Dealing decisively with the ‘who’ vs. ‘whom’ conundrum

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A reader, Edsel Ocson, e-mailed me this note recently about the often pesky choice between the relative pronouns “who” and “whom.”

“I read recently in one of the Manila broadsheets the following sentence: ‘I remember a memorable experience, in the 1970s, with my paternal grandmother, a feisty devout Buddhist living in Davao WHO I FREQUENTLY VISITED.’ (capitalization mine)

“Is the use of ‘who’ in that sentence correct or acceptable? Or should ‘whom’ be used instead?”

My reply to Edsel:
Offhand, I must tell you that prescriptive grammarians condemn the use of the subjective “who” in that construction and would demand adamantly that it be replaced with the objective “whom.” Personally, though, I find that prescription ill-advised because the resulting sentence sounds too formal, stilted, and stuffy: “I remember a memorable experience, in the 1970s, with my paternal grandmother, a feisty devout Buddhist living in Davao whom I frequently visited.”


I’d rather that the sentence retain “who” to keep that sentence natural-sounding and pleasantly informal the way the writer of the narrative obviously intended it to be. Better still, just to avoid heated arguments over the use of “who” or “whom” in that sentence, I’d seriously consider replacing “who” with “that,” as follows: “I remember a memorable experience, in the 1970s, with my paternal grandmother, a feisty devout Buddhist living in Davao that I frequently visited.”

I’d even go to the extent of rewording the sentence to get rid of “who” and “whom” and of “that” altogether while retaining the sense and tonality intended by the original sentence, as in this rewrite: “I remember a memorable experience, in the 1970s, with my paternal grandmother, a feisty devout Buddhist I frequently visited in Davao.” (The aspect of the subject’s “living” in Davao is lost in the reconstruction, of course, but I think it’s a small price to pay for avoiding the “who” vs. “whom” debate.)

Why should we go to such lengths when presented with the choice between “who” and “whom” or having to take recourse to “that” for such constructions? It’s because aside from being highly debatable, using either “who” or “whom” is often too problematic from both the style and language register standpoints.

The grammatically unassailable “whom,” which is the true objective-case form of “who,” just doesn’t sound right to the modern ear; in many cases, in fact, “whom” gives an unwanted pedantic, standoffish academic tone to what should be an informal, conversational statement. On the other hand, using “who” instead can give both writer and reader the uncomfortable feeling that something’s amiss with the sentence.

(As I write this, a Harvard Magazine mailer landed on my mailbox with this advertorial question from the Harvard Medical School: “Whom Will You Honor This Mother’s Day?” That interrogative construction is actually one of the “whom” usages that I can tolerate without being overpowered by the itch to change it to “who,” but frankly, I’d be more comfortable and at peace with that message if it had used “who” in the first place: “Who Will You Honor This Mother’s Day?”)

That said, I’d like to add at this point that in their usage guides for “who” and “whom,” the American Heritage Dictionary and Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary are unanimous in their assessment of “whom” as a highly problematic personal pronoun, and they provide numerous techniques for avoiding its use or for using it in undebatable reconstructions that don’t alter the statement’s intended tonality or language register.

Postscript: I do realize that connoisseurs of good written English would object to the iffy syntax of the original sentence and even my two “who”/“whom” avoidance rewrites for it. To them I offer this total rewrite: “I remember a memorable experience in the 1970s with my paternal grandmother, a feisty devout Buddhist. She lived in Davao and I used to visit her frequently.”

Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum at http://josecarilloforum.com. Visit me on Facebook. Follow me at Twitter.com @J8Carillo.

j8carillo@yahoo.com

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