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To Who or Whom It May Concern: When in Doubt . . .

In his speech recently before the Veterans of Foreign Wars, President Bush used the word whom when who would have been correct.

I was listening on my car radio and couldn’t write it down, so I don’t know exactly what he said, but it was something like “he is a man whom, I believe, is a true patriot.”

I may have misheard it. If so, the President is exonerated.

I mention it only because, not long before that, I too made the same error. I am not a grammarian. I simply respect the English language and try to follow its rules. But I can’t think of anything more embarrassing than using whom when who is correct.

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For one thing, whom has a taint of pedagogy about it. One is reminded of purist English teachers insisting on “To whom . . . to whom .” So the use of whom when who is correct marks one not only as a pedant, but an illiterate pedant.

In his indispensable book “American Usage and Style: The Consensus,” Roy H. Copperud recalls that Kyle Crichton, an editor of Collier’s magazine, once said: “The most loathsome word (to me at least) in the English language is whom. You can always tell a half-educated buffoon by the care he takes in working the word in. . . .”

The New Yorker used to run examples of the misuse of whom (“Whom did you say is coming?”) under a standard head: “The Omnipotent Whom.” But they gave it up, an editor explained, because few of their readers understood why their examples were wrong.

Copperud notes that the ungrammatical whom is common in the classics. Shakespeare wrote, “Young Ferdinand, whom they suppose is disowned.” Keats wrote, “I have met with women whom I really think would like to be married to a poem.” And Matthew 14:15 says, “Whom say ye that I am?”

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The ungrammatical whom has provoked some humor. In Boston, according to Ernest Weekley, the owls say, “To whit, to whom.” And George Ade wrote, “ ‘Whom are you?’ he asked, for he had been to night school.”

My error occurred in this sentence: “I predict that before this decade is over some entrepreneur will petition whomever the governing body might be for a permit to shoot trash to the moon.”

Of course, it should have been whoever . As Audrey Stafford of Downey pointed out, “ Whomever is not the object of ‘will petition’; the whole subordinate clause (‘whoever the governing body might be’) is the object of ‘will petition.’ ”

Gerald C. Snyder was gracious in correcting me. “I appreciate the care with which you normally use the English language (I might as well salvage something from this debacle), in part because I enjoy trying to find nits to pick. In your column today the following appeared . . . ‘some entrepreneur will petition whomever the governing body might be. . . .’ For shame! The pronoun should be ‘whoever’ because it is the predicate nominative of the clause which is the object of ‘petition.’ ”

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Glenna Thompson of Oxnard wrote that “ ‘whomever the governing body might be’ serves as the object of ‘will petition’ and that within the clause the nominative form ‘whoever’ is required.”

The amazing thing is that those three letters were the only complaints I received. This silence suggests that the New Yorker was right: Most people don’t know the difference.

The embarrassing thing to me is that I remember thinking about it and making the choice, thinking that whomever was the object of “petition.” I should have remembered a rule I adopted long ago: when you have any doubt about whether who or whom is correct, use who . At least it is not pretentious, and, in almost every case, it is right.

Copperud notes that early in the 19th Century Noah Webster called whom useless. He also quotes the linguist S. I. Hayakawa on the subject:

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“If a boy ignores his arithmetic teacher and states that eight times seven are 63, he will be laughed at by his friends; but if he obeys his English teacher and says, ‘With whom are you going to the party?’ instead of ‘Who are you going to the party with?’ he will also be laughed at. Grammar, at least as taught by many old-fashioned teachers, is almost purely directive and bears little relation to the way English is actually spoken and written.”

But shouldn’t Hayakawa have said “eight times seven is 63" instead of “are 63"?

Eight times seven is an equation, and thus singular. Right? Whom knows?

As far as I’m concerned, whom is obsolete. I certainly will never use it again. Or perhaps I should say I will never misuse it again.

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There are times when who simply will not do. Have you ever wondered for whom the bell tolls?

If you say who , it tolls for thee.


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