golden Age Principle:

At some time in the past, language was in a state of perfection. Every sound was correct and beautiful, every word and expression was proper, accurate, and appropriate. The decline has been regular and persistent and every change is a falling away rather than a return. It’s out of this that you interpret language change as nonconformity, so people reject changes in structure of language when they notice them.

As covered in several examples here, people are constantly upset at their changing language. It’s an endless cycle we find ourselves stuck in: we complain that modern English is terrible and that it should be more like Victorian English; the Victorians complained that Victorian English was terrible and that it should be more like Elizabethan English; the Elizabethans complained that Elizabethan English was terrible and so on and so forth. (All the way through, many writers even complained English should be more like Classical Latin—which English had not been like since roughly 3000 BC.)

There is, in the minds of the speakers of any language, especially those with extensive written histories, a “Golden Age” that the language was perfect in, and now it’s corrupted and gross and evil and slimy and stinky and has to be handled carefully with a pair of tweezers that are corroding as we speak. They wish to artificially revert the language back to that state, and accuse anyone speaking the actual modern form of that language of having bad grammar.

What does this all have to do with the question? It asks about whether the word should die, as though the alternative was that it should live. Neither of those things are correct in and of themselves. Actually, they’re both equally silly. Language works outside of human control. It’s like asking whether a particular flower should bloom tomorrow, or whether it should rain, or whether the Earth should change its orbit. Whether “whom” should live another day or perish from our treasured lexicon is something completely, totally, and utterly outside of our control.

What the question does wrong is assume we have power over language change. Some have tried to halt it: the Académie française likes to think it oversees how French works by dictating what francophones can and can’t say. It likes to think so, anyway. It has not stopped le weekend from overtaking la fin de semaine, nor le email from succeeding over the artificially-created courriel. Very little it does ever works.

Plenty of other languages have official national language academies, none of which work either. English doesn’t have one, so it’s left to individual pedants to nitpick of their own accord—which, of course, has, once again, never worked.

There should be no argument over keeping “whom” because that is not up to us to decide. The word will run its course, as words always do, and the world will move on.

To answer your question, this is not something we can do anything about. If “whom” miraculously lives, that is fine. If it dies as it likely will now, that’s fine too. Whether it lives or dies will have no effect on anything. Humans care about our language, so it makes anthropological sense that you might be upset at this, but this is not the biggest thing you should put your attention towards.